GMAT Tip of the Week: To Study for the Test, Take a Test

Test-taking is a more powerful form of study than are reading and memorization, according to a study featured in the New York Times.  In the study, those who took tests after reading recalled significantly more information a week later than did those who simply read or created “concept maps,” a recent fad in education.  Researchers infer that the process of actively working with the information, even if the test is a struggle, forces learners to cement concepts and draw relationships in a much more powerful way than by traditional “study”.

Perhaps most interesting is the assertion of psychologists that, while test-taking as a form of study is proven to be more effective at cementing knowledge, learners who have studied by taking tests tend to feel less confident in their knowledge.  Presumably this is because the struggle of taking a test feels “harder” than does re-reading and practicing immediate recall.  Accordingly, it is important for learners to embrace the struggle; as researchers note, the brain responds to the necessity of creating linkages and reminders that comes from a sense of urgency in a test-based situation – it may, in fact, be that very anxiety-causing pressure of a test that enables the learning process to kick into high gear.

What does this mean for GMAT test takers?  As our academic team at Veritas Prep has long advocated, it is important for those studying for the GMAT to:

Struggle through practice problems. Those who need to prove to themselves or re-learn a mathematical rule or formula are much more likely to remember it later than are those who simply look it up when they can’t immediately recall it.  As the researchers note, pressure situations force the brain to make connections and draw parallels that it often will not do when it simply re-reads information.  True learning is created by doing, not by memorizing.

Emphasize thought process and not immediate recall. Similarly, learners can replicate this study process even while reading or reviewing facts, formulas, and rules by focusing on the underlying reasons and logic behind them.  Researchers infer that the method of taking tests requires the brain to do this, but an active mind can require this process of itself by eschewing flashcard-style memorization and emphasizing the depth of knowledge that comes from not just “remembering” but actually “knowing”.

Take practice tests. We’ve long advocated practice tests as methods of practicing GMAT-style pacing; diagnosing the types of mistakes that one makes under pressure; recognizing weaknesses; requiring one to study the entirety of the test’s question types and concepts in varying order; and replicating the test day experience.  We’ve also known that those who take more practice tests tend to produce higher results for these and other reasons (presumably there’s just a large correlation, too – more practice tests may just mean a more dedicated student).  With this additional evidence that practice tests may even be a more productive form of study, it’s even more important for students to take time out to complete practice tests or our Midterm Diagnostic Quizzes (which act as “end-of-unit” tests for particular subject areas).

Stay confident. A common pitfall for GMAT students is the tendency to become disillusioned by negative practice test experiences and to infer limits on their own abilities through poor practice test scores.  But as this research demonstrates, that process of struggling through and potentially even performing poorly on practice tests is instrumental in the process of learning and improving.  Some study techniques – flashcards, reading lists of formulas, notetaking, etc. – “feel” more productive simply because they remove the pressure and anxiety of testing.  But as the common workout axiom  goes, “no pain, no gain” – just as your spin instructor or triathlon coach will tell you, you need to put yourself into difficulty to force your body to adapt, and that’s where true progress originates.  As you struggle through practice tests, remind yourself that your mind is paying the price now so that it won’t have to later; by building these mental cues and connections under pressure, your brain is organizing information in a way that will make test-day recall and muscle memory that much stronger.

The research is in; taking practice tests may be the best possible way for you to study for the GMAT.  So what are you waiting for?  Take a free practice test now, or register for a Veritas Prep GMAT program and receive access to 15 full-length tests and 7 diagnostic quizzes.

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