9 Steps to Forming an SAT Prep Habit: Step 7
This article was originally published on Socratic Summer Academy’s blog.
- If you feel like you aren’t making progress towards your goal, it may just be that you aren’t able to remember your own successes.
- Set up a method to track your success, and you’ll see that you’re making slow and steady progress.
- Students have to put in a lot of groundwork on the SAT before they start to see visible score improvement.
- Progress is not linear, so don’t give up.
- Set small check-ins with yourself and measure exactly what you’re working on.
- Read the rest of Alyssa the SAT Expert’s 9 Tips to Forming an SAT Prep Habit.
Step 7: Set Check-Ins for Yourself and Establish a Good Ruler for Your Progress!
A lot of times, the reason that people stop moving forward towards a goal is that they see themselves making no progress. And to be fair, it’s pretty hard to stick to a diet that involves giving up ALL your favorite foods when you don’t see yourself losing any weight. It feels like there’s no point, and you’re making yourself miserable — and, as my father would say, “And who wants THAT?”
A lot of the time, the reason folks don’t see progress is because it’s happening at a level that is too minuscule to truly perceive.
When we lose weight, we frequently expect our clothes to fit differently, or folks to check us out on the street (I know that makes ME feel young!), or the scale numbers to be 10 pounds lower. SAT prep is no different. You expect that, if you’re sitting down and hitting the books hard each day, your score should go way up, really fast. Parents who pay me to tutor their children frequently say “We’ve paid for x hours already; why isn’t the score a lot higher?”
It’s a good question! And it’s fair — tutoring is expensive, and parents want to make sure they’re getting value for their dollar! And the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results (and no, Albert Einstein probably didn’t say that — it’s likely anonymous) — so if the prep isn’t working, they want their kids to have the time to try something else.
Let’s go back to the analogy about losing weight. I’ve already talked about the guy who was FINALLY able to maintain his weight loss because of the Google Sheet he created. What is most amazing about what he did is that he was able to quantify everyone’s problem with sticking to a weight loss program, and — even better — he solved each problem that he quantified. Basically:
He needed a way to remember — and then be cheered on by — his own success.
- He wasn’t able to remember (and this is a fact specific to the human brain, NOT just him!) his weight from more than a few days before at any given time. So if he’d lost 10 pounds from 18 days ago, it would have been difficult to see five days in.
He needed a way to measure his success at the tiniest level — because if he didn’t, he’d have given up.
- Especially at the very beginning, when it’s very hard to get motivated, weighing yourself in the tenths of a pound and keeping track of that can help you identify your progress.
Keep your eye on the big picture, not little ups and downs, and take note of the overall direction — that’s what actually counts.
- Keeping the 10-day moving average allows you to see the slope of the trend (the overall direction of the graph pointing DOWN) so that you’re not focused on how you did YESTERDAY or ONE SPECIFIC DAY — you’re focused on how you’re doing overall, and the direction in which you’re headed.
This was all his idea, and I think it’s genius. His desire to be able to follow these is profoundly human — because it allows him to see that progress is happening. I’d argue that a lot of progress, especially at the beginning, takes place at a level that is so low that it’s difficult to measure.
That is what I frequently tell parents who are annoyed that their kids aren’t getting higher scores faster.
Because the SAT is a complicated test, most students have to make a lot of connections in their heads — they are having epiphanies about:
- putting seemingly disparate pieces together into a suddenly complete whole
- understanding the function of that whole and its parts — and how those work both together and separately
- things that their teachers explained in school but never made sense — and now inexplicably are easy
Students also need time to
- put everything in a given subject area together again for what feels like the first time
- learn to recognize concept types and inculcate the call and response for each
- concretize the strategies they’re learning in their bones, so that they become second nature
Then, after all that groundwork is laid, you start to see the score improvements.
And score improvements are not linear — they frequently go down before they go up (because of the cognitive load that is on the student of all the strategies, which is initially overwhelming, but pays off in the long run. Their score might jump way up and then up a little — and then maybe go down and then go up some more.
As parents and students, we expect progress to be linear — the same from day to day — but that just isn’t true, based on the way humans improve over time.
Most people who try to commit to a habit give up, defeated, by the early stuff — not losing enough weight, or not spending enough time learning the strategies to understand how to implement them to help you, or getting stuck in the foundational SAT groundwork that might have to be lain if the student didn’t get a great high school education. Sometimes the student is improving — the tutor and parent can see it — but the student can’t, and so the student gives up and stops trying. Usually the student just doesn’t notice the improvement or the improvement isn’t coming fast enough, and so it’s easy to give up and figure “I will never get the score I want, no matter how much I try” — because keeping on keeping on is so much effort.
PLEASE DON’T GIVE UP on your SAT HABIT. IT WILL WORK — you just have to find the right way to measure your progress. Because every day that you work, you WILL get better — as long as you’re figuring out what went wrong last time so you can improve for next time. It’s about measuring your progress and assessing your mistakes.
So patience with SAT prep — and patience with yourself — has to take all those factors into account. Give yourself time to learn the strategies. Give yourself time to plug any content holes you have. All that sets you up for success and will pay back later — when you start seeing the patterns in the SAT and then it just falls apart like meat off a bone in a particularly well-prepared stew.
So now we’ve talked about patience — but how do we measure progress?
The kinds of check-ins you set for yourself should be small and measure exactly what you’re working on. Keep the Google Sheets weight loss guy in mind:
- He weighed himself every day: You should be accountable every day to your accountability buddy!
- He recorded his weight: Make sure your accountability buddy is keeping track of your improvement in the Google Doc so you can review it before you start studying!
- He measured himself on a device that allowed him to measure to a tenth of a pound: Make sure that the way you are measuring improvement is able to measure small improvement. If you’re doing math problems, maybe this means measuring the highest number you were able to get to. If it’s doing writing problems, keep track of the specific concept you’re focusing on and how many of that concept you’re getting right, as well as how many problems you did total and got right. If it’s doing reading problems, keep track of the specific passage type or concept type you’re focusing on, as well as how many problems you did total and got right.
- He kept a running 10-day tally to see his trajectory: You should identify what quantifies success for you. He identified success as a negative trend line (i.e. he was continuously losing weight). If you need to keep a running tally to see how many questions of a certain concept or difficulty you are getting right, go for it. In this instance, there’s no one-size-fits-all prescription that will guarantee success for YOU personally — what will get YOU success is you investing in your practice and caring about progress. The old expression “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” applies here — it doesn’t matter how you actually do it, only that it gets done. The progress indicators that matter to YOU will be the ones that you find most rewarding, and that’s what you should measure. When you’re at 100% perfect all the time (mastery!) in those indicators, then you should figure out what else is keeping you from getting a perfect score and work towards perfection/mastery in that area.