Today I want to discuss a common mistake that students make which leads to bad preparation. The type of mistake I am about describe is especially common during preparation for standardized tests such as the ACT, SAT and GRE.
Although many problems on standardized tests can be very difficult to solve, it is usually not very hard to understand the solutions. After getting a problem wrong, a good student will go over the solution until they understand it completely. Very often, however, the same student will misinterpret understanding the solution as being able to reproduce the solution on their own.
If after a student gets a question wrong I explain the correct way to do it and they understand my explanation, then more than likely if I ask them to solve the question 5 minutes later they will be able to do so. But it is important to realize that this does not mean that they will be able to solve a similar question (or even the exact same question) two months later during their test.
Understanding a solution and being able to reproduce it using short term memory does not necessarily lead to long term retention.
So what is the answer? How does a student make sure that they do not make the same mistake on their actual exam that they had made during their preparation?
The answer is quite simple.
During preparation, anytime you get a question wrong mark it off. You should have a special mark that is easy to see and recognize. Students of mine use stars, spirals or even sad faces.
Yes, the marks above were created in MS Paint! But I’m sure, you get the idea…
It is very important to mark off every single question you have gotten wrong regardless of the reason. Even if the only reason you got it wrong was because you accidentally hit a wrong button in your calculator, or even if you got it wrong because you just misread one of the numbers in the problem – mark it off anyway! It is very easy to say “oh that was just a silly mistake – I know how to do this,” and then to never look at that problem again. This is a huge mistake. Let me repeat this one more time. Mark off EVERY question you get wrong. Every question! Not just the ones you do not understand. EVERY SINGLE ONE!
You must reattempt each question you get wrong at least four days later. Do not reattempt the problem the next day, or the day after that. If you wait only one or two days you may be getting the problem correct for the wrong reason. The question is too fresh in your mind. You need time to forget how you solved it. This way you can be sure that you understand how to solve the problem, as opposed to simply recalling the solution.
If you get the problem correct you can “unmark” it and remove it from the list of problems you need to redo. If you get it wrong again, then leave it marked off and reattempt it again at least four days later. You need to keep reattempting each problem you get wrong with at least four days between attempts. You should only stop reattempting a problem once you get it completely correct on your own without recalling exactly how the problem was solved. Only then can you know for certain that you have internalized the technique necessary to solve that problem.
If you follow the advice I have given here, then every time you get a problem right that you had previously gotten wrong, you will be one step closer to a perfect score on the SAT, ACT, GRE, or whichever exam you are preparing for.
I want you to treat this message in the same way as I recommend you treat a question you answer incorrectly. Come back to this article in four days time. Reread it. Internalize it. I am certain you will benefit from the information given here if you make it a part of your long term memory.
And if if you would like lots of practice problems I suggest you take a look at the Get 800 collection of test prep books. Click on the image below for more information about these books.