Students’ emotional states have a profound impact on their ability to do well on any given test. Especially with high-stakes standardized tests, the pressure on students can be enormous. These very limited assessments often reveal who memorized and was able to retrieve the greatest amount of content under pressure, penalizing students who learned the material but were more affected by stress and anxiety.
The good news is that teachers can help students reduce their stress responses and succeed in retrieving and demonstrating what they know.
Promoting Students’ Ability to Remember
Neuroimaging research reveals that high-stress environments disrupt the brain’s learning acquisition and memory retrieval. The flow of information into and out of memory requires that it pass through the amygdala. In a neutral or positive state—when students are comfortable and confident in their ability to do their best—information can pass through the amygdala to get to and from the memory storage and executive function networks in the prefrontal cortex.
In a high-stress state, the amygdala reduces the flow of information to the prefrontal cortex, reducing access to the information stored in memory and providing less guidance from the executive function networks.
With less access to the executive functions of emotional self-regulation and judgment, students are limited to a narrow set of behavior responses: fight, flight, or freeze. They have less cognitive ability and judgment to evaluate test questions and their own responses.
Guiding your students to build emotional and self-regulation skills is a powerful way to help them reduce test stress. One such skill is self-awareness—recognition of the signs that they are becoming stressed or anxious. That recognition is the first step in overcoming amygdala blockage.
Because of the brain’s neuroplasticity, each time you guide students to recognize, name, predict, and consider interventions for their test stress, you help them build stronger neural circuitry that increases their awareness of the interventions they’ve practiced for these stress producers.
Reducing Negative Expectations
Many tests don’t allow students to show what they know—they emphasize recall of memorized facts that don’t reflect real understanding. One of the most valuable lessons teachers can offer students reflects that they are far greater than the sum of their test results and that mistakes provide opportunities.
You can show students that incorrect answers on homework, quizzes, or tests don’t reflect their true abilities by anonymously sharing the errors that top students from previous years frequently made. Give general descriptions of the successful academic or professional outcomes of these former “mistake makers.”
Examples of frequent errors include not looking carefully at what is asked, prematurely selecting an answer without reviewing all the options, not using estimation to see if a math answer is reasonable, and forgetting to check that their answers are in the place corresponding the question number.
Guide students to look for patterns of their most frequent types of errors and to keep these on a reminder list. They should record their progress at making fewer of their frequent errors.
Self-Corrected Practice Tests
Self-corrected practice tests, when well-constructed for building understanding with corrective and goal-progress feedback, can promote stronger neural networks and connections relevant to memory access and understanding at the concept level.
These are not traditional “test prep” practices, but rather guided metacognition. These self-corrected practice tests are opportunities for students to judge for themselves their level of accurate understanding and to evaluate and either revise or reinforce relevant memories.
Self-corrected practice tests build students’ true awareness of what they know, rather than what they think they know. Simply rereading can leave students thinking they understand and accurately remember what they read—they think they understand it at the time of the rereading. However, this is often a false impression, and the text is just temporarily held in working memory. Self-corrected practice tests reveal the weak links in students’ knowledge and provide feedback on their progress. Self-corrected practice tests can be provided at graduated challenge levels to best match students’ progressing knowledge.
Possible benefits of self-graded practice tests:
- Students see current status and changes in how, what, and when they study and prepare for tests.
- With the immediate feedback of mistakes on the test, students’ brains seek to revise inaccurate memories or understandings. When they study again, their attention is alerted when they come to topics where they made mistakes on the practice test.
- Repeated testing guides students to prioritize content to study.
- As the number of correct answers on practice tests increases, students can see the progress they’ve made, enhancing the long-term benefits of self-paced practice.
Tips for Test Day
Prior to starting the test, suggest that students write their frequent errors on scrap paper, if this is permitted, to use as a guide during the test taking and to review again when they check their tests.
Students can create—in advance—abbreviations or anagrams of the pertinent frequent errors they want to remember. To remember the frequent errors mentioned above, for example, a student could use WREN: W (what is asked?), R (read all answers before choosing), E (estimate if a math or science calculation is reasonable), N (numbering on answer sheet).
Some students experience reduced stress and increased memory retrieval if they begin the test by writing on scrap paper, if this is permitted, things like formulas, dates, procedures, and definitions that they think are critical but are difficult to remember when they’re nervous. Their retrieval efficiency for other information will increase as this “external memory storage” reduces the strain of holding information in working memory.
Even the most challenging tests can be approached with a stress-reducing mental state when schools are safe environments and teachers incorporate activities that build students’ emotional awareness, self-regulation, and confidence.