Strong, Direct, Immediate Feedback

June 1, 2011

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Long-time readers of GMAT Hacks know that I advocate practice in small bursts. Don't spend all day just churning through practice problems. For every practice problem that you attempt, make sure that you spend an adequate amount of time reviewing and understanding it.

Also, I do not recommend spending dozens of hours taking practice tests. While it's important to experience the full hours-long GMAT marathon a couple of times before test day, practice tests are not a good way to build the skills that will help you answer the questions themselves.

Getting feedback

Yesterday, I came across an excellent article that describes why. Daniel Coyle is the author of the book The Talent Code, which investigates how to become an expert in various fields. Many of the findings apply directly to the GMAT.

One of the elements of effective practice that Coyle highlighted yesterday is "Strong, Direct, Immediate Feedback." You need to know what you're doing right and what you're doing wrong (strong feedback), the message can't be ambiguous (direct feedback), and you need to find out right away (immediate feedback).

If you're playing a tennis match, you get quite a bit of feedback of various kinds. If you hit a serve and it goes into the net, you immediate receive a direct message that you did something wrong. But if you hit a serve and your opponent smashes it to win the point, the feedback isn't so direct--did you not serve hard enough? Should you have served in a different direction? Did she just get lucky?

When you take a full-length practice test, you get some feedback in the form of a score. But if a program tells you that you just scored a 630, what does that mean? Clearly, you have more work to do, at least if you want a higher score. A breakdown of Quant and Verbal scores may point you in a slightly more specific direction. But beyond that, it's not very helpful.

A practice test can take four hours of your day, and it's sufficiently exhausting that you aren't going to accomplish any other quality practice that day. You may not even review your results until several days later, making the feedback even less immediate. If strong, direct, and immediate feedback is what you need to improve, spending much of your time on practice tests is not the way to accomplish it.

Better feedback

Here's a better way to spend your time--one I've been recommending to my students for years. Do a small number of problems--10 is a good number, though anything from 5 to 20 may work for you. When you're done, immediately review them, checking your answers and working through the explanations for the problems that you didn't do perfectly the first time.

Here's what you get:

  • Strong feedback: The correct answer tells you whether you were right or wrong. The explanation tells you whether you approached the problem correctly.
  • Direct feedback: Each question is independent, so if you got 9 of 10 correct, you get positive feedback on 9, and a clear message that you need to fix something about the 10th. There's no ambiguity about your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Immediate feedback: This all happens in one sitting. Start a set of 10 problems at 7:00, and you'll be looking at the answers and explanations by 7:30.

If you want to improve quickly, this is the way to do it. Full-length practice tests are a useful way to prepare yourself for the test-day experience and work on your time management, but much of the challenge of the GMAT is the content of the individual problems. To improve your underlying skills, you need this kind of feedback, and you won't get it from a practice test.



About the author: Jeff Sackmann has written many GMAT preparation books, including the popular Total GMAT Math, Total GMAT Verbal, and GMAT 111. He has also created explanations for problems in The Official Guide, as well as 1,800 practice GMAT math questions.

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