Standardized Test Takers: Students or Mental Athletes?

Recently, I was perusing the New York Times and found a fascinating article about a journalist-turned memory champion. Yes, a memory champion. Around the world, “mental athletes” compete in tests of memory, almost like a mental Olympics. So you would think that these end up being big genius conventions, right? Wrong. The competitors hold fast to the belief that anyone can do what they do, if they can commit themselves to learning how. This made me think of my program and the way we look at standardized testing.

The SAT and ACT are not impossible tests, by any means. Doing well is simply a matter of devoting yourself to learning how, and several of the ways mental athletes better their skills can be applied to studying for standardized tests.

The memory techniques that mental athletes utilize to hone their skills are cumbersome, but many of the learning techniques are similar to those I try to utilize with my students.

The article discusses in detail the idea of the “OK plateau,” which is the point in the learning process in which we’ve become so comfortable with the basics of what we’re learning that we don’t need to concentrate as much to do it. However, at this point, learning can come to a complete standstill. This is a crucial juncture for the learner, and particularly for a student studying for the SAT or ACT.

In the article, the journalist consults Ed Cooke (a fellow mental athlete) when he hits his OK plateau, in hopes of getting past it. Cooke told him that the only way to get past this stage was to push himself further than he thought he could go. The journalist noted, “to improve, we have to be constantly pushing ourselves beyond where we think our limits lie and then pay attention to how and why we fail.” Indeed, this is exactly what I think my students need to focus on as test day draws closer and closer. It’s important to focus on your weaknesses, not your strengths, when it comes to studying. Often when you plateau, it’s because you aren’t pushing yourself in the right areas.

Mental athletes “develop strategies for keeping out of the autonomous stage by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented and getting immediate feedback on their performance.” My students do this as well: by doing 6 questions daily, they are able to take the time to think about each question in a setting that is not overwhelming, allowing them to focus on their technique. They stay goal-oriented by striving to improve their scores every day, and they get instant feedback after every daily quiz.

One month before the exam, my students begin Getting in the Zone by working on a Checklist for Serious Review.  This is KEY to getting past the plateau.  Students are told to study one section at a time, repetitively, in order to understand and recognize patterns on the exam.  Like mental athletes preparing for a tournament, students are learning how to excel on the standardized tests.

I believe these methods are vital to improving SAT and ACT scores, and we’ve designed a simple program that utilizes all of them in order for you to skyrocket off of your OK plateau onto a score you never imagined possible.

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