Category Archives: assessment

Helping Students Deal with Test Anxiety

Sixteen students and one parent just left my classroom after I hosted a math test anxiety workshop. The purpose was to provide some knowledge and insight about how to recognize the cause of their anxiety and to manage it before, during, and after a test.

We discussed what test anxiety is, the causes and symptoms, and then some techniques to manage those symptoms. I used three resources for the workshop (links at end of blog post). Most of the following is primarily from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America at this link. I used some prepared notes as we talked and had students write in causes and symptoms of anxiety, then reflect on what they were experiencing.

Here’s a play by play of the workshop:

Get ready:

First, set up the room with a seating arrangement where everyone can see each other. A circle is best, but tables pushed together to form a square works, too. Have some snacks out and ask student to pass them around and put away phones or homework.

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Provide a handout and let students have space to write down the  information and reflect on their own experiences. Here’s a test-anxiety-workshop-handout with the guided notes sheet I created and a printed article from teenshealth.org  available here. All of the links on the handout are listed at the bottom of this post (since you can’t click on the pdf links).

Encourage students to have a snack and pass the plate of mints (or other snack) around. This gets them to interact on a small (but fun) scale.

Intro: What is test anxiety?

Test anxiety is a type of performance anxiety. Much like a gymnast who has practiced her routine, she will feel nervous the day of the competition. Also, like the first day of school when we, as teachers, meet our class for the first time. We’ve prepared our greeting, have our course information organized and then suddenly get nervous as we actually start to speak. Students feel this during presentations, during competitions, and during tests. A little bit of anxiety can be a good thing. But, when it interferes with your performance, it needs to be recognized, examined and addressed.

Causes:

  1. Prepared or not prepared? If you’ve prepared and feel you know the math, you’ve been successful on practice problems and you’ve completed the assignments, you’ve paid attention during class and understood the material, then you are very likely prepared for the test. However, you may not have done all those things and you may be feeling like you should have studied more. As students walk in the room, they are talking about things you are suddenly feeling unsure of. You may now be feeling unprepared for the test. This may be the source of your anxiety.
  2. Fear of failure and/or the consequences of failing. It’s possible that you have really high expectations of yourself or someone else has really high expectations of you, putting a great deal of pressure on you to perform well on the test. Maybe you think you must get an A or you will not get into that prestigious college. You don’t want to do your best, you want to do THE best.
  3. Prior bad experiences in math or on tests resulting in a negative attitude towards your performance, or the test, or school. These past bad experiences can be causing anxiety.

After discussing these causes, students were given some time to reflect on what was causing their anxiety. It could be from one, two or all of the above. We took about 5 minutes to share out. This share out allowed students to talk and hear what was causing stress for others. They could share their personal specific situations. After the share time, the mood in the room was more relaxed. People were talking to each other about what was bothering them and what they were worried about.

Symptoms:

  1. Physical: headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, sweating, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, light-headedness, and feeling faint. It can even lead to panic attacks which can make a person think they are having a heart attack or can’t breathe. All of these physical symptoms detract from a person’s ability to focus on other things.
  2. Emotional: People can feel feelings of anger, fear, disappointment or helplessness. All of these feeling interfere with one’s ability to concentrate. They can be a consuming. It is hard to simplify a rational expression on a test if you are dealing with these feelings.
  3. Behavioral or Cognitive: Having negative thoughts or comparing yourself to others can cause anxiety. Your concentration is lowered when you are telling yourself that you aren’t as good as others.Are you telling yourself you’re bad at math? Or that you are not a good test taker? Those are negative thoughts and they cause anxiety if you are about to take a test.

Again, give students time to write down their symptoms and share out.

Tips and techniques to manage anxiety

Before the test: (and maybe during for some)

  1. Minimize the susceptibility to anxiety by taking care of yourself. Get enough sleep. Not just the night before the test, but regularly. Eat a healthy breakfast – eggs, oatmeal, something nourishing. Drink water. Get exercise and take time to yourself on a regular basis.
  2. Make sure you’ve actually prepared. Ask your teacher for guidance. Check resources at TeensHealth.org for ideas about study skills. Studying takes place early and often. Cramming rarely results in sustained strong performance.
  3. Keep a positive attitude and remember that this test is not a measure of your worth as a person. Do your best and keep expectations reasonable. When you expect A’s and A’s only, well, that’s putting the highest expectation on yourself that you can. Would you do that to a friend? Probably not.
  4. What would you tell a friend? Tell yourself the same thing. Use positive self-talk. Remember that great 3-pointer you shot, or think about how great your boots look, or how you wrote a great poem, or paper. Think of your favorite song or book. Think of a favorite character from a favorite book and imagine what they would say or do.
  5. Have a reward planned for after the test. Give yourself something positive to look forward to. A movie after school, ice cream with friends, etc.

During the test:

  1. If you notice anxiety setting in, work to balance it. For physical symptoms, take three deep, slow breaths. Then, relax your jaw. Actually let your mouth open a bit, making sure your teeth are not touching. Wait 5 seconds. Then relax your shoulders. Pull your shoulder blades down your back and relax. Place both feet on the floor to relax your leg muscles. Jaw, shoulders, legs. Now relax your abdomen. Now your hands. Put the pencil down and rest your hands on the desk or your thighs. Take 3 deep, slow breaths.
  2. Then, tell yourself how great you are.
  3. Remember to read the directions and questions. Start with an easy problem. Scan the test before starting. Do the problems out of order. Where possible, check your answers. Always try something on every problem. Your idea is probably a great starting place.
  4. Focus on the test, not other students.
  5. Remember to look forward to your reward.

After the test, remember that you did your best. Enjoy your reward. For next time, if you need to study differently, ask your teacher for ideas. If you need more help with managing anxiety, ask the counselors for help, or check out the websites on the handout.

Give students time again to imagine which techniques they can see themselves using. Let them use some space to creat some positiev self-talk messages. Let them think of a possible reward for them selves. Ask them to share out.

Time’s up! Workshop over!

Resources: 

  1. ADAA: Test Anxiety
  2. TeensHealth.org : Test Anxiety Article
  3. Weber University: How to Overcome Math Anxiety

Last minute quiz inspiration

Yesterday, I suddenly decided on a new quiz format. I had been writing a quiz for my Honors Algebra 2 class and I just didn’t like it. It wasn’t interesting or challenging. I really didn’t want to make a second version (my kids sit at tables), and was hoping for several days that some inspiration would hit. Our text has a set of alternate assessment questions, but they are a bit involved.

So, in the 5 minutes before class started, inspiration hit like a tons of bricks.

I let them use the alternate questions, and work in pairs. There are 6 students at a table group and we were covering two chapters. I gave them packets of the questions. There were about 7 questions for Chapter 1 and 6 questions for chapter 2. The guidelines were that they had to answer one question from each packet and couldn’t answer the same questions as the people at the table group. So, that’s a total of 6 questions for the table, three from each chapter, two for each pair of students.

To make it an actual quiz, they couldn’t use notes. They also couldn’t ask me questions. Actually, they could, but they would lose a point. Each question was worth 10 points, for 20 points total. Asking one question would still yield an A. But, no one asked any questions. The kids were engaged and worked steadily for about 35-40 minutes. Most finished, no problem.

I called time at 45 minutes. Some students hadn’t finished. I gave 5 more minutes. However, a couple of groups didn’t get to the second question or had just started it. Uh-oh.

So, as this is a group of motivated, grade-stressed students, I allowed them to come back at lunch or after school or during our tutorial time to finish. They appreciated it, so we were good.

The best part, was in the ask for feedback about the quiz format.

I gave them three prompts:

  • Partner quiz again? yes/no
  • This would have been better if…
  • This was good for…

They unanimously liked the partner quiz because they had another brain to work with. Asking for feedback is gold! Making myself vulnerable was scary. Here I had changed up the quiz in the last few minutes, kids didn’t finish, they were afraid to ask a question even when it would have gotten them to the finish.

Would I do it again? Yes! Overall, it was a positive practice for them and for me. In fact, I’m doing it again today with my other section of that class. I’m happily incorporating their feedback with what I observed to make the following changes for the next class and next partner quiz. Here’s my list:

They asked me to:

  1. Make more copies of the questions – it slowed them down to have to share.Yes. Done. Easy.
  2. Allow questions. Well, I’m thinking no on that, because I think they will ask me a million questions. So, modified practice: they can ask the question. If it’s a fair question, I will guide with no point deduction. If it’s a question about not understanding the content, then I will take a point if I answer. They can ask the question, then I will answer or respond with, “Yes, I’ll answer, but it will cost a point.” Then they can decide if they want the answer.
  3. Give more time. No, but I will advise students to read the entire question before choosing (most have multiple parts) and remind them that they can change the question if they get really stuck. Also, I will be more active in making sure everyone is employing strategies to finish on time.
  4. No one mentioned this in the feedback, but I didn’t give them a time frame before they started. I wasn’t sure how long it would take. When half the class was finished, I announced 10 more minutes. I should have circulated a bit to check on their progress at around 20 minutes to let students know they should start on their second question within 5 minutes, so they have time to finish.

Now, I just have to grade them. That’s nice too, because I only half the number of quizzes to grade. Another teacher benefit from the partner quiz.

Please comment below with questions or ideas or practices you have tried. If you want to know more about the course or text, send me an email.

 

Tough grading moments….

One of the toughest things about grading is when the students with 79% or 89% ask/plead/argue for the B- or the A-. I do round an 89.5% or higher, to the 90%. I think that’s just doing proper rounding, as I like to teach in my classes, as opposed to truncating the grades. [Don’t know what truncating is? You can find out here] . But then, the 89.2% kid asks for the A-, too. I would be inclined if their test scores were in the A range, but they weren’t completing all the assignments, and so homework was dragging the grade down. But, if the test scores are in the B range, and homework completion is bringing the grade up to B+, I think that’s good enough.

I have several students who’ve missed a lot of school, or have ADHD and just don’t complete every assignment, or just never are there or aren’t organized enough to present the assignments for credit. If they have high test scores, I’m inclined to round their grades towards those test scores. However, high homework scores with lower test scores are not a compelling argument for me to round the grades higher, even though that’s the request I get a lot.

We just had final exams, another tough grading challenge. I think it’s normal for students to score about one grade lower on the final exam than their unit test scores. And, when that happens, I usually let them keep the grade they earned prior to the exam. An example would be a student who had a B in the course, earned a C on the final, bringing their grade to a B-. I would be inclined to let them keep the B. But, if they score low on the final (a D or an F), I do let the grade drop, but not by more that a half a grade. And, if that same student with the B earned a D on the final, they would end up with a B-. They see the B part and are still feeling content, I think. However, if a student had a B- to begin with, scored a D on the final, and ended up with a C+, they will see the C and possibly (probably) be upset about the outcome. The difference in the GPA would be the same (0.3 points) but, suddenly, the letter B to the letter C is very noticeable. That’s when I get the email with the ask/plead/argue message. Sometimes the parents get involved, too. But, I have to stick with my convictions on the grading in these situations.

My grading policies and decisions around tests versus homework and semester grade versus final exam grade are pretty generous in my opinion. Many teachers let the computer calculate the grade based on the settings for the weights they decided at the start of the semester. Many others make exceptions, too.

In addition to the above rules of thumb around my grading decisions at the end of the semester, during the semester I’ve been known to drop some low scores when the class doesn’t do well on a quiz. I think that I didn’t teach them very well when that happens, and we revisit the material.

Algebra 2 is a hard class and not everyone will get an A, even if they usually get As in other classes or in prior math classes. This is one of the tougher lessons for high school students to learn. They are hitting a level of math that really requires studying, critical thinking and perseverance for the longer, more involved problems. They aren’t all ready for that level of problem solving. Even if they are, the course is content rich, meaning there is a lot to learn and a set amount of time in which to learn it.

Students are busy with tough course loads, sports, hobbies or jobs, and social and family activities. Many students don’t have adequate time outside of school to study as much as they need to in order to get the grade they want. Others make sacrifices and get every assignment done every day. They come in and ask questions after they’ve tried to figure things out on their own. Some ask questions immediately without giving themselves time to try a solution, because they are used to the quick answer or they feel pressed to get the questions answered quickly, without a deeper understanding for when the next question comes. In learning math, you learn so much from making mistakes and trying new approaches. Especially at this level. But, I think that requires a level of calm and concentration that many teens aren’t used to. Trial and error are involved. I try to talk abut this to my students when I can.

Some people may wonder about the purpose of the final. Well, I think it’s important to review what they learned over the year. I think it’s important to have a idea of what they’ve retained and to remind students what they need to know for the next course. I think it’s good for them to have an idea of what they remember and what they may need to re-study. And, I don’t let the final exam kill their grade. I think that’s the bad part about finals, which is why I have some of the policies listed above. A final exam can bring a student’s semester grade down much more than it can raise it.

I plan to include these grading philosophies and practices, and study tips and techniques for retention and deeper understanding in my beginning of the year mini-unit next year. I introduced the idea in my blog post  Summer reading, relaxing and revamping…. and will post it when it’s done.

Comments, experiences, input welcome…

Teaching Past Grief and Cancer

Well, I had my surgery and I’m back to school. I’m fine. I have a few stitches and a small band-aid on my nose. This picture is with my husband, Doug, right after the surgery. We went sunscreen shopping.

I let kids knwp-1462574706701.jpgow the truth if they asked about it. It was almost always greeted with, “My mom had that!” or someone else they know. Then they told a little story about it. I smiled and said, “Yeah.” Then we got back to the math.

After blogging about things going on with me outside the classroom and how they subtly impacted the classroom in Teaching Through Grief and Cancer, so many people said wonderful things and shared their experiences. Most comments reminded me of the resilience and acceptance of my students. They were right on.

What prompted me to write about it, well, in fact, what stared me in the face making me very aware that I had not managed to make my absences seamless for my students, was when I gave a test and almost no one finished. That really surprised me. I gave the test last Thursday. Only a couple kids finished. At the end of the period, not sure what to do, I told the kids to go study, come in for extra help if they needed it, and continue with their test on Monday. Many of them still didn’t finish on Monday. So, I let them finish today. Turned out, I was giving a three day test over a week long period. That had never happened before. 

One of the unplanned benefits was that they were very motivated to study and knew what to study. Plus, the test wasn’t easy. It was on circles, secants, tangents… with lots of formulas and relationships and complicated diagrams. I’ll probably still end up curving the grades.

I also learned that I didn’t need to hold back on testing because of my absences. I had delayed their test because I had been absent so much. For my Geometry class, I had created a flipped unit, which began the day my dad passed away. I wrote about it here Flipped Circles Unit in Geometry and thought I had done a great thing by flipping the unit, making my absence a non-issue. Never mind that it ended right before a week break. When the kids came back from break, they’d probably forgotten much of what they’d done. Plus, some said the videos weren’t helpful. But, I was also hearing that from just a few kids.

So, we reviewed for a couple of weeks – three more absences for me, then we finally took the test. As described above, it didn’t go great at first. A week later, everyone has finally taken it. And, I missed two more days. That’s okay, though, I gave a final exam review packet. Actually, I gave lots of misc review materials when I was out this semester.

I wonder if the sporadic review packets also had the students going in too many directions. But, isn’t that also spiraling? Hmm… where’s the sweet spot on that? I certainly didn’t get there. That’s a great topic to research: disjointed and sporadic versus ‘spiraling.’ 

Anyway, I’m not blaming myself. Many of the absences were beyond my control. And, I think giving the test over several days ended up being a great differentiation strategy that I would possibly use again. They didn’t memorize the problems and all share the answers, as one might fear. They went away and studied. They came back and asked great questions. So, I think it all is turning out really well.

The last month of school looks good. There will be continuity and plenty of time to review. Everything seems like it’s getting back to normal. I’m so grateful for the ability to blog and reflect and interact with others about this. My spirits have totally lifted from the experience.

Thanks to Dan and Erin and Julie for your kind words on your comments. Thanks to all the friends and colleagues who stopped by today or asked how I’m doing. And thanks to all those friends and family who sent kind words on Facebook or through messages. Putting personal stuff out there is generally outside my comfort zone. I really meant to talk about how it was impacting my students. I didn’t think I would get such a personal response from others. The benefits were really beyond what I expected and I didn’t imagine that I would hear from so many people with similar experiences. I heard from old dear friends and felt the support of strangers. That is really wonderful.

Feeling grateful….