Archives For How To Study

knowledge-vs-skillFor me, the material you need to study for the GRE can be divided into two groups. No, not verbal and math. Knowledge and skills. Differentiating these two groups is important because they are learned in very different ways.

Learning Knowledge

So far, I would bet that most of your study time, from elementary school through college, was devoted to learning information. The skill of remembering facts is something that most of us have practiced quite a bit in the school realm. And sure, some of us are better than others at doing so, but mostly we at least have an idea where to start.

The knowledge, or information and facts, tested on the GRE would include vocabulary words, properties of numbers, mathematical definitions, and mathematical formulas.

I’ve written in the past about lots of unique ways to learn vocabulary, but ultimately I think that the techniques for learning knowledge fit into four categories:

(1)   Drill. This would include writing words and definitions, making and reviewing flashcards, listing out numbers that fit a certain property, and writing and re-writing formulae. All these methods have their place.

(2)   Explain.  It’s generally easier to remember something if you understand it. For that reason, trying to explain a fact is a good way to learn it. This category would include studying with a partner, defining a word using its roots, and proving a mathematical formula.

(3)   Link. Tying new information to information you already know is a good way to remember it. This would include finding a vocabulary word in a TV show or song, linking a word to its antonym, using one math formula to remember another, or building more specific geometry rules from the rules you already know.

(4)   Use. I find that the saying “use it or lose it” is pretty applicable to learning. This category would include using new vocabulary in conversation or emails, writing sentences with vocab words, and doing practice math exercises.

There’s probably not that much new here so far. But that’s the key: we’re only halfway done.

That’s not enough!

Many students feel frustrated with the GRE because they feel like they know and understand the underlying math or vocabulary, but still aren’t seeing their scores improve as much as they would like. If you’re in the boat, don’t panic!

If you feel like you understand the underlying material but aren’t seeing your score improve as quickly as you’d like, or even at all, it might be that you’ve only worked on the knowledge and haven’t yet worked on the skills. Or, you’ve worked on the skills, but in the wrong way.

It’s not that your time has been wasted – you need that underlying knowledge to succeed on the test. But on its own, it won’t be enough.

So, what are the skills we need, and how do we learn them?

Learning Skills

Skills are learned differently than knowledge. You didn’t make flashcards to learn to play the piano. You didn’t learn to ice skate by writing the names of ice skating moves over and over in a book.

If you want to know the capital of Maine, and you don’t know, there’s no way to figure it out on your own. You have to look it up, and once you look it up, at least for that moment, you know the answer. That’s knowledge, and it’s often learned in that way: don’t know, give up, look at the answer, know, repeat.

Skills don’t work like that. If you show up at a piano lesson, and the teacher asks you to play a song for the first time, you’ll probably try it and make a lot of mistakes. What then? Well, what you don’t do is ask the teacher to play it for you and then say, “Oh yeah, that sounds right – I got it now!” and then move on without ever looking at it again.

I hope that piano lesson scenario sounds crazy to you. And similarly, I hope you can see why doing a math problem, getting it wrong, reading the answer, understanding it, and moving on is equally crazy. Being able to solve a math problem requires some underlying knowledge, but ultimately, it’s a skill, like playing the piano or running a marathon.

Because of that, you have to practice it like a skill. The skills on the GRE would include things such as solving a multiple choice geometry problem, solving a quantitative comparison question, guessing on a quantitative comparison question, solving a sentence completion question, staying calm during a timed exam, and deciding when to move on from a question.

How do you practice skills? Generally, I would employ a 4-part process:

(1)   Try it timed. Just like the piano student in the above example, you should give the problem a try from the beginning. This lets you practice your own set of testing skills: assessing the problem, timing, guessing, and moving on.

(2)   Re-work untimed.  What do you think that piano teacher would have the student do next? Most likely, go back and try to work on the parts of the song that were hard. Similarly, you should go back and try to work on the problem on your own. See if you can get unstuck and get yourself to the right answer.

At this stage, the piano teacher might also interject some tips or reminders. You can do the same for yourself by using resources such as your strategy guides, other problems you’ve done, or definitions you don’t remember if you need them.

(3)   Use the answers (sparingly). If that piano student is really stuck, the teacher might show him or her what to do – but only until the student gets unstuck. You should do the same with your answers. If you need to, start reading the answer, but only until you come across something you did wrong and didn’t recognize. Then, stop, and go back to working on your own as far as you can. Repeat this process as needed.

(4)   Record a take-away. When you’re playing the piano, you create muscle memory that lets you reuse what you’ve learned in other contexts later. Recording a take-away has a similar effect. This is the chance to look back at the problem and say, “Hmm, what could I have seen/known from the beginning that would have let me get this problem right the first time?” Then, write down a sentence that takes the form of, “When I see _________ in a problem, ____________________,” where the first blank tells you what trigger to look for, and the second blank tells you what to remember, what rule to apply, what to think about, or what you can expect to happen in the answer.

It’s not that most of us have never learned a skill – all of us have. Even if you haven’t played a sport or a musical instrument, you probably know how to drive, use a computer, and do all kinds of unique things at your job. It’s just that we don’t often apply those skill-learning skills to academic tasks – but for the GRE, they will make a big difference.

test-anxietyI want to preface this article by saying that I’m not a psychiatrist, psychologist, therapist, or expert in test anxiety. I’m simply a tutor who has helped students prepare for standardized tests for the past 15 years.

Studying math is important. Studying verbal is important. Studying the test itself is important. But what about when you’ve done all that, and you can’t overcome the anxiety that holds you back from achieving your dream score? What about that panic that makes your brain fuzzy? What about the flustered feeling that stops you from showing what you know?

Everyone feels some pressure during the test, but test anxiety may be having a negative impact on your score if any of the following are consistently true for you:

  • Your real exam scores are significantly lower than your practice test scores.
  • When the timer is set, you feel unable to answer a question that is easy for you once the timer is off.
  • You find yourself unable to move forward through a real or practice test and resort to panicked guessing.
  • Many of your practice tests remain uncompleted because you are overwhelmed by pressure during the test and find that you need a break.

Everyone experiences anxiety in different ways. But the good news is that there are many strategies you can use to mitigate test anxiety and improve both your comfort level and your store. Here are a few strategies you can try.

1.     Work small to big. Many times students do their homework one question at a time, and then take a practice test. That’s like going from finding your golf grip to competing in a tournament. No wonder it makes you anxious!

Instead, think about increasing the amount of timed questions in small intervals. Start by timing one question at a time, then two, then four, and slowly increase the amount until the test doesn’t feel so daunting.

2.     Focus on calmness, not scores. We know that the GRE score is important, but math and verbal aren’t the only areas you need to study. So is staying calm, keeping your mental focus, and honing the ability to work quickly and effectively in mental “crisis” mode instead of hurried and frazzled in “panic” mode.

How can you practice such a thing? Try practicing a full test (or a smaller problem set) with your only goals as staying calm and staying on time. Those are both things that need active practicing, and it can help to experience the exam while calm, when the focus is off the score. You might even find that your score holds its own… or goes up!

3.     Mix topics slowly. If all your studying has been one topic at a time, it can be overwhelming to take a real exam. Not only are many topics mixed, but also it can be the first time you’ve had to actively identify what is being tested in the question.

You can help remove anxiety caused in this way, and also increase your score significantly, by mixing topics slowly. When you study one topic, force yourself to identity how you can tell what topic is being tested just by looking at the question. Once you’ve done that with two topics, try mixing them together. Then add one more topic at a time.

4.     Make a plan, take a break. This seems simple and straightforward, but it really can help. I know that every second is precious on the GRE, and many of us feel time pressure during the exam. Sometimes, that time pressure can put us in panic mode, where we feel like any second we aren’t “doing something” is a second wasted, so we rush into working without a plan.

Generally, making a plan is worthwhile. Taking a moment to figure out why type of question you’re doing and how to attack it will generally be faster than jumping right into solving, which may send you down the wrong path and not allow you to pick up key signals.

In addition, you may find that a short break, just 10 or 20 seconds where you close your eyes and take a deep breath, helps you to refocus and ends up saving you time.

5.     Study for question recognition. This suggestion applies whether you have test anxiety or not, because it’s the clearest and most direct way to improve your score (after learning the underlying basics). When you get a question wrong, you don’t just want to learn what the right answer is. At least as importantly, and I would argue more importantly, you want to answer the question, “What did I need to recognize or know to get this question right?”

Asking this question forces you to learn from each question in a way that can be applied to future questions. It pushes you to recognize patterns and to learn how to notice what’s being tested in a question, which can help you make a plan, use what you’ve studied, and avoid common traps.

6.     Meet with a test anxiety specialist. Yes, there is such a thing as a test anxiety specialist. And while most students won’t need one, if you find that your mastery of the material can’t shine because you are paralyzed in the face of the real exam, working with a specialist may help you get through the roadblock that’s holding you back.

Studying for and taking a big exam such as the GRE is an inherently stressful process. But when that stress gets in the way of your success, try taking active steps make it more manageable. After all, you want to show off all the stuff you’ve learned as best you can!

GRE-Be-StrategicThere’s something very alluring about practice tests. They feel productive. They seem like they’re giving you an upper hand on “the real thing”. And there’s always that secret hope that this time you’ll knock it out of the park and you can finally stop studying.

Don’t get me wrong; I love practice tests. I love them as a teacher, because they help me assess my students’ progress. And I love them as a student, because I know where I stand. But more and more, I find myself having to caution students about using practice tests effectively.

Often times, I see students using practice tests in ways that are completely unproductive. Since your time is precious and you ideally want to get the most improvement possible for whatever time you invest, I’d like to give you my two cents on using practice tests effectively.

Take a test before you start studying.

This is one practice test that’s completely efficient and insanely valuable, and yet it’s the one students are most likely to skip. Many students skip the practice test at the beginning of a course or before they start studying. Sometimes, they skip it because they are afraid of what the results will be. Other times, they know the result won’t be good enough for their school of choice, so it seems pointless. I also often hear students say that they don’t want to “waste” one of their practice tests until they have started studying.

I feel comfortable saying that, without exception, these are all bad reasons to skip the first practice test. You have to know where you’re starting so that you can know what’s working. Taking a practice test at the beginning of your studies will give you a baseline from which to measure your progress and an invaluable exposure to the exam to frame your studying. It wouldn’t be a waste even if you couldn’t ever take it again – but since you can, and since you’re likely to take it differently after weeks or months of studying, there’s absolutely no reason to skip the first practice exam. (If you’ve very recently taken a real exam, that’s a perfect substitute for an initial practice test.)

Take tests in a real way.

If you have to caveat your test score by saying anything that starts with, “I got XYZ score on my practice test, but…”, you’re not using your practice tests as efficiently as you could be. So let me lay it out as directly as I can.
Continue Reading…

Welcome to part 4 of the article series on analyzing your GRE practice tests. As we discussed in the first, second, and third parts of this series, we’re basing the discussion on the metrics that are given in Manhattan Prep tests, but you can extrapolate to other tests that give you similar performance data. If you haven’t already read those, do so before you continue with this final part.gre weak link

In the first part, we discussed how to assess the data provided in the “question list”—the list that shows the questions you received and how you performed on each one. In the second and third parts, we analyzed the data in our Assessment Reports.

Today, we’ll do a final bit of analysis that will help us study all of these weaknesses that we’ve been uncovering.

Getting Started

You can do the following analysis on the one test that you just took, but I generally recommend running the Assessment Reports on your last 2 or 3 tests for this last step. Do this if you have other tests that you have taken in the past 6 weeks or so.

Two notes before we begin:

(1) When I refer to “percent correct” below, everything is relative to your own performance. If you answer 60% correctly but other categories are at 50%, then this category falls into “I get these right.” If you answer 60% correctly but other categories are at 70%, then this category falls into “I get these wrong.”

(2) The “too fast” and “too slow” designations are based on the timing benchmarks I gave you in the first part of this article series.

You generally want to place question types and topic areas into one of the following five groups.

Group 1. I get these right roughly within the expected timeframe

These are your strengths.

Definition: Your percent correct is at the higher end of your range* and your average time is neither way too fast nor way too slow.

Going forward, these areas are not high on your priority list, but there may still be things you can learn: faster ways to do the problem; ways to make educated guesses (so that you can use the thought process on harder problems of the same type); how to quickly recognize future problems of the same type.

Make sure that you actually knew what you were doing for each problem and didn’t just get lucky! Finally, you may want to move on to more advanced material in these areas. Continue Reading…

gre analysisWelcome to part 3 of the article series on analyzing your GRE practice tests. As we discussed in the first and second parts of this series, we’re basing the discussion on the metrics that are given in Manhattan Prep tests, but you can extrapolate to other tests that give you similar performance data. If you haven’t already read those, do so before you continue with this third part.

In the first part, we discussed how to assess the data provided in the “question list”—the list that shows the questions you received and how you performed on each one. In the second part, we began analyzing the data in our Assessment Reports. We’re going to continue with that task today.

Last time, we covered the first of five Assessment Reports that you can generate in the testing system. Today, we’ll cover the final four reports.

Quantitative by Question Format and Difficulty

The second report shows your quant performance by Question Format and Difficulty. You will already have some ideas about your performance from your initial analysis; now, you’re seeing whether this data confirms what you already suspect and whether you can pick up any additional nuance from this more detailed report.

In general, performance drops as questions get harder, so you would expect to have the highest accuracy on the Easier problems, dropping to your lowest accuracy on the Devilish problems. Check to see whether this trend holds or whether the data is surprising.

gre practice test data 1

Our pretend student generally followed this expected trend for Quant and QC questions: as the questions got harder, her average performance dropped. (We should really give her a name. Let’s call her… how about Cathy?) On the other hand, Cathy missed a couple of easier DI questions even though she answered harder DI questions correctly. Hmm! Maybe she made some careless mistakes on something she did know how to do, or maybe the questions tested something that she didn’t know but that she could learn without too much trouble. She’ll need to dig into the individual questions to find out, but it certainly looks like there’s a good opportunity here for her to pick up some points.

Do you see the one data point that really jumps out here? Cathy spent 8.5 minutes on a single DI question! Except for that, her DI timing was right on target. She needs to make sure she’s got a mechanism in place to cut herself off so that she NEVER takes anywhere near that much time on a single question again!

Other than that, this data tells us that what we already hypothesized earlier is likely on target.

(Note: there is also a “medium-low” difficulty category, but Cathy happened not to get any math questions in that group.)

Verbal by Question Format and Difficulty

Now do the same thing for verbal! (Note: some people prefer to do all of the quant analysis and then do all of the verbal analysis; feel free to do the analysis in whatever order makes the most sense to you.) Continue Reading…