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May 2, 2010
Linda the Math Coach
Author, Consultant, Speaker & Master Coach Go Beyond the Theory. Apply the Research. Make it work!
Alleviate Student Str ess and Get Better Scor es
“This is stupid.” “Nobody knows how to do this.” “You didn’t teach this.” “This is too hard.” Are these the comments that you hear from students as they take their end of year tests? Grounds for discipline, or symptoms of test anxiety? Let’s face it. These are the comments of young people suffering from test anxiety. Such overheard comments are signs that the thinking brain is shutting down and the flight or fight side is taking over. Bad news for those test scores that need to come up! The good news? There are steps you can take to relieve this stress. Even better, there are strategies you can teach students to conquer their own test anxiety. I am going to break down these tips into three categories: What to do all year long, what to do just before the test, what to do during the test. Year Long Practice Long before that big day(s) of testing your students need to be able to shift into test mode. They need to be familiar and comfortable with the procedures of testing. You can begin day one when you give your students the first formative assessment. Make this your first lesson for them on how to take a test. Let them know your expectations. Go over test taking tips. Then observe your students. What part of testing do they struggle with? What is their confidence level? Who needs encouragement? Who needs to sit in an isolated corner to cut down on distractions? Who needs to get up and move every 10 minutes? Who gets easily frustrated? you Address these issues early on and continue to reinforce the same procedures throughout the year. By test time, your students will know the routine. It will not be a struggle to adjust to a one day mode of operation, and they can focus their attention on working the problems, not on where they sit, or why they can’t talk,
etc. etc. Find out early (August 15th) what tools students are allowed to use on the test. Then make sure they use these tools all year long. This could include calculators, rulers, protractors, tangrams, pentominoes, online equation editors, online graphing tools, graphing calculators. Make sure kids know all the keys and how to use them. If they are allowed to use a reference sheet, use that same reference sheet all year long. Make an enlarged version to hang on the wall and model for students when and how to use it all year long as you instruct. Give each student a laminated copy to keep in their math notebook or folder. One year, when my students were earning scholar dollars, I would give $5 to the first student who could recognize a problem that related to a formula on our reference sheet. We had a poster on the wall for each formula and the students would add each new problem they found on the poster and sign their name to claim it and receive their $5. Explain on day one about the brain research related to learning. Teach students about how the “thinking” part of the brain shuts down in stressful or fearful situations. Develop a speech that you use on students who say “I CAN’T.” Start using it on day one and then use it every time students shut down on work. Remember, most people are operating under the false premise that math is supposed to be hard and it’s ok not to understand it. (But don’t get me started on that!) I’ve worked with many students of many different backgrounds, ages, and levels of confidence. It’s not just the low achievers who shut down. Many high achievers will do the same when faced with the pressure of high stakes testing. Your speech gets them out of the flight or fight mode and back to thinking logically. Mine goes something like this: Student: I cant do this. Me: Can’t do what? Student: This stupid problem. Me: What can you do? Student: Nothing! Me: Nothing? Student: Well…. Me: Can you read the problem? Student: yes. Me: Write that down on your scratch paper. Student: What? Me: Write down “read the question.”
Student: Ok (They write it.) (If they balk, write it for them on their paper.) Me: Can you write down the question you have to answer? (They can also underline it.) Student: Ok Me: Can you write down the important information you need to use? (They can also circle it.) Student: Ok Me: Can you pick an operation to try? (Or strategy) By this time, students are already back into the logical thinking part of their brain, and they usually begin to think more clearly. At least they have calmed down and feel more confident that they can think of something to try. At this point, I usually give them a little pat on the back or a thumbs up and tell them that I think they’ve got it now. Make sure to check back with them later with another thumbs up or pat on the back or encouraging word. Think how empowering this is when students realize they are in control of their emotions and can tackle this hairy scary thing called math! You may want to post these steps on your wall as well.
Focus on What You CAN Do! Read and reread the problem. Write the question. Write the important information. Select an operation or strategy. Try it out.
Another very valuable thing you can do to familiarize students with the BIG TEST is to use sample practice questions all year long. Use them in tests and in lessons. Make them in the same format and level of difficulty as the ones they will see in May. In fact, have your students create their own “TEST PREP” book at the beginning of the year. In this book they can collect notes, strategies, and examples of the problems they will have to solve from each unit you teach. Have students write their own items and put them in the book as well. I’ll never forget the time Marlon S. yelled out in the middle of the Missouri MAP test, “Oh my God! That’s my problem. They stole my problem!” Sure enough, it was basically the same scenario that ol’ Marlon had written two months ago about a video store and the late fees they charged. Don’t you know that whole class sat up a little taller and more confident when they understood there wasn’t anything on that test that they had not already thought about on their own? Thank you, Marlon!
Just Before the Test There are many things that you, the teacher, can do just before the test to put your students at ease and create a relaxed but alert testing environment. Be familiar with the test and the directions. READ the test administration manual. Use post-its and markers to note important information. Most standardized tests require you to read the directions verbatim. Practice doing this. If you have ever listened to someone else read these directions and watched the attention of the students, you will notice that no one is listening. It’s kind of like the airline speech just before you take off. The problem is the directions leave out important information that students need to know. Read the directions ahead of time and note what you think they are missing. Then you can reinforce that information as you last minute practice before the test day. Prepare a treat for your students when they finish. There’s nothing like the promise of home-baked brownies sitting on your desk for “later” to entice your class and put them in a positive mood. Put up encouraging messages around the room. Invest in some special cool pencils with positive messages. Make the last day a day to play some review games that include going over test taking procedures and strategies. Make this day fun and easy for you and the students. Design or choose games in which everyone can be a winner versus pitting student against student. Have students help you make up a pre testing huddle cheer. Here’s one of my favorites: “Two, four, six, eight. Let’s show our stuff and celebrate!” Organize all your testing materials and have them ready to handout. Make sure everything is ready to go before you leave your room the day before the test. Have pencils (two per student) sharpened. Have plenty of scratch paper. Have some puzzle sheets or other activities ready for students who might finish early. At the end of each test day, reorganize your materials and have them ready to go for the next day.
During Testing Make your room feel fresh and stimulating. Your positive message posters are up. Your brownies are on your desk. A vase of spring flowers is a nice touch to the table where students will pick up and turn in materials. (Make sure it is well out of the dangerous spill zone to avoid damaging test books!) Keep the room well ventilated. Having the door open is best if you won’t be disturbed by outside noise. If you can’t do this, at least fix the door so that you can open and close it periodically to let old air out and new air in. If you see students looking drowsy, it’s a good sign it’s time for air freshening! Another trick for those sleepy students is to offer them a peppermint and a reassuring pat on the back. Make sure to ask them if they are ok. Sometimes they may need a walk to the drinking fountain to wake up.
You’ve worked hard all year to support your students in building their confidence and understanding of math. You greet them at the door and notice that a few students are antsy and nervous. Those are the students that need to help you pass out materials. Thank them for helping you with this important job. Keep calm! Students pick up their attitude from you. Your prior organization will help you with this. Use your pre test huddle cheer and end it with a double thumbs up and then a hush signal. This is where you will give your last minute pep talk. Make them laugh a little and reassure them of your confidence in them as a group and as individuals. Point out how much they have grown and how proud you are of their growth. Let them know that now is the time to let it shine! Then launch into the directions that you have carefully practiced. Make sure to read them slowly and to emphasize the important words and phrases. Make eye contact with students as you read. Smile like it’s the day that you have been waiting for! Now students begin. Circulate periodically and let students know you are there. When not circulating, position yourself where you can make eye contact with every student. Give encouraging facial expressions to students who look up worriedly. This is not the time to grade papers or plan your wedding. It’s time to keep a watchful eye on your students to reassure them that you are with them in spirit. Should a student still be caught up in anxiety, you will be able to quickly reach them and give them your one minute encouragement speech. You can also allow them to move to a predetermined “chill-out” seat to regain their composure and continue testing. In the many years I have administered and coordinated state tests, I have noticed that student anxiety over tests is due to lack of preparation, lack of self confidence, over emphasis of the importance of the test, or any combination of all of the above. By following these tips you should be able to not only alleviate this anxiety, but perhaps you will also teach students that they are the master of their emotions and their math.
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