The other day I was working with a student on the English section of the ACT. This student had averaged around 50 out of 75 for a while. Then, a week ago, she had a breakthrough. I told her that our goal for her was 65 out of 75—a 15 point improvement that required her to average no more than two questions wrong per passage (each English passage has 15 problems). Then, wouldn't you know, on her VERY NEXT practice section she scored exactly 65 out of 75! Suddenly, her score had shot up to a 28! When I told her that our next goal for her would be a 70 out of 75 (giving her around a 33—amazing!), she was pumped. She was now a mere five questions away from a really killer ACT score. Even better, she felt confident that she could get there.
But, then, something happened. The nerves hit. Now, this may seem counter-intuitive. The student has improved a lot. She understands the material, she is applying her understanding, and her score is reflecting it. She felt more confident... at least at first. What happened to shake her up?
The fact that this student grew nervous is no small matter. For some people, when they feel nervous, their instinctual reaction is not to breathe and persevere—it's to run away. Essentially, my student feared being "found out." She feared the proverbial other shoe dropping. She worried that she wouldn't score as well on the next practice test and thereby undermine any progress she had made.
Here's what I reminded her: her score improvement wasn't based on luck—it was based on skill. She was becoming better at working with the English section, and her score was reflecting that. However, she identified as a person who did not perform well on the English section. This whole "65 out of 75" thing was new for her. The only way to create a new self-identification? Keep taking practice tests, keep scoring well, and keep showing herself that the ability to perform well wasn't a fluke: it was in her control. As I say in my book, her success wasn't luck, it was magic, and the magic was within her (not to get all Harry Potter on you).
By avoiding practice tests, not only would my student fail to create a new self-concept, she would also undermine her efforts. By not practicing and not leveraging her new-ish English section savvy, she would lose it. Ironically, in avoiding the English section would create exactly the results that she most feared—receiving scores lower than she now knew she was capable of earning.
With this insight, my student continued on. And, guess what? She did it again. And she'll do it again. And again. And again. And she'll keep learning more along the way—in last week's session, we refined her understanding of possessives and plural possessives. Through this cycle of persistently taking tests and using the results to learn something new, she will continue to improve. Who knows? That 33 could be right around the corner.
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