Teachers: Prepare YOURSELF for Testing Season

We don’t need to tell you that the testing season is stressful for educators. Not only are you trying to ensure that your students are familiar with testing procedures, but you’re also wracking your brain to make sure you haven’t forgotten to cover any critical content. Not to mention trying to keep students’ stress levels in-check so they can perform their best and ensure parents are kept in the loop. With as much as you have going on, it can be easy to forget about one little thing: yourself.

Yes, believe it or not, your human nature is not suspended just because it’s time for assessments. And you know that deep down you won’t be on top of your game unless you’re taking care of yourself. So, educators, here are a few healthy reminders to help you stay sane through another testing season.

1. Prepare your class early

Being the ever-prepared, organized educator that you are, you probably already have a good idea of what assessment day will look like at your school. If you’re back in the classroom, maybe you have to cover up or remove all your decorations from the walls, bring students to a designated testing space, or swap classes with another teacher to proctor their students. One way or another, it’s more than likely that testing day will break from your regular daily routine, which could really throw off your students. After all, how would you feel if you’d had the same instructor in a classroom you knew every inch of teaching you everything you needed to know for a test, only to be put in an unfamiliar room with a different teacher on the day of that exam? It’s easy to see how this could be a little jarring.

Avoid throwing everyone off the morning of test day by easing yourself and your class into things. If you already know you need to change your seating arrangement for testing, do so as soon as you can. The same goes for if you need to take down any decorations or cover any bulletin boards. Start doing this at least a week before testing so your students have time to understand why the walls have changed. If you know your students will need to be proctored by another teacher during testing, or that you will need to proctor another teacher’s class, arrange time in the week prior to testing where you can swap classes for a little while, so your students have time to adjust to someone new, and can feel comfortable testing with that teacher in the room. Taking all these steps in advance will not only help your students to feel more relaxed on assessment day but also remove any last-minute stresses over preparing your room the night before.

2. Practice self-care

It’s not just a trend—it’s a real thing and it’s important. Self-care is any activity done to deliberately tend to our mental, physical, and emotional health. The key to self-care is that it must be something you actively plan, not something that just happens. In the weeks leading up to assessments, when you really start to feel stressed out, schedule in little breaks for your favorite hobbies. Even doing something as simple as going for a walk, planning a favorite meal, or blocking off some time to speak to a friend can help you feel calmer and more in tune with yourself.

No matter how hectic things might get during testing season, there is no reason why you should not be able to take an hour to do a little something you enjoy every day. Making this a priority helps to center yourself so you can be on top of your game for your students. After all, as you probably know by now, your students feed off your energy in the classroom. When you’re taking care of yourself and coming in each morning energized, you’re inspiring them to do the same.

3. Keep yourself healthy

If you are back in the classroom for assessments, you’re probably already doing everything humanly possible to keep your classroom a germ-free zone, but it never hurts to keep disinfectant wipes and an extra bottle of hand sanitizer around, and have another talk about hygiene with your students. Not only do you not want kids off sick, but you also don’t want to become unwell yourself.

Just to be safe, you should also probably revisit your sub-folder or back-up plan in case something unexpected comes up, so you can feel comfortable knowing you’ve left things in good hands.

4. Ensure you’re over prepared

There are certain unavoidable things in life and you can almost bet that someone will not have a pencil with a functioning eraser on assessment day. At least a week before testing, stock up on extra scratch paper, pencils with good erasers, a few boxes of granola bars, and any other supplies that would be useful. If you normally keep a supply of back-up testing necessities in the classroom, make sure it is well stocked and ready to go. You don’t want to find yourself making a late-night run to grab an extra box of pencils only to find out every other teacher in your area has had the exact same idea! The more you can do in advance to prepare yourself for assessments, the less stressed you’ll feel when the testing day comes.

5. Spread out reminders

Keeping parents and students in the loop about testing schedules and procedures makes a big difference. But, just like cramming for a test the night before doesn’t work, reminding your students and their caregivers of test times, what-to-bring-lists, and question strategies the night before an exam won’t give them enough time to really digest the information. Instead, send home any pre-testing literature several weeks (or more!) early, and provide occasional reminders after that. Then, consistently reserve a few minutes during morning class announcements or before the end of the day to review testing info with students. Consistently exposing your students to this information can really help them feel more confident and focused by the time test day comes around.

It might also be helpful to engage with your class about how they are feeling and what their stress levels are like around assessment time. Some students, especially younger ones, might feel nervous or anxious taking a larger exam for the first time. Other students might not see what all the fuss is about. If you have students in your class who are majorly stressing out, there are a few things you can do to help them cope with test anxiety. Remind your students that you are proud of them for all the hard work they’ve done over the school year, and give yourself a pat on the back for all you’ve accomplished, too. 

5 Proven Methods to Get the Most Out of Practice Testing

Practice testing has been proven to be one of the most effective learning techniques. In fact, the cognitive psychology term “testing effect” was coined several decades ago to refer to the finding that taking practice tests on studied material promotes greater subsequent learning and retention on a final test as compared to relying on more common study strategies. Because of the effectiveness of this learning technique, many educators are incorporating more practice testing into their instruction. However, since the term “practice testing” refers to various retrieval-based learning activities that occur under various conditions, it can be hard to know how to put this technique to use most effectively.

The Research

To help educators get the most out of practice testing, three researchers, Olusola Adesope and Narayankripa Sundararajan of Washington State University and Dominic Trevisan of Simon Fraser University, conducted a meta-analysis of the current research available on the effects of practice testing to determine how the magnitude of the effect differs based on different factors. They analyzed a total of 118 articles involving 15,472 participants and published their findings in February of 2017 in a paper called Rethinking the use of tests: A Meta-Analysis of Practice Testing.

The paper explores a variety of interesting information about practice testing, also referred to as retrieval practice. Here’s a summary of some of their most useful findings for educators looking to use this technique to improve student achievement.

Which practice test formats work best? 

  • Mixed format practice tests (which incorporate more than one question type) proved to be the most effective, even if the practice test and the final test only had one question type in common. The researchers postulated that this was likely due to the use of interleaving, which requires students to load different cognitive processes and resolve the interference between them, leading to better long-term retention and transfer.
  • Multiple-choice practice tests emerged as the most effective single format. The researchers discuss that this may be because multiple-choice questions are less cognitively demanding, and research suggests that less demanding retrieval practice activities promote stronger retention because they allow students to focus all of their cognitive energy on a simple task.
  • The benefits of practice testing were greater when the practice test and the final test formats were identical rather than dissimilar (assuming the practice test and final test utilized only one question type). This is due to a phenomenon known as Transfer-Appropriate Processing, which suggests that memories are easier to retrieve when the retrieval process is similar to how they were encoded during an initial learning activity.

How many practice tests should students take? How much time should pass between the practice test and the real test for maximum impact? 

  • Conducting several short practice sessions distributed over time enables long-term storage. This method utilizes distributed practice, a high-utility learning technique.
  • One full-length practice test was proven more effective than taking two or more full-length practice tests within a short timeframe.
  • For maximum effect on the final test, the full-length practice test should be taken between one and six days before the final test.

How helpful is feedback?

Based on the research, a practice test followed by feedback did not yield significantly higher testing effects than practice tests without feedback. This does not necessarily mean that receiving feedback does not aid students in retention, because there are several individual studies that show that practice testing plus feedback is more beneficial than practice testing alone. But, there is not enough research that examines the different types of feedback and how that feedback is given to determine the true effectiveness of feedback. Therefore, students can be encouraged to use practice testing as a learning technique whether they will receive feedback or not.

Which types of students benefit most from practice testing? 

  • The studies considered in this meta-analysis mostly used samples of postsecondary students, but a significant amount used samples of primary or secondary students.
  • Secondary students benefited the most from practice testing, followed by primary students, and then by postsecondary students.
  • Practice testing was highly effective as a learning technique for all three groups.

How can this information be applied in the classroom?

Based on their findings, the researchers discuss several ways that educators can incorporate more retrieval practice into their classrooms:

  • Increase the number of low-stakes quizzes on material students need to retain.
  • Incorporate more formative assessment questions into lectures.
  • Increase wait time after asking the class a practice question. Instead of calling on the first student as soon as their hand is raised, wait long enough to allow all students to process the questions and come up with a response so that all gain the cognitive benefit of the retrieval practice.

Using Classroom Culture, Test-Taking Skills, and Mindfulness to Overcome Test Season Stress

Testing season comes and goes every school year, and each year, it brings a mixture of emotions and challenges for both educators and students. This year is no different. In fact, it is actually providing some never-before-seen stressors centered around the uncertainty currently looming over testing season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To help you calm fraught nerves and ensure that students are successful with high-stakes exams, we’ve put together our favorite tips on cultivating a productive classroom environment, teaching effective test-taking strategies, and leveraging mindfulness as your test-prep secret weapon.

Set the Tone for Testing Success

Your students are always playing “follow the leader,” even when they don’t realize it. As an educator, you spend a lot of time with your class, and students will naturally look to you as a model for behavior. If you let stress get the best of you during standardized testing season, there’s a good chance your students will mirror that stress. Here are four ways to make your classroom (whether that’s virtual or in-person) a low-stress environment.

1. Build trust

Every educator knows that relationships are at the core of teaching and learning. By focusing on those close relationships with your students throughout the school year, you’ll build up trust that can make the testing season a much smoother time of year. Ensure that students are clear on classroom expectations, and avoid surprising them with unexpected quizzes or assignments. When students know they can count on you and can go to you with problems, those are the first steps toward a positive classroom environment.

2. Admit that test stress can be a problem

Test anxiety (especially this year!) is a real thing, and it’s OK to talk about it with your students. Ask students how they’re feeling about upcoming exams, and acknowledge it. Bear in mind that test anxiety won’t look the same in any two students, so make sure that you’re familiar with all the symptoms. Keep an eye out for physical or behavioral signs, and take the time to understand the sources of different students’ stress. It’s also beneficial to make it a priority to communicate with classroom families, caregivers, and other school staff about test anxiety and the impact it has on student performance during standardized testing. The more support you can offer students, the better their exams will go.

3. Keep things in perspective

In the grand scheme of things, no single test is going to define students’ academic careers or have that significant of an impact on their future. After all, it’s just one test. As an adult with years of life experience, chances are you can grasp this reality more easily than your students. So, make it a priority to share this perspective with your students regularly, and offer plenty of gentle reminders that no test defines how smart, successful, or worthy they are. It may also be helpful to acknowledge how proud students should feel that they have continued to make progress during an incredibly challenging school year, unlike one anyone has experienced before.

4. Maintain positivity

A little positive thinking can go a long way. Instead of focusing on all the material that still needs to be reviewed (or how tough this school year has been), remind your students that you believe in their abilities and encourage them to apply their best effort. As test days approach, keep the mood light in your classroom by infusing fun into review exercises, celebrating students’ hard work, and making time to ask students about life outside of school.

Focus on Effective Test-Taking Strategies

Test-taking is, without a doubt, a skill that can be learned. And by treating it as such in your classroom, you can help students overcome self-doubt and do their best when the testing day arrives. Make time in your test-prep schedule to focus on these test-taking strategies in addition to standard content review.

  • Work with students to build a personal study schedule
  • Familiarize students with the format of the test, including technology-enhanced items they may encounter
  • Help students break down complicated questions or problems into discrete tasks
  • Introduce mnemonic devices as a way to help students remember terms and concepts
  • Coach students to read each question entirely before answering
  • Focus on time management, and encourage students to skip over questions they don’t understand and return to them at the end of the test as time allows

Take Inspiration from Mindfulness Approaches

Undoubtably, this is not the first time you’ve heard about the value of mindfulness when it comes to managing stress. Simple strategies, both while you’re preparing for tests with students in the classroom and when students are actually taking their exams, can go a long way toward ensuring that students are able to fully demonstrate their knowledge. Here are six of our favorite mindfulness strategies to start with.

1. Create a “calm down spot”

Designate a quiet corner in your classroom where students can go when they need to take a few moments to calm their anxiety. Make sure that your “calm down spot” has comfy seating, and stock it with sensory items like fidget spinners, stress balls, and headphones for calming music. You can also hang up posters with breathing exercises or keep a stack of reflection sheets for students to journal about their feelings. If your students are learning virtually from home, suggest to them and their families that they make their own “calm down spot” where they can go if they need a moment.

2. Show students how to breathe mindfully

Focusing on breathing is so simple and effective. Teach students some basic mindful breathing exercises that they can use anytime, anywhere (including during tests!) to help them calm down and be more present. Even having students simply place a hand on their stomach to observe how it expands and contracts with their breath can have a significant calming effect.

3. Lead guided meditations

Guided meditation can be a great tool to help students calm down and focus on the task at hand. Try leading your students in a simple, short (5-10 minute) guided meditation to kick off test review sessions—you can even incorporate some visualizations of what success on their upcoming test will feel like.

4. Encourage mindful coloring

Not every moment of the school day needs to be dedicated to intentional review and test preparation. Coloring, especially using mandalas and other pattern sheets, can be a great way to give students a mental break, decrease anxiety, and improve focus.

5. Come up with a mantra

We all have a continuous stream of self-talk, and that inner monologue can have a huge effect on stress levels. Working with your students to come up with a classwide or personal mantra to use during their test can be a great approach to help students manage their thoughts, maintain that critical positive attitude, and stay focused.

6. Motivate students to move

Humans aren’t designed for endless hours of sitting at desks—so is it any surprise that students tend to get anxious and fidgety in the classroom? Try incorporating movement into your classroom routine when preparing for tests to give students a much-needed break.

10 Classroom and School Tips to Improve Test Scores

As your test day approaches and anxiety ramps up, you may think that there’s nothing more you can do to prepare your students for test day. But, there are always ways to support students. Here are ten tips to ensure that they have every chance to succeed!

1. Prepare students for the test itself

Tests change even more often than standards, based on such things as contractor changes, technology upgrades, and other factors. Make them test demos available to your students, and ensure that students know how to navigate any software that is needed. This is particularly applicable to math, where helpful tools like calculators may be hidden under a button or setting.

2. Benchmark your learners

Conduct one more benchmark assessment before the testing season to ensure that there isn’t one last topic in which everyone can improve with just a bit more practice. You’ve done a lot of benchmarking up to now, but things often change quickly during the school year.

3. Leverage your valuable data

Look thoroughly at your data to ensure that there isn’t something missing from your students’ skill sets. In fact, bring in the students so that they understand the skills they need and learn where they must progress in order to score well on the test itself. 

4. Motivate students with incentives

Students aren’t typically known for intrinsic motivation, and a lot of practice can test their patience even further. Whenever possible, make practice a game, and offer consistent rewards to keep the students motivated.

5. Practice previewing

Previewing test sections before answering questions can be a valuable skill on test day, saving time and closing gaps of understanding. Although it’s great to practice previewing in the context of a larger testing item, devoting some time to previewing itself can help all students get the point. 

6. Let parents help

Although local news reports may run the occasional story about upcoming testing, parents won’t know what’s going on with their individual children unless you tell them. Keep them informed of the schedule, the process, and the preparations the class is taking. This enables parents to have meaningful conversations and help with test practice.

7. Create a positive culture

Help students set some goals and then never let them act as though they won’t reach those goals. Celebrate every little success during practice, and model that culture for other students as well. This encouragement can alleviate much student anxiety when test day comes. 

8. Practice, practice, practice!

The cliché is true: practice does make perfect. Create a review plan that provides multiple chances for students to practice not only the content they will need to know but also the testing format. Ensure that your plan includes modalities beyond taking practice tests—games, writing, and speech exercises can help students retain information and gain a deeper understanding of concepts. The more exposure that students have to the material and testing environment, the more confident they will be when the testing day arrives.

9. Be the students’ “catering manager”

On testing day, students’ minds are in their stomachs. Research has proven repeatedly that hungry students perform more poorly on tests than those who are well fed. Come to testing day with granola or energy bars if you can, and ask parents to try to do their best on the home front.

10. Keep students moving

Much like a rumbling stomach, an aching back or neck can have a negative impact on a student’s score. Spend some time showing students proven seated stretching techniques and breathing exercises. If the test offers a break period, encourage students to use it to move around, and not stay seated in the same place.

8 Tips to Help Your Child Prepare for High-Stakes Tests

No matter what your personal feelings on high-stakes testing are, there is no escaping the reality that these assessments will be an important part of your child’s academic experience. And, everyone wants to see their child experience success in the classroom. So, what’s the best way to help your child prepare for high-stakes tests—and ensure they keep a positive mindset while doing so? Here are eight simple tips for parents to help your student perform their best on testing days.

1. Prioritize attendance and homework

Tests are ultimately intended to be a measure of how well students have learned the material being taught in class. With that in mind, the best (and most straightforward) piece of test-prep advice for caregivers is to do what you can to ensure that your child is fully engaged with their classwork throughout the year. Set aside dedicated homework time each night to ensure that your child is completing their assignments consistently throughout the year. It’s also a good idea to regularly reflect on your family routine, and make sure you and your child are keeping a schedule that gets them to class on time every day, whether it’s virtually or not. If your child is absent for a day or has to miss a class period, check-in with them to ensure they can make up what they missed.

2. Communicate with teachers

Regular communication with your child’s teacher can help you gain valuable insight into their progress. Make a point of meeting or talking with them on an ongoing basis to understand what they’re working on, what they’ll be tested on, and the areas that they are excelling and struggling in. Your child’s teacher is also a great resource for test-preparation practice and strategies you can use with your child at home. Plus, they can keep you up to date on group study sessions and other opportunities that your child may benefit from.

3. Talk to your child about taking tests

The purpose and goals of testing are not always obvious, even to the students who take them. Especially with new test-takers, it’s easy to be intimidated by testing or simply not feel motivated to put forth a lot of effort. Have open, ongoing conversations with your child to explain the benefits of testing, focusing on how it helps them, their teacher, their school, and fellow classmates to understand their strengths and weaknesses and figure out the most effective ways to teach. You can also use this opportunity to ask your child how they feel about testing, and offer reassurance and perspective if they have any anxiety around exams.

4. Offer positive reinforcement

A little encouragement can go a long way in helping students walk into testing days feeling confident—which, in turn, can have a huge effect on their performance. Praise your child for the work that they have done to prepare for testing, and share in their excitement when they succeed with a new concept or skill. Similarly, when they are struggling with a topic, point out the progress that they’ve made and encourage them to continue working. Having already experienced success with the material that they will be tested on will help your child avoid test anxiety and perform to the best of their ability.

5. Support healthy habits

Sleep and nutrition can have a big impact on your child’s ability to focus and retain information. One of the most beneficial things that you can do as a parent or caregiver, is to focus on supporting these needs. Well-rounded meals and a regular sleep schedule will help your child succeed in the classroom on a day-to-day basis. On testing days, it’s particularly important to ensure that your child gets a good night’s sleep, starts the day with a filling breakfast, and goes to school with a water bottle to help stay hydrated.

6. Give your child a study space

A comfortable, dedicated space for homework and studying can work wonders for your child’s productivity. Make sure that your child’s space is quiet, well-lit, and stocked with the right materials. For example, a writing surface, pens, pencils, highlighters, scratch paper, a calculator, and any other tools that they might need.

7. Keep testing in perspective

No single test is that important. Avoid putting too much emphasis on your child’s test scores—doing so can make your child feel pressure that will ultimately only affect their performance negatively. It’s also important to not be upset by a single test score. Low test scores can occur for any number of reasons; it may have just been an off day for your child.

8. Debrief after the test

After the testing day has come and gone, talk with your child about their results and how they felt about the test. By discussing their answers, thought processes, and feelings, you can gain further insight into what they are struggling with and excelling at and then help them to better prepare next time. Talking about testing can also help your child process the experience and overcome any anxiety that they may have had.