Category Archives: growth mindset

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

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….

Attitude Matters, Everyday…

Attitude – sometimes mine’s not as good as I’d like it to be. What’s my attitude towards my students, towards teaching math, towards my colleagues, my administration, etc? My attitude may change throughout my day, week, year, and over the life of my teaching career. Or, maybe I just lose touch with why I got into teaching and why I decided to teach math, thanks to all the hurdles that seem to toss themselves in front of you.

I actually really like my students and I think my job, teaching math, is really important. But, things get in the way sometimes and my attitude can suffer.

Luckily, attitude isn’t a fixed frame of mind. It’s a changing and evolving beast and while it can get bent out of shape by other things, such as fatigue, illness, tough teaching assignments, difficult colleagues, etc. it can also be straightened back out. We really have control over our attitude. I’ve decided to focus on it for the rest of the month, and see what happens. For a better breakdown of the impact of life’s events on our attitudes, check out this article by Micheal Graham Richard, Growth vs. Fixed Mindset. It asks which one are you, but my theory is that will very likely evolve and shift.

Staying in touch with your good attitude towards your students and teaching is probably the most important thing to do everyday. In fact, I’ll argue the most important thing to prepare each day, before lessons and tests, homework, etc., is our attitude about our students. It will define our approach to problems that arise during the day. It will allow for open mindedness and acceptance when our lesson doesn’t go as planned (especially when it is way below expectations).

My plan is to think of my students as the multi-faceted creatures that they are. They have interests and math may or may not be one of them. My goal is to try to inspire students to enjoy math, feel challenged, but not overwhelmed. Sometimes, this attitude really drives the activities and sometimes I lose touch and get caught up in the ‘listen, take notes, here’s your 20-25 problem homework assignment.’ this is usually when I get concerned about how much I’m supposed to teach them in a year and how little time I feel that I have to do it. I also realize that there’s nothing wrong with notes, lecture and lots of problems. However, that can be a drag for a lot of kids, so I don’t do it everyday, and when I do I try to give lots of class time to work the problems together. Even better, I love it when I can engage them in open questions. I think that’s one of the best times I have with them.

For the rest of March, I’m challenging myself to adjust and refocus my attitude each day, before the kids arrive, and to have some good open questions ready. My hope is, by giving attention to my attitude and this one teaching tool for the next few weeks, these two things will become second nature. I’m hoping my attitude will not only be positive, but will evolve and become better as I open up to outcomes with my students. And, as I open up my questioning. I’m hoping to open my mind enough that I transform my classroom and kids experience for the better.

I think our attitudes are really important and I know I don’t give mine enough attention. I want that to change. I think attitude may be like a muscle and for it to be strong, it needs attention and proper feeding. Otherwise, it feels like I’m sometimes being swayed by the event in front of me, or the person in front of me. I want my attitude to be really strong and drive my response to that event, or that person. Teaching math isn’t easy. So, I need to tend to my thoughts, my views, my attitude towards my students, towards teaching, towards my school, my colleagues, etc.