A Development Approach to Test Prep for Students of Different Ages

Posted by Jedd on 2/13/17 6:06 PM

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Giving Choices to Younger Students

Students in grades 4-10 tend to face very different challenges when preparing for their tests. The youngest students are unfamiliar with such a prescribed set of learning goals, so distinct from the kind of open-ended and holistic kind of learning common across public and private elementary schools. For these students, they may never have experienced academic learning as a process of wresting with challenging, new content, particularly so much at once and in such a specialized context.

I find it most accessible to set clear goals so they don’t feel overwhelmed and then give them carefully scaffolded choices to support their sense of agency. I might explain, for example, that we’ll look at all the problems with wrong answers and then decide which ones are silly mistakes and which ones feel harder. We’ll spend most of our time understanding any silly mistakes that are likely to come up, and then we’ll talk about a few of the harder problems, but not all of them. Once we’ve surveyed the problems missed, I’ll typically ask them what topics they’d like to talk more about, i.e., which first, second, and third. Students will typically choose the topics with which they’re most comfortable, which is the best starting point.

Scaffolding Metacognition Among Middle School Students

Middle school students may be more enthusiastic to master the knowledge but still lack the metacognitive skills to discern the difference between what they understand and what the test demands. They may still over an enthusiastic but incoherent account of their thought process that reveals more about their feelings that the extent of their knowledge. For these students, is very helpful to have them write down each problem that we review and what the major takeaway is, i.e., something strategic, like plugging in answer choices, some new concept, or some kind of silly mistake to watch out for, like mixing up which one of two variables we’re solving for.

Reminding Older Students About the Low-Hanging Fruit

Older students more or less know the drill; they’re ready to identify their growing edges, learn a body of knowledge, and hone their skills for test day. These students are ready to be socialized into the culture and expectations of the test.  I find it helps to share my understanding of the process with them, i.e., first we want to identify the low-hanging fruit (the silly mistakes and beginner’s errors that you can easily correct), and then we’ll move onto as much new content coverage as we have time for. These students may need the occasional reminder that unless they’re aiming for a 99th percentile, they need not feel responsible for solving every single problem on the test correctly.

Practice Makes Perfect

Repetition and practice are incredibly important for students of all ages. Younger students need concrete reinforcement of new concepts they’ve learned. A fourth grader may be able to calculated averages correctly, or turn improper fractions into mixed numbers, but without any practice in the intervening week, the learning will have dissolved by the next meeting. A handful of practice problems once or twice during the intervening week is typically enough to hold onto this new knowledge. This applies to a student’s strengths as well as weaknesses: Students who devote all their neural resources to strengthening their weaknesses before test day almost uniformly slide lower in their areas of strength. As test day approaches, both younger and older students tend to simply need regular practice sessions, i.e., 2-3 practice section each week in several weeks before the exam in order to “keep all the cylinders spinning,” as it were. Test-taking is a performance task, just like a dance recital, for example, and practice is necessary to ensure that a student’s full skills are on display.

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Want to read more on different study skills approaches and techniques?  Check out some of our previous blogs below:

A Guide to Midterms: 3 Steps to Getting You Back on Track

Thinking Harder Not Smarter: The Three Key Components of Memory

Avoiding Decision Fatigue – 3 Habits to Free up Mental Stamina

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