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Test Prep Experts: Keeping Students Motivated

There are two kinds of motivation: long term and short term. The learning team (student, tutor, educational institution, and parent) is responsible for maintaining motivation throughout the process, but the tutor-student relationship is critical in each and every level of motivating the learning process. On a day-to-day level, motivation is necessary to keep focus and get work done well consistently, and it’s the responsibility of the tutor to make sure the student is kept on track. Long-term, the tutor is important in keeping the student focused on end-goals, or where the work is taking them. Parents, friends, and the student are responsible for setting up the scaffolding of goals– the tutor needs to fill in details and show how working on this or that now will contribute to the ultimate goals of the student.

Long-term motivation is really about getting the student to succeed in their field or pursuit of identity. While we focus on standardized testing, the educational process can be about internal discovery as much, if not more, than about the memorization of facts or processes. Why are you taking the SAT? To go to college? No. You are taking the SAT so that you have opportunities to pursue your interests and goals, and to become the human being that you wish to be. As grandiose as that sounds, consider the SAT in a vacuum. It means nothing, in and of itself. Instead, it is a gateway to future freedom. Once you get a student to understand this, they rarely have a hard time motivating themselves to do the work.

Of course, the daily activities of learning can become tedious, regardless of the Narnia promised at the end of the test. We have all been in situations in which the energy is seeping from the room, your student is halfway asleep, and the clock shows that you’re there for another hour. This is an example where short-term motivation needs to take place. I tend to look at such situations as a dichotomy: you can either “soldier through” and try to make the most of it, or you can regress and let your inner kid out– “look for dragons,” in the words of one of my 3 year-old piano students.

For instance, I had an MCAT student that was having a difficult time grasping the ideal gas law. We had been hammering through problems and equations, but were not getting anywhere. He was eyeing the clock and, I feared, was not learning anything. Clearly, this was a waste of his time. Rather than continuing what was not working, we changed the style of teaching. I had him stand up and “become an ideal gas molecule,” walking around at random, walking into walls and obstacles, simulating the collisions experienced by a gas molecule. We proceeded to alter various parameters (PV=nRT) by changing how he was moving, introducing other gas molecules and limiting the space in which he could move.

From this exercise, he understood the principle physically, and was able to manipulate it and work with it in a sophisticated manner almost immediately. The rest of the session was productive because his success had re-engaged him and the physicality of the exercise had made the principle less abstract, easing the learning process and solidifying the principle so that he could get into the significance of what he was learning.

The core, then, of motivating students, either short-term or long-term, is to make the learning process dynamic, engaging and significant. There are limitless ways of doing this, especially when the tutor and student are able to form a rapport, so that learning and teaching styles can be meshed for the ultimate benefit of the student.
Graham A. is one of Top Test Prep’s leading MCAT, SAT, ACT, and SSAT instructors. He has also worked with students to prepare their admissions essays. We hear constant positive feedback about Graham’s ability to keep students engaged, focused, and interested in the material they have to tackle, and are excited that he was able to share his philosophy with you.
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