The Atlantic recently did an article about the similar arousal emotions that are experienced by people with symptoms of both anxiety and excitement. Researchers have found evidence that with many cases of anxiety, simply having people tell themselves that they are excited about an event instead of anxious can change their experience dramatically.
While there are obviously serious cases of anxiety when the answer isn't quite so simple, many of our students who are approaching standardized testing are experiencing some levels of anxiety that we can help them to translate to excitement.
Helping students to shift their thinking from anxious to excited can change their testing experience completely and have positive long term results.
1. Teach Beyond the Test
Design every activity, lesson, and review session leading into testing to be important beyond a single test. If your curriculum all year is standards based and mimics the aesthetics and language of the test your students have to take, students will become comfortable and familiar with that format. Before we can build excitement, students must be comfortable and familiar with academic vocabulary and the format of the exam we are preparing them for.
Testing is standards based and even without direct test prep I know my students are prepared. I strive to minimize direct test preparation in my classroom as much as possible, so when designing my curriculum, it's important to me to mimic test style questions while keeping the content authentic and meaningful.
Grading can also mimic the grading on standardized testing. The rubrics used on exams are standards based, detailed, and often generic enough to be adapted to a variety of genres. I often adapt some of the language so it is student friendly, but keep the basic structure and categories the same.
2. Focus on Growth
When students can see their growth measured through data, they have concrete evidence, no matter what their level, that they are improving. Seeing their own improvement in a concrete, tangible way helps students to believe in their own abilities, not compared to others, but compared to their personal scores a few months earlier. When students can see real growth taking place, excitement is a natural side effect.
Benchmarking, implemented with a growth mindset, teaches students to look at assessments as a measure of growth that they can and should celebrate.
In the fall and winter of each school year, my students take a short benchmark exam that does not count as a grade, but is carefully presented to them as an opportunity to measure growth, assess needs, shift and individualize curriculum, and set goals. They are involved of almost every aspect of the process. It's essential that measuring growth is transparent and student-led.
I use benchmarks because they are standards based, cover a variety of standards that we can measure throughout the year, and are separate from our studies. Benchmarks provide raw data and data that we can use to zoom out to a bigger picture, comparing our results to other schools.
3. Student Led Data Analysis
Complete data analysis with students. Seeing students realize their personal growth, make the connections between their growth and the hard work they have done all school year, and then set new goals based on their learning is incredibly powerful. Empowered students plug into their work because they have purpose.
In addition to personal analysis, share overall class results with your students. We use portions of released New York state assessments for our benchmarks which come with publicly released data. Using these tools, I can show my 7th graders how they measure up against students from all of New York State.
This year, we were already 7% higher performing than students who took the assessment the year before--and I reminded my students that we were taking the benchmark months earlier. We looked at the work we had done leading up to the benchmark that led to our success: independent reading, exit ticket writing, chapter notes, argument writing, and letters about literature. Students were glowing with pride. Pride leads to excitement about learning.
Benchmarking and measuring growth help students to understand the purpose of testing in terms of measuring growth, setting goals, and taking pride in our individual and collective accomplishments. Suddenly the test is not about a score, but about learning.
4. Goal Setting
Personal goal setting is an integral method in building excitement towards testing. When students set goals that are based on specific performance data, write their goals down, and keep them where they can refer to them often, they feel more compelled to do their best.
Think of any sport where the players set goals or even visualize their performance before a competition. Players who set goals and know where they're going head into their sports pumped up and ready to go.
That's how I want my students to approach learning.
After each benchmark, my students set goals and determine actions they will take to strive towards accomplishing them. Together, we set class goals and decide how we will add to or adapt curriculum to help us meet them. Throughout the school year, we refer to our goals and measure progress.
5. Review Sessions and Games
Conducting review sessions the week before testing helps students to feel
confident and prepared for their test. Momentum and excitement builds when review sessions are packed with kids with the same goals (to learn) and students have smiles on their faces because we are playing games and growing together.
I conduct three review sessions the week before the New York State ELA exam. I make sure to create a buzz around review sessions, to make review session content apply beyond our test, and to make sessions as active and hands-on as possible.
To motivate students to attend after school review sessions, my colleagues and I often offer incentives: increased confidence and performance is the obvious, but we also give out A LOT of candy. The idea is to relax, have fun, learn, and build positive associations with the whole testing experience. For students who do not get as excited about their own personal growth, they do get excited about games and candy prizes!
Often, I team up with other junior high teachers and create group incentives if students attend a certain number of review sessions or if our 7th grade has better attendance than the 8th grade. Kids love competition. The buzz created by incentives starts out as external motivation, but quickly the students build skills, confidence, and motivation.
Testing can be a stressful time, or it can be a time to strengthen our goals, our learning, and our relationships with the students we care so much about. Focusing on learning beyond a single test, developing a growth mindset, involving students in meaningful benchmarking and data analysis, and building excitement with review sessions and games can help turn test anxiety into test excitement.
If you have tried and tested methods of preparing students for standardized testing and building excitement, please share in the comments section below.
Enjoy! - Emily