George Lucas Educational Foundation
Assessment

A Strategy for Reducing Math Test Anxiety

Letting students discuss a test with peers before they take it can reduce anxiety—and it creates an opportunity to ask deeper questions.

June 6, 2019
Students working together with notebooks and pencils
©iStock/kali9

Let’s face it: A lot of students have test anxiety. How do we change test-taking so that we’re creating a comfortable environment for our students to show what they really know? A strategy called Test Talk, which my late co-teacher Diana Herrington and I created, has helped my students relax during exams. Our students are pre-service elementary school teachers, but since I wrote about this strategy on Twitter several months ago, teachers around the country have let me know how they have used this with their K–12 students (and in subjects other than math).

Four years ago, Diana and I decided to dedicate the first five minutes of the testing period to having our students look over the test and talk about strategies to solve the problems. We would have them put their pencils on the ground so they could focus on having a conversation. Our students were grouped in fours, and they would talk within their group, but I’ve seen videos from other teachers trying this where their elementary students walk around so they can talk to any other student, and I now follow suit.

The purpose of this was twofold: First, we wanted to test the way we taught—students collaborated a lot in our class, so we decided to include some collaboration during the test. And second, we realized that a lot of our students had both math anxiety and testing anxiety.

What This Looks Like in Class

One of my favorite hobbies is listening to students talk about math. On test days, I walk around the classroom listening to pre-test conversations, and they’re some of the best mathematical conversations I’ve ever heard. It’s great to hear students collaborate and problem-solve, all while using mathematical vocabulary. For example, the test question below was to write a number sentence for each figure and to find the equation of growth for Figure n.

Math graph
Courtesy of Howie Hua
A sample test problem that the author uses to generate rich discussions.

As I listened in, I heard comments like these (I’m paraphrasing):

  • I see a big square, with two extra rows and a single block each time
  • I counted from left to right, so I saw a row, a vertical column, a rectangle, then another row
  • I made one huge rectangle that fits the entire shape, then chopped off rectangles until I got the desired figure.

As these students shared their methods, I saw other students listening intently, asking clarifying questions to really understand the math, which is always a plus.

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A Positive Reception From Students and Teachers

When I asked my students for their opinion about this approach, one of them said, “I’m not sure if it’s just me, but I’ve had my fair share of experiences where I question absolutely everything I know in the few minutes before a test. The five-minute Test Talk gives me an opportunity to double- or triple-check my uncertainties with my classmates to give me more confidence and to settle my nerves before taking a test. I don’t see it as an opportunity to try and learn something brand-new right before the test, but more as a chance to briefly collaborate about what I’ve already studied.”

Since I first posted this idea on Twitter, many teachers have shared their variations on it. A teacher named Andre Sasser does her version of the Test Talk in the middle of the testing period—every student has something to contribute since they’ve had more time to think.

Some Concerns

There are many benefits to Test Talk: lowered anxiety, better energy in the room, better products, and great discussions. There are, however, some concerns about this strategy. For example, some teachers are hesitant because it might help to students who didn’t study—and that might encourage them to not study in the future.

I can see that being true on a multiple-choice test, but on my tests the emphasis is on the explanations. And if we assume that we’re going to have students talk before the test, we can ramp up the Depth of Knowledge level so that the test makes students think and collaborate together. For example, rather than write a test question having students compute 24 x 15, we can say, “Show how to compute 24 x 15 in three different ways that promote fluency.”

Overall, I think of it this way: If I’m concerned that students will solve all the problems in five minutes, how can I make the test better so there’s deeper thinking involved?

A potential complicating factor is students with disabilities who need to take their tests in a separate room. What I do for these students is give them the option to join the class for the five-minute Test Talk. If they do, they just walk to their testing room after the five minutes is up.

Measuring Learning After the Test

After the test is done and graded, my students still have the opportunity to prove that they know the content. It’s OK if they didn’t understand it by test day—some may take longer to grasp concepts, and I try to honor that. Because of this, I have students do revisions on their tests—I have them do this on a separate piece of paper so they can refer to their original thoughts. I strongly believe that we learn through reflection, so I have my students finish these sentence starters first:

  • I got this partially incorrect because...
  • I now know...

After identifying what went wrong, they do the problem again.

If we believe that it’s important to meet the needs of all students, how do we create a testing environment in which students are less anxious, especially in a math classroom? With Test Talk, I’ve seen students who entered my class deathly scared of math gain the confidence to bring up great mathematical ideas for their group members to ponder.

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