How Test Prep Works (and doesn’t work): A primer for mainland Chinese parents and students

Posted by Lev on 6/8/18 3:37 PM

standarized test

The American education system and the Chinese education systems are structured in very different ways, and the standardized tests which are used to evaluate college applicants reflect those differences. If the Gaokao is a test (of memorized knowledge), then tests like the SAT and ACT are best labeled evaluations (of broad fundamental abilities).  Accordingly, there is an upper limit to how much one can improve one’s score on U.S. standardized tests through typical Chinese academic study techniques such as memorization of vocabulary words. To score your best on American standardized tests, you may have to move away from study techniques you’ve used in the past.

There are three fundamental pillars to test preparation:

I. Instruction: learning fundamental reading techniques, grammar rules, standardized test formats, and strategies for beating the time limits.

II. Test simulation: taking practice exams in a proctored setting.

III. Follow-up: reviewing incorrect answers with a tutor; diagnosing and reinforcing weaknesses.

Each of these steps is necessary and distinct, and all three work together. The most effective test prep plans will cycle through all three steps many times. For instance, one cycle would include instructing grammar on Wednesday, taking a practice test on Saturday, reviewing correct and incorrect grammar questions on Sunday. A successful student will conduct 4-8 cycles before sitting for an official test.
It is not very effective to separate the steps (e.g. receiving instruction but skipping practice tests, or taking practice tests at home but not following up to understand incorrect questions). Contrary to popular opinion, taking lots of practice tests (刷题) by itself has very low rate of effectiveness, because students cannot learn from their mistakes if they do not follow up with an instructor and analyze their faulty techniques. In my opinion, practice without follow-up is a waste of resources: many students quickly burn through practice tests, and then they have no more new resources available for accurate test simulation.

How does this work in practice?

Let’s consider a small-scale example, in which two students each spend an afternoon working on “Main Idea” questions within the Reading section of the ACT. Student A studies alone for 90 minutes, using the material from two practice tests. Student B works with a tutor for 90 minutes, using the material from one practice test.

Student A reads through the text of two complete Reading tests (8 passages,) methodically identifying and answering each of the Main Idea questions along the way. She checks her answers and sees that she got about half of the 15 questions incorrect. She reviews the correct answers, re-reads the passages, and eventually sees how the correct answers are justifiable. However, she can still see how her initial, incorrect answers would be justifiable from another point of view! Because she lacks an outside expert to explain why certain answers are correct and incorrect, she has used up valuable official practice material and only gained marginal familiarity with the format of the test. The next time she goes through practice material, she will have little more understanding than she did the first time.

Student B reads slowly through the text of a single passage, and her tutor watches carefully as she answers the related Main Idea questions. Out of two Main Idea questions, Student B answers one correctly and one incorrectly - and she’s uncertain why she got those results. The tutor then listens as the student explains her reading techniques, her thought process, her uncertainties, and her assumptions. The tutor then provides feedback on each step, carefully reviewing not only the answer choices and how to analyze each one but also the content of the passage and how to take effective notes on each paragraph. By the end of the lesson, Student B and her tutor have only covered 4 passages - but Student B’s understanding of why correct answers are correct and why incorrect answers are incorrect is much deeper than Student A’s understanding. The tutor assigns the second practice test for homework.

By working alone, Student A lacked pillars I and III. In fact, Student A also didn’t really carry out step II correctly. Any improvements Student A undergoes are entirely dependent on her ability to reverse-engineer her own mistakes and teach herself techniques she does not know. On the other hand, Student B carried out pillars I and III during the 90 minute lesson, and was assigned pillar II in preparation for the next lesson. Student B will see steady improvement over time.

Scheduling Tutoring to Achieve Your Best score 

I highly recommend students schedule 1-on-1 lessons early, often, and consistently, beginning 10-12 weeks before each official test.

In my experience, cramming for the test at the last minute is much less effective than a long and consistent prep process - even if the total study times are comparable. In general, tutoring begun less than one month before the test date results in much lower score increases, and sometimes none at all – even if the student spends many hours practicing in the 2-3 weeks before the test. This is because American standardized tests evaluate fundamental abilities more than they evaluate memorized content. The fundamental abilities of grammar, reading, and writing require time to learn and time to practice.

The most effective way to schedule your tutoring hours is to schedule 1 lesson each week, Even if you are receiving test-prep instruction in a classroom setting, I recommend scheduling tutoring throughout the test prep class. The classroom is far more efficient at delivering information (the first pillar) to multiple students and is certainly more affordable for the parent, but the classroom is not an efficient place for the individual student to receive follow-up diagnoses (the third pillar) from an instructor.

Test prep should be scheduled so that the final lesson occurs within one week of the official test. This is because if a student prepares intensely several months before the test, but does not practice in the several weeks leading up to the test, the student will possibly forget his or her test-specific training. If the student prepares only in the month leading up to the test but not early on, the student will not have enough time to both learn and also practice the test-specific habits.

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Tags: ACT, SAT