Standardized testing looms large in many students' minds for years before they even begin prep. If they plan on attending college, they know they're going to have to take the ACT or SAT—and this knowledge alone can create a mental block. With COVID-19 changing the testing landscape (among many other elements of our lives), there are even more unknowns causing anxiety. Motivating students for the ACT/SAT right now can be challenging—but it is possible!
As you work to help students prepare for these tests, making some adaptations to both the way you give lessons and the virtual learning environment itself will help them master the materials better. But more importantly, presenting the material thoughtfully and deliberately can help alleviate their anxiety somewhat—and help them meet their goals.
Draw their attention back to the larger goal
Each and every one of your students is studying for the ACT/SAT for a reason. Yes, in some cases, it's because their parents are making them. But I guarantee that there's something about the college experience that they'll find exciting. For some, this will be a particular school; for others, it could be the opportunity to study a new subject; for others, it might be as simple as meeting a new group of like-minded people.
Encourage students to brainstorm what it is about going to college that appeals to them. Have them write down as many reasons they can think of about why a particular college or going to college in general excites them. Visual learners may even want to make vision boards or collages to keep themselves motivated.
In moments of low motivation, draw their attention back to these goals. In their darker moments, students can feel that test prep is frustrating or even pointless, and it's key to remind them that they're doing the work in the service of a greater—and greatly exciting!—goal.
Emphasize what IS in their control
Don't make promises you can't keep: you can't swear the pandemic will be over by X date, you can't guarantee that their dream college will be holding in-person classes by Y year, and you may not even be able to say with certainty that a certain test date will be happening.
But this isn't so dissimilar to teaching the ACT or SAT in normal times. After all, you can't swear they'll get a certain score on the actual test. You can't guarantee that they'll get accepted into their dream college. And you can't promise that everything will work out exactly the way they want it to.
With that in mind, there are a few things you can let students know: that the testing organizations (College Board and ACT) are working really hard to ensure that students get a fair shot to take the test to the best of their abilities—and that this includes accommodations. That colleges know that everybody is going through the same situation right now and are adapting quickly (UC schools have even changed their testing requirements). And that there are still elements of their college applications they themselves can control: their test prep is top among these.
By emphasizing that ACT/SAT prep is within the students' power, you'll be reminding them of an important tool: their own agency. So much is uncertain right now, but this doesn't have to be. They can control how often they study and how thoroughly they study.
Magoosh's lessons are already provided in short video segments, ideal for keeping a student's attention in a virtual environment. However, when students are struggling to stay motivated, don't hesitate to stray a little from a particular study plan. In particular, "chunking" the work—focusing intently on shorter segments and diving deep into one or two questions—can help keep students engaged.
"Chunking" a lesson can also allow you to vary the learning experience even more. By working in smaller, five-to-ten-minute segments, you can go back and forth between videos, group or collaborative practice, individual practice, and discussion. Changing gears regularly and often will keep sessions dynamic and make students feel like they're going by quickly, even as you cover a lot of ground.
Right now, a lot of students are struggling to keep themselves going. Don't let them beat themselves up if they miss a day of practice or are having a hard time emotionally. If their ACT was cancelled, or if their SAT was, emphasize that many other opportunities will be available, and that they still have the opportunity to work on things they can control.
Meanwhile, if students aren't already using ACT study schedules or SAT study schedules, encourage them to find one that works for them. By holding themselves accountable for their own learning, they'll feel a sense of accomplishment no matter what is happening in the outside world. However, it's important to emphasize that they can and should be kind to themselves: we're all struggling right now, and we all have good and bad days. Their study schedules should make their work feel manageable, not overwhelming, and they can adapt them accordingly.
As students start diving into their lessons and practice, encourage them to set up a system to celebrate their wins. This could be as simple as getting actual gold star stickers or posting a celebratory note on social media, or as complex as a tiered system of rewards for increasingly bigger accomplishments.
These wins don't have to be as huge as getting a 36 on an ACT practice test or a 1600 on an SAT practice test. They could (and should!) be celebrating things like five days in a row of test prep, getting a higher score on a particular quiz for a particular question type, or even just taking a full-length practice test.
Right now, students' goal for test prep should be short, regular sessions, building up to longer ones as they're able to. Pointing out non-score wins and congratulating them will help them see that they are progressing to their goals, even when it doesn't feel like it.
We tend to get frustrated when what we think will (or should) happen doesn't. And as a lot of testing is up in the air right now, frustration on students' part is completely understandable. As much as possible, get them to think about the possibilities that might emerge from the current situation. For example, at-home ACT tests are likely to happen, and digital SAT tests are possible. There's a lot to hate about the current situation—but there are also opportunities emerging that may suit them even better.
A Final Word
Motivating students for the ACT/SAT can be difficult in the best of times. Right now, it can feel impossible. But by striking the right balance between making a plan and staying flexible, by encouraging students to set goals and celebrate their wins, and staying as calm and realistically positive as possible, you can still help them meet their goals. Ensure that you have the right mindset to be truly motivating, rather than falsely optimistic, and you'll be a great guide on their journey to success.