“‘Repetition is the mother of all learning’...repeat about 20 SAT practice tests and you will be on your way to the top 2% globally”

The sentiment above, expressed by a student and based on the old Latin saw “repetitio mater studiorum,” is nearly universal. But it’s also wrong, and, when examined closely, it doesn’t even make any sense.

Mindlessly grinding through practice tests is a terribly inefficient way to improve the academic skills tested on the SAT. Practice tests are best used for diagnostic purposes along the way to help you identify deficiencies, and as practice question sets for math and writing, and, to a drastically lesser extent, for reading. There are multiple components to the process of learning, which involves a cycle: Assessment -> analysis -> learning -> exercise -> assessment, to put it in gross terms. Far too many students just spin on assessment -> assessment -> assessment…

One of the reasons for the prevalence of this false belief that taking piles of practice tests is the best road to improvement is that it seems to work to some degree. There are several explanations for why students’ scores generally trend upwards as they take practice test after practice test:

  • For math especially, solving math problems reinforces skills and build speed
  • Students become generally more familiar with the scope and structure of the test
  • As you get older, you get smarter, even over the timespan of a 3-6 month SAT prep schedule
  • Some math concepts needed for the test are being covered in school

One of the fatal flaws in the notion of repetitio mater studiorum is that you can only productively repeat what you already know how to do.

Another important aspect of what repetition can and cannot accomplish lies in the crucial differentiation between quantitative improvements and qualitative ones. Repetition can increase speed and reduce careless errors, but without other activities, repetition can’t effectively provide learning. If you don’t know how to solve a quadratic equation, you can repeat quadratic equation problems until the cows come home (and those zany bovines often stay out until the dairy bars close), and you still won’t produce that studiorum you’re after (hey, we’re learning Latin!). And without feedback and correction for concepts you don’t have a complete grasp of, mere repetition is nearly powerless.

We propose a refinement of the previously-cited slogan: Instructio ergo repetitio cum correctione mater studiorum est, or “instruction then repetition with correction is the mother of learning.” Sure, it doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as nicely, but we’re aiming for effectiveness here, not mellifluousness (look it up!).