Guest Post: Test Preparation & Motivation

A few weeks before the start of Prep@Collegiate, the Fellows were presented with one challenge among many others: design and instruct a co-curricular course to further stimulate the achievement of our boys. Immediately, my gears started turning, and I was brainstorming ideas left and right. Everything from teaching proper dinning etiquette to instructing a course on walking with confidence crossed my mind. Finally, I settled on creating a test preparation strategies course, estimating it would have infinite value for middle school boys aspiring to matriculate to college one day – the trick was getting the boys to understand the infinite value.

Originally, I designed the course so that it was split into three 90-minute sessions, attended by seven to eight students exactly once. The idea was that all of the boys at Prep would get a crash course in utilizing superior test tasking tools and strategies that could be used for a wide array of quizzes, tests, and standardized exams. More than anything, we wanted to encourage a high-achieving exam preparation mindset. For application purposes, I decided to introduce these test preparation strategies with PARCC as the exam medium – that was a mistake.

My first attempt at instructing the course was going pretty well until the moment I uttered PARCC. I began the lesson by having students volunteer the ways that they typically prepare for exams. Answers varied between a few hours of studying the night before to simply showing up and hoping for the best. I then asked students how they thought they should be preparing. These responses tended to fall closer to studying a few hours, or more by reviewing their notes the night before. There were not any students thinking in terms of long-term preparation, asking their teacher for assistance in advance, or varying study methods based on the exam. At this moment I thought to parallel the need for long term preparation with the sort of preparatory work the students are accustomed to utilizing for PARCC.

At this juncture, engagement with the planned material ended – it was as if speaking the acronym PARCC was blasphemous. Some started groaning, a few put their heads on the table, and everyone became disengaged. One student gave me the courtesy of explaining. He said, “We don’t want to talk about the PARCC. We talk about the PARCC all year long. The PARCC sucks.” I appreciated his honesty, and I also learned a valuable lesson: if this course was going to achieve anything, it needed to be presented through an application which the students either had positive cognitive associations, or none at all. As long as the strategies I was trying to teach were associated with an exam that elicited as much vitriol as PARCC, the course was doomed to fail.

When I taught the course the following week, I decided to use the Secondary School Admission Test (SSAT) as the application medium. I also began the lesson by asking the boys what colleges they wanted to attend. Hands shot up immediately. Some wanted to go to Oregon (because they liked their football jerseys); a few wanted to attend University of Maryland College Park (because it’s close to home); one wanted to attend Harvard – they all wanted to go to college. Then I presented them with an intriguing proposition: What if a test could increase their chances of getting into one of these colleges? Everyone was all ears. I explained that there were a significant number of private schools in the Baltimore area with higher graduation rates, higher SAT scores, and higher college placement rates than the average Baltimore school. One student responded, “We know that Baltimore public schools aren’t that good, but my mom can’t afford to send me to private school.” I then went on to explain that the SSAT was a private school admissions test that many private school in the area used and that high scores could potentially lead to a merit scholarship. The entire class was in shock.

Not only did I have their attention, I also had their full engagement for the entirety of the test preparation material that I wanted to present. Honestly, I don’t think any of this equates to rocket science: people engage with material with which they have interest. Prep@Collegiate middle-school boys could not stand to hear anything about the dreaded PARCC exam, but they were elated to talk about anything leading to college. In the process, they learned some strategies and few tools that will hopefully increase their achievement in assessments leading to both endeavors. 

In one week, I will be leaving the states to start my role as a Teaching Intern in Casablanca, Morocco at the Casablanca American School (CAS). Four weeks ago, the idea of leaving my home to teach someone else’s kids, halfway around the world, was something of a nerve-wracking thought. However, the experience that I have had as a Fellow at Prep@Collegiate gives me confidence that I will adapt to curriculum and instruction challenges as they come.