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The Protégé Effect: an Alternative Way To Improve Your SAT / ACT Score

After studying for the SAT / ACT for a while, many of my students suffer burnout. One of my suggestions in such cases is to try a variation in study methods. This adds an element of novelty, making study more interesting - and hopefully more enjoyable.

One of the best ways to add variation is by taking on a study partner who's weaker than yourself. When your friend gets a question wrong, explain it to him; if you both get it wrong, read the answer explanation and then explain. If you yourself don't fully understand the concept, you may find that it grows clearer as you're explaining it. The act of articulating a concept, expressing it out loud, figuring out the key points, and breaking it down into pieces other people can understand, is often enough for you yourself to grasp it.

Perhaps you think this is counterintuitive; the advantage lies in studying with someone who's on a higher level than you are. And to a certain extent that's true. A higher achieving student can guide you and share their understanding. But the method I'm suggesting today is to put yourself in a position where you're teaching somebody else.

Teaching others improves learning ability, retention, and ultimately, test performance. This effect has been plentifully documented in various studies and experiments, in an interesting phenomenon learning scientists call 'the protégé effect.'

For example, a 2009 study was conducted through the use of an animated figure, dubbed "Betty's Brain", which was developed by engineers at Standford and Vanderbilt University. Students who engaged in 'teaching' Betty's brain significantly outperformed students who had studied alone.

In 2014 as well as 2018 studies, participants who taught others recalled more and performed better than their non-teaching counterparts.

There are many more studies on the topic, but you get the gist.

Why does the protégé effect work?

There are several proposed reasons. We'll look at just a few today.

Metacognitive processing: breaking down what you know

There are two main components to explaining a concept effectively.

1: Analyze the topic to be explained

2: Split the analysis into small, digestible pieces

This process will clarify the concept's key points. In addition, you'll be forced to work through the gaps in your own comprehension, something you don't usually encounter when solving questions by yourself. You'll be better equipped to deal with similar questions in the future.

Teaching allows a depth of knowledge and understanding that you could never obtain by solving questions alone.

This effect is compounded when the person you're teaching doesn't get it, and you're forced to explain the material in a few different ways. It compels you to rethink and reanalyze, examining the material from every facet.

This concept is also known as metacognitive processing. Metacognitive processing, or metacognition, is the concept of thinking about your thinking; that is, assessing the steps necessary to understand a certain idea. Metacognition is a recognized force in learning ability, and a higher level of metacognition is exactly what teaching leads to.

Learning more conscientiously

When you have to teach certain material, you pay more attention to it. It's almost subconsciously done - your brain just reacts differently.

Your emotions become positively charged

Helping others has the apparent neurological effect of lowering stress and triggering a reward response in the brain. As a result, teaching somebody creates an emotional link between your study process and positive, pleasant feelings. You'll feel better in general, and your SAT / ACT experiences will have better associations, helping you to continue studying effectively in the future.

The stress reduction also helps prevent burnout and anxiety, two obstacles which often hamper students' study progress. In addition, teaching increases feelings of competence and autonomy, an important factor in eventually succeeding on the SAT / ACT.

Some words of guidance

This doesn't mean that from now on, you have to study with another person. It's a suggestion: if this sounds like something which might appeal to you, throw it in the mix occasionally. If you like it, do it more often; if you don't, there's no need to continue.

One word of caution: if you find that spending your study sessions with others is a distraction and causes you to waste time, stop immediately. This method is not for you. Always be cognizant of what works for you as an individual.

A few last comments

This may not sound like classical advice for SAT / ACT prep. But I'm not here to give classical advice. I'm here to suggest any method that may lead to an increase in your SAT / ACT score. Remember the following three things:

Firstly, one of the most effective tricks in effective learning is coupling it with something you enjoy. It will create positive associations around your study sessions. Otherwise, studying may become something you resent. If you have a social nature, this may be a great way of making your study more enjoyable - i.e., more effective.

Secondly, regardless of how social you are, varying your study route from time to time is usually a good idea. (Especially for students with ADHD.) It adds novelty to the process and enlivens study time. It's also an excellent way to prevent burnout, a very real risk during any test prep, but especially for as decisive an exam as the SAT / ACT.

My personal experiences: an anecdotal recount

Lastly, and most importantly, teaching actually works. In addition to the experiments and studies which demonstrate this, I'll touch upon my personal experience. I've helped hundreds of students prepare for their SAT / ACT; many of these students, I've advised to teach friends.

As a result, I've seen astonishing leaps of progress. For many students who were stuck, this gave them the boost they needed. If you feel that you have even the slightest iota of talent in teaching, try it. It may just be the factor that ends up making a huge difference in your score.

I'll also note that before I taught SAT / ACT exclusively, I tutored many things: university math and physics courses, as well as certain languages. Tutoring, almost without exception, helped me understand the material better.

If you're feeling burnout or just want a change of scene, grab a friend who's having a little more difficulty than you are. You'll both benefit from the process.

In order to receive notifications when a new post is published, and keep up to date on the most effective ways to maximize your SAT / ACT score, consider signing up to It's totally free, and signing up takes two seconds: just click on the red sign-up button at the top of this page, and enter your name and email.

For more tips and methods, or to get help personally tailored to your needs, consider working with me. I've helped people from all over the world get into their dream school. In coaching you, I adopt my methods specifically to your personality, schedule, and learning style. For this reason, studying privately with a skilled coach is the best way to increase your test score.

Happy learning,



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