Being a successful student depends on two factors: preparation and performance. Students should pursue mastery in both of these areas because emphasizing one at the expense of the other can have disastrous consequences in the long-run. Just like in sports, imbalances create issues.
Consider a basketball player training during the offseason. The athlete tries an unconventional approach: only solo practice session in the gym during offseason. This approach has certain privileges: flexibility of training times, personalized intensity, and precisely designed practice drills. However, this approach has one major drawback: no competition. This athlete may become faster and stronger or become the best free throw shooter in the world, but practicing in a gym is very different to playing against real competition. What works in a gym by yourself won’t work when there are five defenders who can adjust to your strengths.
I’m sure the scenario above sounds absurd to anyone who has engaged in offseason preparation. However, few people see the clear parallel between the fictitious athlete and most modern-day students. Far too many students spend the bulk of their study time absorbing information without the threat of competition. In this analogy, the “competition” are test questions. Practicing performance perfects preparation. Therefore, the hallmark of successful students is creating a test-scenario long before the actual day of the test.
The principle of powering self-testing is what learning scientists call retrieval practice. This is the use of active recall to better absorb new information—and retain it in the long run, as Roediger & Butler’s research indicated. Self-studying is not as common as it should be. After all, to get results that few get, a student must do what few others will. Self-studying has the added benefit of tracking progress with a tangible barometer. Educational technologies like Quizlet and Kahoot have been successful because of how effective self-testing is as a study strategy.
The importance of progress checking cannot be overstated. Progress checking provides a practical timeline to studying in a way that no other study strategy can. Students can build an oscillating schedule of preparation and performance over the four days before test day. This might seem like an added burden to a student’s already busy schedule, but a study plan that builds in self-testing actually reduces total study time because of the gains in efficiency.
Practice tests, either administered by an academic coach or through an AI driven educational technology platform, can focus limited study time on problem areas instead of going over familiar territory. In the long run, keeping track of practice test performance could help these learners recalibrate and find strategies that help them gain back control over their learning process.
Lastly, self-testing reduces test-day anxiety. The strategy is perhaps overused in standardized test preparation, but it is under-utilized in day-to-day academic studying. Students who struggle with nerves on test day can often point to a core fear of the unknown when they sit down to test. Building in self-testing can alleviate this fear. By removing a fear from the realm of the mind into the realm of reality, students reduce the number of uncontrollable variables on test day.
Remember, successful students develop a mastery mindset toward both preparation and performance. Self-testing is a critical component of both areas. When students embrace self-testing for its direct benefits through retrieval practice, along with the indirect benefits from monitoring progress, they learn how to set their own goals and become unstoppable. Learning how to use practice tests adeptly builds a student’s sense of autonomy, while helping them make the most of precious time. As they discover strategies that work well for them, they earn the confidence to take on tougher challenges.