My essential strategy checklist on standardized tests

Posted by Ashwin on 2/26/18 7:00 PM

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The way I teach standardized tests has been changed by a book I recently read: “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. Ask any of my students over the past three months and they will be quick to tell you of my incessant and often repeated reminders of System 1 and System 2. So much so, that I’ve decided to write about it.

What are cognitive biases?

“Thinking, Fast and Slow” is a book about cognitive biases and how humans can be poor judges of what they believe to be rational, conscious decisions. Daniel Kahneman reminds the reader of the perils of overconfidence and how we can be prone to falling into thought traps, often made of our own design and sprung from our own experience. In Kahneman’s scheme, the brain thinks with two systems: System 1 and System 2. While these concepts have broad, reaching applications to fields like medicine or economics, they equally hold in test taking strategy.

System 1

System 1 operates fast, quickly, automatically. It works without a feeling of voluntary control. Use of this kind of thinking feels skillful and effortless. In test taking, System 1 is at work when a student moves freely and rapidly from question to answer to question to answer without pause. It enables critical thinking in familiar, stereotyped patterns. System 1 is a test taker running more or less on autopilot. But System 1 can be highly error-prone as we can jump to conclusions without knowing exactly why. 

System 2

System 2 is the deliberate, attention-draining kind of thinking. It is slower and requires effort. A test taker using System 2 thinking is actively - and slowly - seeking new or missing information and attempting to uncover their own common thought traps. These thought traps are entirely unique to an individual. Everyone has them. I’ve worked with an 8th grade student who can perfectly solve most algebraic expressions, but instinctively ignores and “un-sees” negative numbers. Similarly, I’ve worked with a 30-year-old GRE student who subconsciously refuses to select the answer they know is right after process of elimination because the answer choice is unfamiliar and “does not feel right”.

Each of us have both System 1 and System 2 at work. They are both necessary to process information effectively, especially while taking long and arduous standardized exams. System 1 allows for speed and rapid assessment, but is highly error-prone and susceptible to our own biases. System 2 gives us precision, but is tiring and slow. 

I work with many of my students to demonstrate how we are not always the rational, careful selves we think we are during tests. The key to improving strategy while taking standardized tests is to identify and correct these thought traps by practicing System 2 until it becomes intuitive and second-nature. This can lead us to correct simple errors that are often responsible for keeping scores from improving. 

The list below details several of the common strategies (in no particular order) I have used with my students to bring System 2 thinking more into the foreground while taking any standardized test. Hopefully these strategies will help you make that jump to the next level! Good luck!

My nine part standardized test strategy checklist: 

  1. Create a “treasure chest” of all of the exam questions you get wrong or have difficulty with. Redo these as exercises and group them: concept error, simple mistake, hard question type, etc. What are the mistakes you are consistently making? Can we identify the disconnect?
  2. Identify low-hanging fruit. How many of the questions that you are getting wrong are “easier” - ones that can be corrected with low effort. Many students think the key to getting a higher score on a section is doing better at the harder challenge problems. This can place undue focus on content, and can deemphasize focus on questions that are easier. Harder questions, after all, are not worth more.
  3. Create an internal “alarm bell” that should sound when you encounter problems you know you tend to get wrong. These can include anything from a specific type of question (e.g., pick two, none of the above) to a challenging concept (e.g., probability).
  4. Don’t dive headfirst into problems you know will be challenging! Break complex problems into digestible pieces, even if you do not know how to arrive at an answer initially. First somewhere to start, like finding the first foothold while climbing.
  5. It’s okay to move slower at times. Many students feel they have to race through every portion of the test at 90 MPH, especially if one struggles with time. But, slowing down to 40 or 60 MPH will help you move more accurately and break down the barriers of trickier problems. This especially holds for the easier questions in which we can easily feel overconfident.
  6. Be open to different paths to solve the problem. If the first way does not work, approach the problem differently.
  7. If you get stuck, first reread the question.
  8. If you draw a diagram, be sure to actually use the diagram.
  9. Learn to pause and check, especially before moving to another question. Is the answer I selected the best one? Are the other choices definitely wrong?

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