Gestalt is a German word that roughly means “the way something is put together”. Gestalt psychologists often state this as “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. You might think that’s a weird thing for a math teacher to say, but in educational psychology it’s true!
Gestalt Psychology and Test Prep
There are lots of parts to a test prep program: attending classes, studying specific content areas, taking timed drills, and taking full-length practice tests. Sure, coming to class will help your SAT score, even if you don’t do the homework. But you’re likely to forget most of what you learned in class. Studying for the ACT on your own will help you too, but you can misunderstand some of what you read without a teacher’s feedback.
However, when you first come to class and then do the homework, something special happens. You focus on the information, have a chance to check and correct your understanding with the help of a teacher, and then reinforce that skill with some additional practice over a few days. In other words, the interaction between class and homework adds something to your learning above what class alone or homework alone can do.
There’s one more thing you can add to the mix to make the time you invest in test prep as efficient and effective as possible: full-length practice tests. By themselves, these 3+ hour tests are a terrible way to study. They skip around from one topic to the next so quickly that you never have a chance to build your knowledge in one weak area. Also, the lack of social interaction means that taking them can be very boring. Science tells us that when you’re bored you don’t learn as well.
However, full-length practice tests add some things to your test prep program that you can’t get in any other way. They give you a sense of familiarity with the test format and question types. Full-length practice tests help you practice identifying what a question is assessing when the topics are all mixed together. They help you build your mental stamina so you can maintain your best work for a full 3.5 hours of testing. Finally, they can help you learn how to manage any test anxiety. An effective test prep program can’t include only practice tests, but they can’t be left out either.
Five Steps for Learning
There’s another way to think of this. Learning has five steps:
When you are in class, you are working on the first two steps only. You focus on what your teacher is saying and work together with your teacher to ensure you understand it correctly. When you are practicing one type of question several times in a row, you are using the processes of encoding and retrieval. This is what builds long term memories. Finally, when you take a full-length practice test, you transfer these skills to the specific setting of an SAT or ACT. None of the steps will be an ideal learning experience by itself. But when you do them all, you are on your way to a serious score improvement.
So next time you are tempted to come to class but skip the homework, remember that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Four hours of class time is great. Four hours of studying on your own is good, too. But two hours of class combined with two hours of homework beats the other two options, hands down. And don’t forget to take that practice test when you’re done!
For Further Reading
For more information on what Gestalt Psychology is, try these articles:
For worksheets that will help you practice one skill at a time, check out my library of free SAT and ACT resources.
For full-length practice SATs, check out the College Board’s website.
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