It’s test day! You studied hard yesterday, read your chapters, and reviewed flashcards until 3 AM last night, so you’re feeling all ready to go. Your teacher moves through the aisles, the fat stack of paper gradually diminishing. As your teacher gets closer, each packet seems to get bigger and bigger, until finally you get yours, and it envelops your desk in its vastness. You look at the first page, and Egyptian hieroglyphs stare back and laugh at you, mocking as they swirl back and forth.
Your teacher calls start, and then, 30 seconds later, calls 30 seconds remaining. You finish up your stick figure drawing, confident that the left figure’s wavering lines accurately represent Luke’s clumsy, youthful aggressiveness, while the dark blob on top of the right figure shows Darth Vader’s helmet as he coolly parries Luke’s every attack with the ease of a master. Pencils down! You have passed “Introduction to the Empire Strikes Back 101,” and you are now a fully-fledged Jedi Initiate! Congratulations!
But, unfortunately, you failed your test. The Dread Pirate Test Anxiety has struck, and she is for sure a smooth criminal. Now comes the disappointment, doubt, and, of course, the hated parental conversation. That doesn’t sound fun, so, instead, let’s talk about how to avoid this in the future.
At its core, the answer to this is simple: preparation. Hopefully, at this point in your academic career, it should be obvious that cramming the night before the test is generally not a recipe for success, but let’s really dig into why that is not the case. (To be clear, preparation and study habits are certainly not the only causes of test anxiety and confidence; just big ones that I see a lot of students struggling with.)
Let’s start with the four stages of competence model for learning. The model says that there are four stages when someone learns a new topic:
So, here’s my point: most students, especially ones who procrastinate, are still in Stage 3 when taking tests. To correct this, your goal, for each and every important test, is to attain Stage 4. Now, easier said than done, of course: attaining that level of competence requires hours, if not days or weeks, even years, of consecutive practice and complete mastery of the topic. Who has time for that? Well, you do, of course!
First, recognize that it is possible. Every single person reading this article, yes, including you, has attained Stage 4 in at least one area: Reading English! When you are reading (or speaking, for that matter), do you actively try to think about understanding the words I’m writing? Are you looking up the definition of ‘understanding’? No? Guess what, you are unconsciously competent in reading English! Congratulations again, Jedi Initiate!
So, how did that happen? Well, in this particular area, you didn’t have much of a choice: you simply spent years talking and reading English, and that got you to Stage 4 (unconsciously, might I add?). Obviously, you don’t have that much time before your next test, but there are still lessons to be had:
Changing up your study habits is critical to long term test-taking success. As you learn more and more concepts at the “Unconscious Competence” level, you’ll notice it starts to get easier, and hopefully, those anxiety and confidence issues will begin to fade, and you’ll even reach Stage 4 at the skill of test-taking itself!
Next time, you’ll be able to draw those stick figure Lukes and Darth Vaders without even thinking.