Snacks, games, songs, and assemblies—I’ve seen it all over the years when it comes to motivating students for high-stakes assessments. I’m not sure how effective any of it is, but teachers are willing to go all out when it comes to testing. Teachers know that these tests matter a great deal, so the extra effort and focus are worthwhile.
I think some of the sentiment is good. Testing is hard, long, and almost always has no feedback for students—at least in the short term. Because of this, testing can be very unengaging.
But we want (and need) students to do their best. We need them work their very hardest on a project that has little direct impact on what they have been doing in the classroom.
So how can educators turn this laborious, dry experience into something positive, meaningful, and maybe even educational? It isn’t always easy. Here are some ways to try to make the most of standardized testing and the challenges it brings:
- Keep it light: We just started testing this week, and I had a discussion with a student who typically doesn’t care too much about grades. Her comment was about how nervous she was for testing—not because of her score, but because she thought her score would “grade” how her teacher is doing. It's great that she’s motivated, but this seems like a lot to put on our students. Teachers should try to find a balance between working hard and keeping the testing in perspective. We want kids to work their hardest, but not stress themselves out. Fun breaks, jokes, and light humor before and after tests can help. Check out some school jokes to lighten the mood and have some fun around the testing season.
- A growth mindset—even if it isn’t about academics: A lot has been written and said about the “growth mindset” and how we can use it to help improve student performance in the classroom. It can be hard to apply these same ideas to a test that students take infrequently and sometimes don’t get feedback on until much later. What teachers can focus on is all the effort, time, and endurance that students demonstrate in the classroom. By measuring “effort,” even if it is just a self-determined ranking coming from the student, the teacher can help the student to grow from test to test.
- Provide feedback of some sort: Along with the growth model idea, teachers can try to provide some kind of feedback to students to help them along in the process of testing. As the teacher circulates and proctors the room, they can give motivational feedback to students who are working hard. Something like stickers on their scratch paper, a piece of candy to help them concentrate while they work, or a kind message on a sticky note can give the student a little extra push to help persevere through the test.
- The testing “to-do” list: Some of our students struggle with planning, forethought, and knowing what comes next. To help reduce anxiety and stress, the teacher can create a checklist or a master “to-do” list for the day or week of testing. By checking off all the activities, the class can feel productive in a situation with (normally) not much of a product that comes at the end. For example, the week can be laid out on the board so that each testing session can be checked as it is finished. Kind of like a Christmas Chain where each link on the chain represents a day until Christmas, the list can provide a pace and a motivation to move on to the next task.
- What did you learn from ____?: At the end of the testing session, each student can reflect on what they learned from the test. Be careful that this isn’t about content—for test security and validity purposes, students probably shouldn’t discuss all of their questions and answers to the teacher. Instead, have the student reflect on what he or she learned about him or herself during the test. How hard did I work? Did I give up easily? Did I double-check all my answers? These reflections can help the student down the line as more tests (ACT and SAT) are taken later in their life.
These are just a few of the tricks that I have seen to lighten the mood around testing and to help students to work just a little harder. Some of these tricks may actually work better than the pep assembly or “snacks for all” type of motivators that many schools invoke. By making the (seemingly) irrelevant more relevant and the (seemingly) unengaging task engaging, teachers can have more productive testing weeks.
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