18 June 2014

A little fear is not a bad thing

I confess, I get nervous when my students tell me that they feel confident. Well, some of my students, at least. You’d think I’d be happy to hear that, right? I mean, I’m a tutor — shouldn’t I want my students to feel confident? Yes, of course… When it’s merited, that is. But confidence is unfortunately not always merited, especially when it comes to standardized testing. What some students know and what they think they know are often not the same thing at all. And in those cases, a small helping of fear can be a lot more effective than all the confidence in the world. I think that it’s helpful to distinguish between types of confidence:

On one hand, there’s the kind of confidence that results from genuine mastery of material, or from sustained, regular preparation. My students who have made 100+ point leaps, especially in reading, do not score 520 one day and 670 the next. No, their increases come in fits and starts. They go up a bit, they plateau, sometimes they go down a little, and eventually their scores start to go up again. They put in the work, and they do lots and lots of practice.

At a certain point, they get it: the test is hard, it’s designed to mess with them, and there’s no easy way to beat it (ew). Then they get scared and start to really listen to what I have to say. By the the time they take the test, they know what their strengths and weaknesses are, and while they feel pretty comfortable with their ability to score in a particular range, they also know not to take anything for granted — they’ve had the experience of getting things wrong when they were so sure they got them right too many times. Almost inevitably, when I ask them how the real thing went, they hesitate and say something along the lines of, “There were a few questions I wasn’t totally sure of, but I think it went ok.” Or just, “it was really long.”

That’s when I know I’ve done my job.

Usually, these students end up with a score they’re relatively pleased with. It might not be perfect, but it’s typically a lot higher than the one they started with. Sometimes it’s even good enough to make them competitive applicants at some very selective schools.

The second kind of confidence, however, manifests itself quite differently. It’s typically exhibited by students scoring somewhere in the 500-600 range — solid enough to see just how effective certain techniques can be, but not quite advanced enough to be able to implement things on the fly, under pressure, and without a huge amount of practice. Unfortunately, they tend to overlook that last part. The students in this category often start serious prep late, take no more than a handful of practice tests, persistently view answers in terms of what they think sounds good or bad rather than considering what the test is asking of them, memorize a handful of vocab words and assume they know enough to figure out the rest, skip tutoring sessions, and assume that just understanding why they got a particular question or two or ten wrong means that they’ll never make a similar mistake again.

They also refuse to skip questions — or, for that matter, skip enough questions — because they still cling to the hope that if they answer every question, maybe, just maybe, they’ll luck out and get a perfect score. Or at least one that’s above 700 (hey, it could happen, right?).

Yet after only a few sessions, they’re remarkably confident.

I really dread hearing that phrase — for these kids, their confidence is disproportionate to their actual knowledge, and they almost inevitably they end up scoring a lot lower than expected. (Which means that their parents have just wasted a lot of money, and we’ve both just wasted a lot of time.) They’re surprised; I’m not. They haven’t yet figured out what they don’t know, and what they don’t know is hurting them. But sometimes there’s no way to head it off — some people need to have the experience of crashing and burning before they start to understand what they’re up against, preferably before the fall of their senior year.

I’m not at all trying to suggest that it’s a good thing to be quaking in your Adidas when you go in to take the SAT — the other end of the spectrum is the kind of anxiety that causes someone to second-guess every answer they pick, and that’s just as dangerous. But I do want to suggest that confidence works both ways: if you’ve studied your butt off and really know how to work through difficult questions while keeping your cool, you’re probably entitled to feel good about your performance.

But if you haven’t spent a whole lot of time dealing with your weaknesses — if you think it’s just all going to come together because it’s the real thing, and this stuff all looks pretty familiar from the couple of practice tests you’ve taken — your confidence is probably misplaced, and you’re likely to fall into trap after trap. Getting nervous is a step up. In small doses, fear focuses you; it keeps you on your toes. it means that you know what you’re up against and recognize that it isn’t quite as easy as you might have initially thought. It means that you understand you need to take your time, work carefully, and realize that answers you wouldn’t immediately think to pick can still be right.

Newsflash: the SAT and the ACT are *standardized* tests. They’re set up so that barring some serious work on the fundamentals of whatever’s giving you trouble, you’ll score in the same general range on every test. Your score won’t just shoot up because you understand what you did wrong on a handful of questions. Getting just a little bit scared and realizing that if you truly want your score to go up, you might have to get out of your comfort zone, might be the best thing you can do.

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