Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:
This July will mark 20 years of Academic Approach answering a variety of your questions regarding test preparation, and one of the most frequently asked: When is the right time to start test preparation?
Your common sense tells you the obvious: avoid extremes. Last-minute cramming does not do enough, while overpreparation can be associated with burnout. So what’s the right amount of time?
Time & Performance
In “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell’s popularized the claim that whether in sports, music, or academic performance 10,000 hours of practice is how long it takes to become an expert in something.
Not only is this claim impractical in most contexts (10 hours a week for 20 years to get to expert level–yikes!), but its focus on quantity and not quality obscures the true value of high-quality practice, which provides a meaningful learning experience: a cycle of study, retention, performance, insightful feedback, modification, and improvement. In fact, a later study found that looking at quantity alone accounted for only 4% of the variance in performance in education. That said, we know Gladwell is correct in that having enough time to prepare matters; there is certainly a minimum amount of practice required to develop expertise. But why?
In her research on choking under pressure, former Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago and current president at Barnard College Sian Beilock highlights why having the time to practice matters: it reduces the burden of stress on working memory, so the capacity for thinking and problem solving is improved by mitigating the impact of anxiety during high-stakes events like the ACT and SAT.
Beilock’s research shows that practicing under stress, even a moderate amount, helps performers feel comfortable later when standing in the line of fire. They have increased confidence to face challenges calmly, retrieve key information reliably, and thereby perform optimally.
What our Research Shows
In looking at our own data, there is a clear relationship between preparation time and performance.
Students who start preparation in spring of sophomore year in preparation for a final test they take in spring of junior year or fall of senior year nearly DOUBLE the growth of students who start the summer prior to or fall of senior year in preparation for a senior fall exam. While this data represents average growth (and students follow very personalized pathways of learning), it does offer something broadly directional:
- When preparing to perform well on a summative exam of grammar, reading, math, and scientific reasoning that spans 7th through 11th-grade curriculum, the appropriate amount of time to prepare matters
- Spacing out—rather than cramming—preparation affords the student a gradual, in-depth process of learning academic content and skills, so working memory functions more efficiently and performance stress can be managed down more effectively over time
Therefore, we encourage—when possible—the use of sophomore spring and summer to begin instruction in order to achieve optimal performance.
Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO