Standardized tests have been around as long as any of us can remember. Many of the parents of my students recall taking the ACT when they went to college. Of course, no one signed up for test prep services back then (the ACT was just this weird test you took to go to college). Yet for as long as the exam has been around, students still struggle with one issue more than any other when they begin practicing for standardized tests: they are unaware of the exam’s expectations. In other words, they have no idea what to expect on the exam, and as such struggle significantly when it comes to taking the test. This misalignment must be the primary, initial focus of any well-designed test prep program.
Students have a significant advantage in school that they do not have on standardized tests. Consider a standard Algebra II math final. By the time a student is studying for the final, he probably has taken at least three exams written by the teacher. The student is familiar with the teacher’s expectations, and he knows what the teacher will consider to be important on the test. Additionally, the student is aware of the realm of information to be tested on the final. Perhaps he was given a study guide. Even if he wasn’t, the exam will most likely cover information he learned in the previous 15 weeks. As can be seen, the student is well aware of what he will be expected to do on test day and thus can adjust his preparation accordingly. This significant advantage is absent when applied to standardized test preparation (at least at the beginning anyway).
I enjoy listening to the students’ justifications of their answers at the beginning of test prep programs. I have heard all sorts of incorrect justifications. Many times both my students and I end up laughing when the students realize how far off-base their explanations are from what the exam wanted them to do. The discussions below are conversations I have had with students that illustrate exam misalignment.
Instructor: “So, why did you pick Option D?”
Student: “Well, this was a tricky question, and I thought it was hard. However, Option D used the comma correctly, and the other ones sounded funny.”
Instructor: “I see. So this question is dealing with eliminating redundant writing, not punctuation. They are all punctuated correctly.”
Student: “Oh. That’s a thing? Well in that respect it’s clearly option D: that’s super obvious.”
Instructor: “You bet! Once you learn to look for it, it often is one of the easiest types of questions.”
Instructor: “So, why did you pick Option B?”
Student: “Well, it asked me to solve a system of equations, so I rearranged to solve for one variable, and then substituted that expression into the other equation. I solved for ‘y’ and then solved for ‘x’.”
Instructor: “Good. Except that it’s generally much faster to use linear combination instead of substitution on the exam.”
Student: “Oh. Yeah it would have been much faster to do it that way, and I wouldn’t have had to distribute a fraction, too.”
Me: “So, why did you pick Option C?”
Student: “Because I saw those words in the paragraph.”
Me: “Ok. But this question asked you to make a ‘reasonable inference’. As such, you must put the author’s words into your own. The words themselves are not important. What matters is the meaning of the words.”
Instructor: “So, why did you pick Option A?”
Student: “I guessed. I couldn’t find the information on the figure.”
Instructor: “Right. That’s the point of this type of question. They are expecting you to reach into the paragraph to get the extra information, and then pull it back to the figure.”
Student: “Oh. Ok let me read the paragraph then.”
It is evident in each example above that the student is unaware of the expectations of the exam. As instructors, our primary focus has to be to fix this misalignment. Students need to learn what the exam is expecting them to do on various types of questions so that they can adjust their study to meet those expectations. At the beginning of the prep, I don’t care if my students can’t determine the right answer; as long as they are aware of what the exam is asking of them on that question, the students stand a much better chance of improving.
So what do we do as instructors?
As instructors, there are a few things to keep in mind when fixing student alignment.
1. Have your students constantly explain their answers.
I always have students explain their justification out loud so they can hear themselves, and I can hear why they picked their answers. This allows me to fix any misalignment immediately. I don’t care if they are correct. I need to know why they picked their option.
2. Have the students label question types on the exam.
I often have students write the types of problems next to the problem number. This includes everything from “punctuation” and “verbs” on the English test to “inference” and “experimental detail” labels on the reading and science test, respectively.
3. Initially it’s not important if students don’t know how to do the material.
I have observed score increases for many students once the alignment has been fixed, yet content knowledge remains lacking. I have found that as long as students are doing the right
thing in the right scenario, scores stand a much better chance of increasing. Content development comes next.
4. It’s just like training a dog (not meant in a derogatory sense!).
Watch any dog trainer worth their salt and you will see one commonality: bad behavior is reprimanded immediately, and not after a minute or so. This is vital to teaching as well! Do one question at a time at the beginning and fix bad strategies immediately! The student must be able to recall how they did the problem, and then remember how they are going to fix it. (Obviously people have longer working memory than do dogs, so you can often have students do problems in small blocks of 3-5 problems and they will remember how they did each type of problem.)
Generally, that is enough. Usually by the middle of the prep program students are aware of what they should be doing. Their actual ability to do the material, however, is highly variable and dependent on the student’s level. But that often takes much more practice. The one situation we CANNOT afford to have as teachers is a student who says, “I didn’t really know how to approach that type of question,” at the end of his test prep. I always feel like I have personally failed the student as his instructor if this happens, so we must work diligently to prevent it.
Dr. Eric Smolensky is the Director of Academics at Achieve Academics in Plymouth, MN. He received his Ph.D in chemistry in 2012 from the University of Minnesota. Since then he has spent his time instructing students how to succeed not only in test prep but also in academics in general. He has taught test prep for three years and academic chemistry and math for eight years. Regarded as a professional enthusiast, he loves developing models of student learning to improve both student retention and test prep results.