Psychological studies of "overlearning" have shown that for many purposes, there's not much benefit to drilling skills that you've already mastered. Once you're able to do something 100% of the time, there's no long-term upside to continued practice.
In fact, studying beyond that point of diminishing returns can be harmful, if it's distracting you from more important study tasks, or causing you to miss the forest for the trees.
Is overlearning a problem in SAT prep?
For the most part, no. The most recent studies show that while overlearning is not helpful for long-term retention, it can be useful when short-term retention is the goal (when you're studying for, say, one giant 3.5-hour test).
Besides, the most important things you can do to prepare for the SAT have a very high ceiling, and have great benefits beyond the test itself.
Still, there are a few areas where less is more.
Don't Overdo These
On some things, the point of diminishing returns kicks in pretty quickly, and you won't get anything at all out of pressing forward on them:
You don't need most of trig on the SAT. Learn SOHCAHTOA, the basic co-function identities, and the law of sines.
Same for geometry. Know the most important theorems and how to apply them, but don't worry about being able to prove them. On the SAT, it's enough just to know that say, alternate interior angles across parallel lines are congruent; you don't have to know why.
Vocab used to be really important, but that was de-emphasized in the 2016 overhaul, in favor of "words in context."
It still helps to have a somewhat sophisticated vocabulary, but to that end you'll get a lot more out of just reading some good books than trying to cram a list of five dollar words into your head.
As for test-taking tactics, a lot of the test prep giants want you to believe that they have a trove of "secrets," perfectly engineered keys that you can use to unlock the test without actually having to get better at the core skills.
Most of these "secrets" aren't secret at all. We're talking about things like process of elimination, trying out the answer choices, and reading the questions before you read the passages.
Yes, you can increase your score maybe 50+ points with basic test-taking skills like these skills that you'll learn easily for free with one web search.
But anything much more ingenious won't help, and can actually get in the way.
One workbook from a leading test prep company encourages students to practice looking for "trap" answers on each reading question.
Many students, especially smart ones, tend to overthink these problems already. Teaching you to play mind games with the questions will just make this psychological hurdle even harder to overcome.
You're really going to rule out an answer choice because it looks "too obvious" and must be a "trap?"
Sometimes, the answer choice seems obvious because it's right. Maybe you understood this passage more clearly or than others, or maybe you analyzed the question more accurately, or maybe it's just an easy question!
Get a few strategies and tactics under your belt, then get cracking on the content.
There are a few activities for which you can reach a point of mastery and even benefit in the short term from some continued practice after you've already mastered them:
Aim for perfect or near-perfect performance on these fundamentals. Once you can consistently finish test sections on time, remember your formulas, and avoid mechanical grammar errors, it's not going to hurt you to keep practicing, and might boost your retention in the short term.
Just don't let that practice get in the way of staying on top of your school work and outside reading.
As Much as You Can!
Here are some score-boosting habits that will always be worth doing more of:
Unless you already have a Ph.D. (and even then perhaps), you're always going to have room to grow in these areas. Keep pushing your reading up a notch.
To get you moving, I've started a list of books that I think will challenge and surprise you. I plan to keep adding to the list, so check back if you start to run out of material.
I'll talk more soon about how to approach each of these activities. For now, just get going and read something!
It happened to me:
I was waiting for a website to load, which because of the ancient one-year-old technology I still use, can take as much as five seconds (I know, right?), and to pass the time, I reached for my phone.
Alarmingly, it was not in my pocket.
I shuffled around for some time, increasingly anxious, tearing the room apart, searching behind cushions, on the floor, under the bed. It had been right there, moments before, within my grasp, I was sure. In fact, I distinctly remembered holding it in the very palm of my hand.
As a matter of fact, there it still was in my grip, having just finished loading that website.
Yes, that's right:
I was so addicted to my phone that I would reach for it even while it was already in my hand.
I'm not embarrassed to admit that I had this problem. In fact, I'm excited to tell you how bad I had it, because it proves how dramatically I changed, using the method I describe below. Today, instead of letting my devices control me, I control them. Instead of making snarky social media posts, I make actual decisions about how I'm going to live each moment of my life. Can you imagine? Decisions.
Some days, I'm awake for hours before it even occurs to me to check my phone.
If even I can stop constantly checking my phone and start living my life, so can you.
But you have to think about this the right way. If you just make a resolution to get a hold of yourself, then grit your teeth and try not to pull your phone out every time you feel like it, then you're going about it all wrong.
The Will Power Trap
You might say to yourself right now, "I'm only going to look at my phone when I really need to from now on." And maybe you have enough will power to push through till dinner time. But as you start to get tired, or stressed, or overwhelmed by responsibilities, that resolution is going to weaken, and you'll fall back on your habits.
I'm willing to bet that's happened to you before. And you probably blamed yourself. You weren't "motivated enough." You didn't "really want it." Whatever story you told yourself, it was based on the idea that you change your behavior by having enough will power.
But if you believe that, you're dooming yourself to a cycle of failure, because nobody has enough will power to make a permanent change in their lives just by deciding to do it. If you try to make the change on will power alone, you're going to fail, and that failure is going to reinforce your belief that you can't change.
Everyone runs out of motivation eventually, and when that inevitably happens, habits take over.
The only way to get ahead of that process is to take control of it. Instead of leaning on will power, take charge of the habits themselves.
It's easier than you think.
Just Stop Trying
Any behavior strategy that depends on "trying harder" and "powering through" is doomed.
We love stories about people with high and noble goals who push and strive until they reach the height of achievement. But the reality is that constant effort is an exhausting way to live your life, and sooner or later most people are going to run out of juice.
Instead of trying harder to do the difficult thing, what if you made it so easy to do that you didn't even have to try?
For years, I chastised myself for spending too much time doodling around on my phone. I tried and tried to resist the urge to pull it out. But the habit was stronger than my effort. The beautiful and horrible thing about habits is that they move faster than our decision-making process. By the time it occurred to me to "resist the urge," I'd already have the darn phone in my hand.
So I stopped trying.
I don't mean that I gave up. I mean that instead of trying to stick to a resolution, I created a system that would get me away from my phone without my ever having to decide not to look at it. The system did the work for me. All I had to do was design and implement it, and almost overnight I was spending less than half as much time on my phone, without even once telling myself not to use it.
The core of my strategy is a method developed by my mentor, Stanford behavior scientist BJ Fogg. His Tiny Habits system is the only complete habit formation method that has been scientifically validated as an effective way to create new habits that last, quickly and easily.
With an open mind and a willingness to practice, anyone can make this system work for them. The simple breakthrough idea is that a habit is like a seedling, which planted in the right place, will naturally grow into whatever fantastic organism you care to imagine. It's hard to install a full-grown tree, but it's easy to plant a seedling. In the same way, it's easy to create a very small habit that will naturally grow into the big, important changes you want to see.
All you have to do is make it so easy that you won't feel any resistance, no matter how unmotivated you feel. It has to be something quick. Practice that tiny little habit, and every time you do, celebrate like you just won the Nobel Prize. Soon you'll be doing it automatically. And soon after that, you'll find yourself naturally taking the next steps.
Want to floss every night? Celebrate flossing one tooth after you brush! Soon you'll be flossing them all.
Want to go running every morning? Celebrate putting on your gym shorts after you get out of bed! Soon you'll be heading out the door.
Want to stop checking your phone all the time?
Well, this is just a little more complicated, because it's about not doing something. In order to create a Tiny Habit around this goal, first I had to translate it into a positive form. For me, the problem with my phone wasn't just that I was using it too much. The problem was that I was using it for no reason. I kept swiping it open automatically, even when there was absolutely nothing I needed to check or do or find out.
So the new habit I needed was just to stop for three seconds to ask myself what I actually wanted to do. All I had to do was put a little pause in between the impulse and the action.
Here's the habit I came up with, following the Tiny Habits recipe:
"When I notice an urge to reach for my phone, I will open my journal, look at today's list, and say, "What should I do now?" (I keep a to-do list for each day in my bullet journal.)
Notice what isn't in that recipe. Nowhere does it say that I will then not look at my phone. I absolutely gave myself permission to look at my phone as much as I wanted to. The only difference was that first, I would stop for a moment and notice whether I actually wanted to do it. More than half the time, I'd realize there was something else I actually wanted to do, and without even trying, I wouldn't feel like looking at my phone anymore.
I never had to fight with myself. I was still doing exactly what I felt like doing. I had just given myself a chance to feel like doing something else!
It might look a little funny to some people that I periodically open up my journal, mutter to myself, and then do an excited fist pump. But personally, I think that's less ridiculous than walking around all day like a zombie with no purpose other than to consume a stream of information I don't care about.
So when are you going to start?
It's easy enough to say that you should learn from your mistakes. What that actually looks like in practice is another question.
Power Student readers already know that you haven't learned from a mistake unless you've created a new habit because of it. Mistakes made have to be translated into lessons learned. Red ink has to be turned into Green Lights.
Because the Green Light method is about creating new habits based on the corrections you've received, each piece of feedback has to be translated into terms that can support a positive change in behavior. That is, each Green Light statement has to be positive, definite, and repeatable.
Keep these three qualities closely in mind as you develop your Green Lights, and you'll be amazed at your own progress.
A negative statement won't help you create better habits, for the simple reason that not doing something is the opposite of an action. You can't make a habit of not doing something.
So to create effective Green Light statements, you need to flip the sign: convert any negative feedback into positive statements.
If the red ink says, "fragment" or "oops, wrong sign" or "what were you even trying to spell here," you have to translate it into a positive action in order to benefit from it. "Don't write sentence fragments" is not a Green Light. Instead, write, "I will check each sentence to ensure it is complete." Instead of "Don't lose track of the negative signs in math problems," write, "When I finish solving a problem, I will review the steps to make sure I kept the right sign for each term at each step."
If your teacher is wise and compassionate, you're probably getting some positive feedback, too. Great! You don't have to flip the sign on that feedback. But do create a Green Light from it, so that you keep doing whatever you did right this time.
Vague ideas don't translate well into action. "Get better at quadratic equations" is not a Green Light. In order to improve a skill like factoring quadratics you need to identify what step in the process you're missing or performing incorrectly, and work on that. For example, you might conclude that you're forgetting to check whether the coefficients in a quadratic expression have a common factor. In that case, your Green Light statement would be, "When I start factoring a quadratic equation, I will check the coefficients for a common factor." Even better would be a physical action that you can visualize, like "tap the coefficient of each term with my pencil."
With an appropriately definite Green Light statement, you'll know exactly what to do next time, without even having to think about it.
On the other hand, if you get too specific with your Green Light statement, it will never apply to any situation except the one in which it originally arose. Take the following statement:
This aspect of Green Lights can be more difficult to master than the others. Sometimes it isn't obvious how to extend the idea beyond the particular situation. If you missed a True/False question on a history quiz, and the only mark is a red slash through the number, what can you really do with that? You could create a list of history facts you've had trouble recalling on quizzes, and that would have some value as a study guide. But it wouldn't be a Green Light list.
To develop a repeatable action out of a case like that, you may have to dig a little bit. The key is to ask "why" until you get down to the original cause:
"Why did I miss that True/False question?"
"Because I didn't know the answer."
"Why didn't I know the answer?"
"Because I didn't notice it in the text book."
"Why didn't I notice it in the textbook?"
"Because I wasn't taking notes on key facts."
And there's your repeatable action: when you study your history text book, you will take notes on key facts.
What I've learned from many years of teaching and tutoring is that a lot of problems ultimately come down to the same root causes. So you can often track down what's happening just by reviewing a study skills troubleshooting guide like the comprehensive skills checklist that I include in the Power Student Habit Lab.
Make sure your Green Light statements can apply to situations similar to the one you're looking at, not only situations that are exactly like it.
When to Review
Just writing down the Green Lights is a very effective first step towards improving your work and making future tasks easier. By applying the three criteria (Positive, Definite, and Repeatable) to each statement, you've forced yourself to think carefully and concretely about exactly what your weakness is and how to overcome it.
But just writing down the changes is not going to change anything. You need to revisit these Green Light lists regularly.
So how often should you review them? As often as you have opportunities to practice.
Every time you have a new task, that's a chance to put your Green Lights into practice and solidify them as habits. If you've been adding your Green Lights to a separate list for each subject area, it should be easy to find the one you need for the task you're doing. Getting ready to write a paper? Pull out your "Composition Green Lights" list. Time for math homework? You need your "Algebra Green Lights" list.
Train yourself to refer to these lists as soon as you start working on each task. As soon as you pull that list out, you're really on your way to mastery. Congratulate yourself for taking that little step! That sense of accomplishment and satisfaction helps to lock in the habit.
As you read through the list, reaffirm each of those Green Light statements. Read it out loud. Imagine yourself taking that action. Again, try to feel a sense of pride and accomplishment that you're developing a great new habit that's going to make you even more awesome than you already are.
Keep at it! Right now, you're taking the first steps on a journey that will take you from discouragement and a sense of inadequacy to a confident mastery of everything you study. It's ultimately a joyful process. When you see yourself racking up more and more successes as a student, you'll start to see yourself as someone who's good at learning and even start to enjoy uncovering more ways to improve. You'll feel motivated to improve rather than beaten down by a sense of failure.
You might even start to smile when you see red ink.
(By the way, let me know if you want to be invited when I open up enrollment for the Habit Lab workshop.)
What is the tone of your relationship with red ink?
Disgust? Resentment? Abject dread?
It shouldn't be surprising that most of us, especially students, have a few negative feelings about red ink. Apart from the natural associations with danger, we've learned throughout our lives that the color red stands for mistakes, punishment, and failure. If everything you ever did wrong was marked in green, you'd probably want to punch Kermit the Frog instead of Elmo.
When the hard-won fruit of your academic labors comes back to you from the teacher with red writing all over it, your initial reaction may be to feel a bit let down, defeated, and discouraged.
Maybe it won't come as a shock to read that this is an unproductive way for you to absorb negative feedback. You've probably heard a million times that the key to improving yourself is not to stop making mistakes, but to learn from the ones you do make. So all those marks on your work aren't a sign that you're failing. They mean that you're growing, right?
You don't grow automatically by making mistakes and having them pointed out to you. Even if you have a positive attitude towards the negative feedback you get on your work, that's still not enough to move you forward.
Every time you get feedback from an instructor, that means that a highly skilled person has spent time thinking specifically about how you personally can improve your skills and deepen your knowledge. That's great! But what are you going to do with that information?
There's one more step you need to take. It's something you should do every day, but most students never do it at all.
The Green Light Method
Before you toss that marked paper, or file it, or jam it into a crumpled heap under your bed (or whatever your organizational system is), there's a simple but absolutely essential thing you need to do with each piece of feedback on that paper: transform it into a positive, definite, repeatable action. This action is your "Green Light," a powerful tool to move yourself forward as a student.
Once you've identified this very specific action, don't just resolve to perform that action from now on. Resolutions are fine, but they don't work in the long run. Instead, start training yourself right now so that over time, this action will become automatic. In other words, make it a habit.
(By the way, if you're setting up your own Habit Lab, turning red ink into Green Lights is one great way to identify new habits that you need to develop.)
Here's my proven process for making sure your Green Lights don't just fade away:
Once you've turned a piece of feedback into a Green Light, you don't need it any more. You've digested the red ink and processed it into something useful. Unless you want to hang onto it for its sentimental value, you can probably throw that paper in the trash now.
If there's information on it that you may still need, keep it out of the way in a well-marked file folder in a drawer or box where you can find it later. But if you can, the best thing is usually to copy that information into a consolidated study guide (like my 90-Second Review sheet) and throw the original paper away.
Use the Green Light Method for every problem set, worksheet, quiz, test, paper, or project you get back, and soon you'll have a master list of the most important habits that you personally need to develop in order to do better in every subject.
Following this method takes a little more time than just adding the paper to your folder or drawer or the perilously teetering stack of homework in the back of your closet. But think of it an investment of time now to get huge returns later. If you actually do this every day for just a few weeks, you'll be amazed at how much more easily and quickly you do all your work in the future.
I'll write soon about exactly how to craft your Green Light statements to make them positive, definite, and repeatable. (Let me know if you want that information in your inbox.) But you don't have to wait for more information to start mastering this method. Try it out right now! Find some recent marked work and start processing it. If you're not sure what to do with a particular note or mark, leave a comment here and I'll try to help!