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Survive and Thrive During Testing Season

Dr. Lori Desautels

Assistant Professor in the College of Education Butler University
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Right now, students across the nation are embarking upon a series of standardized tests following intense days and weeks of test preparation accompanied by anxiety and worry from both parents and educators. Many of these test participants are English as a Second Language (ESL) learners with a wide diversity of learning potential, social and emotional challenges, strengths, cultures and interests. Among these young learners, there are many who put themselves to bed in the evening, get themselves up and ready for school, and do not have breakfast, arranged homework times or adult support to guide their school days.

Researchers from many higher education institutions are sharing the knowledge that "how" we are currently teaching and "testing" is the exact opposite of how the brain is wired to learn. Dr. John Medina, developmental molecular biologist with the University of Washington School Of Medicine speaks of brain rules, principles for how the brain naturally learns, processes and retrieves information. We did not have this research 30 years ago, but we do now. We are discovering that we are not wired to sit for long periods of time learning in sedentary positions, as many traditional schools and classrooms require. Emotion drives attention and learning. As biological beings, we are wired to pay close attention to every stimulus in our environment. The brain always processes meaning before detail.

Testing vs. Stressing

To formulate our response to these discoveries, here are some of the questions that we should be asking ourselves during testing season:

  • Have we created meaningful associations in our testing environment?
  • If a child or adolescent does not perform well on a test, why not?
  • Do we know and understand where the errors were?
  • Was there anxiety in simply taking the test that immobilized the parts of the brain that think, problem solve and discern with logic and fluidity?

Many of our students are walking through our classroom doors in a chronic survival mode, where everyday stress is a waking part of their lives. We know that stress shuts down learning -- there is a definitive cognitive collapse. Perceived stress is as individual as our thumbprints, and its direct impact on the our brain's limbic system directly affects our ability to learn and remember.

Placing emotional connections into the content being taught helps to alleviate the stress response in children and adults. When we weave emotion into the content standards through stories, our own enthusiasm increases as well as that of our students.

For the very first time in the history of this test-taking movement in education, I am intimately involved. Last week, I found myself rushing through fifth grade instruction, neglecting the personal and emotional comments and questions from 11- year -olds in a way that should have demonstrated a "felt presence." I felt pressured to make sure that we spent every minute re-teaching, reviewing and testing their endurance for academic mastery. Then I remembered that the brain is a social organ, and within the context of relationships and felt connections, we learn through the brain-compatible strategies of questions, discussions, reflection, story-telling and modeling.

6 Brain-Compatible Strategies

Connections and relationships created between students and educators are game changers for academic success. What can we do when reviewing and re-teaching to prepare our students emotionally? How can we stimulate an environment where creative thinking, self-efficacy and problem solving are brought to life? I suggest:

  1. We can engage our students by helping them see their own expertise in so many areas within their own cultures and lives. Share with students that these tests are important, but they do not define their personhood or intelligence.
  2. We can encourage and notice every small effort or action that is positive, no matter how insignificant. Create a sheet for positive, on-target behaviors that you notice in each student, and send it home every day during the weeks of test prep and testing.
  3. Share your concerns and stories that invite empathy, letting students know that "you are not alone in your thinking and feelings." This strategy is extremely effective when the dialogue is respectful and neutral with regard to tone and disposition. For example, you might say, "I know how nervous you must have felt before the first part of the test yesterday, as I remember taking my college entrance test, and my hands were so sweaty I could hardly grip the pencil."
  4. We can weave the tested material into stories where we create context and patterns, because our brains are wired for storytelling. For example, if I am teaching persuasive writing passages, I can create my own passage in an area of student interest, and model a story of how I came up with the topic. Or you might compare the topic sentence to the boss of a company like Hershey, while equating the details of the paragraph in the story to the employees in the chocolate factory.
  5. We can take brain breaks, pulling up casual and mutually inclusive class discussions for a few minutes on a popular topic, or read a story of interest together. We can get up and move, practice some deep breaths, or listen to music for five minutes.
  6. We can encourage our students to write out their sadness or worries on small sheets of paper to be tossed in a basket before an assignment or test. Research reports that when we write out any worry or concern before a test, we create space and cognitive capacity in the working memory.

Remember, emotions are contagious, and how we feel at any given moment can be subconsciously mirrored by our students. Be aware of your moods and feelings, and of how these directly impact the dispositions and overall enthusiasm of your students. We are wired to model behaviors even subconsciously, and with awareness, we can shift our perspective, our emotions and our behaviors.

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Comments (7) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Monty Neill's picture
Monty Neill
Executive Director of FairTest

The real conclusion from the research is to sharply reduce standardized testing, end high-stakes, and promote performance assessments. It is not to figure out a way around the research so kids can better survive what should not be inflicted on them.

Dr. Lori Desautels's picture
Dr. Lori Desautels
Assistant Professor in the College of Education Butler University

Monty I agree with you completely! This was a hard article to write because the testing is what it is... and I wanted to give educators something to work with that is tanbible and promotes well-being in the midst of this tumultuous time! Thank you for reading! Lori

Monty Neill's picture
Monty Neill
Executive Director of FairTest

I am glad you agree, Lori, and thanks for your gracious response. I in turn do understand the need to help kids and families facing the tests. What I'd hope is that you would first say testing is the wrong way, but since it is here, we also have to deal with it, protect our children...

Kristine's picture
6th grade Language Arts Teacher, Connecticut

I think the strategies to help make the tests more compatible to middle school students are great. I always find myself similar to the teacher described at the beginning of this post - constantly trying to drill test instructions and reviewing. It is important to realize that the students are just as stressed as we are as teachers. There are many ways to incorporate review and the re-teaching of concepts into different activities, and helping to prepare them emotionally. Thank you for the ideas.

Stacey Greene's picture

I related a lot to this article, as I am working in a high income school where students get tutors if their grades fall to an A-. Their parents and even the students themselves (5th graders) put the pressure on to do well on state tests. I really liked strategy number 3. I tell personal stories to my students regularly and I feel like it helps them relate to me as a person, not just their teacher. That in turn helps them learn more, because they feel personally connected to me, and it really is a win-win situation.

Allison Bennett's picture

Lori, thank you for you post. I am a current third grade teacher who is in the midst of test prep for the April test. All your strategies to emotionally prepare our students will be very helpful. Engaging in brain breaks is huge in my classroom! It is the perfect reset moment my students need to keep their brains focused and motivation high. My students in the fall completed the test in a paper-pencil format but the Spring assessment is all online. Do you have any helpful "brain" tips to prepare my students for the electronic component of testing?

Stephany's picture

I believe educators need less emphasis on standardized testing in schools. Even students in young grades are subject to testing, which is not always developmentally appropriate for every child. Student test scores should not be used to determine the effectiveness of a teacher. By connecting tests to teacher evaluation, teachers are feeling less joy in their profession. Testing, in general, is taking the joy out of teaching for teachers and learning for students. I believe this is making many teachers leave the profession, and those that stay feel added stress. Many teachers start to solely teach to the test and unplanned teachable moments and mini-lessons diminish. In my personal experience, I've known teachers that are spending more time teaching the standards that will be on a particular test because they want the students to do well on the assessments which effect their evaluation. This practice is not fair to the students or the teachers. Nor does it give the teacher the overall knowledge of what their students truly know. What does it matter if students memorize how to do well on the test so a teacher can look good for an evaluation, if they can't apply the skills on the assessment in their own lives? This current format will leave many students behind as adults. I believe that there should be some district created standardized testing given. This will hold teachers and students accountable for what is expected of them to teach and to learn during the year. These assessments should not be connected to teacher's evaluations so the true purpose of them can be implemented fully. These tests should cover all of the standards in the curriculum. There will be no worry about teachers teaching to the test because all standards should be covered during the semester/year and student test scores would not negatively affect the teacher. With this change, students can be celebrated for what they know and teacher can be celebrated for instruction.

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