16 June 2011

The zen of test prep

I used to use the words “zen” and “test prep” in the same sentence only in the most tongue-in-cheek manner, but I’ve been thinking about it seriously of late, and I actually think there’s a connection.

First, though, lest you think I’ve gotten all new-agey, let me make it clear that I am not talking about meditating in order to get yourself in test-taking mode or reduce your anxiety or anything of that ilk. There are test-prep companies that do that sort of thing, but I’ll refrain from voicing my opinion about them. Suffice it to say that I am a firm believer in the principle that the best way to reduce test anxiety is simply to master the material on the test.

What I’m talking about is the attitude with which you approach the entire test-preparation process. One of the things I’ve noticed is that students who come to me knowing that they have big gaps in their knowledge and that they don’t really know what they’re doing tend to end up with higher scores in the long run than students who come to me with relatively high scores, convinced that they only have to find the one trick that’ll make everything perfect.

I think that this is largely because the first group has what’s known as beginner’s mind: because they have no illusions about knowing more than they actually know, they’re wide open when it comes to absorbing new information. They simply learn it and apply it as necessary because they know it’s their only hope, and consequently their scores often rise dramatically. The ones who think they know it all or are convinced that they deserve a particular score…well, they usually don’t do anywhere near as well as they’d like.

The other thing that characterizes my most successful students is that they never take the test too personally. That is, even though most of them have complained about it or tried to get out of it completely on occasion (“Erica, how about we forget the SAT for today and just talk about Harry Potter? Come on, you know that would be SO much more fun”), in the end they’re willing to accept the test on its own terms.

It’s really impossible to overstate the importance of that last part. It’s very satisfying to rage against the College Board for making you take this horrible, stupid, unfair test with ridiculous “correct” answers that people only pick if they know the right tricks. (And everyone knows that of course the SAT is just about tricks.)

The problem with that mentality is that while it’s gratifying in the short term, it can be very damaging in the long run because you never bother to take the time to learn how the test actually functions. Here’s the zen part: that means giving up your ego and forgetting about what you think. Whether you agree or disagree with a particular answer is utterly irrelevant; the test isn’t going to change for you. It just isn’t, no matter how worked up you get. That’s a hard notion for a lot of people to swallow, but the sooner you can accept it, the sooner you’ll start to make progress.

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