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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 about Habits for Studying Math

This year, one of my focus areas is helping kids learn how to study math. It seems that Algebra 2 is a tough year for a lot of students. Students are combining so much of what they’ve learned – geometry, fractions, factoring, solving, graphing – and applying it to learning new and more complicated functions: polynomials of higher degree, rational functions, exponential functions, piece-wise functions, step functions, etc. The list is long!

I’m trying to teach habits that have worked for other students, using students who are successful as a model. However, a lot of the habits of successful students are those that are picked up from and reinforced by parents, teachers and friends. They are habits that they may even enjoy or at least find easy to do, and have likely been doing for years. They are the traditional obvious habits: go to class, take notes, practice in class, finish your homework, check your homework, make corrections, and find the answers to your questions. Finding the answers to your questions is important. You can check the book, online, ask a friend or the teacher during the next class.

What about some not so obvious habits? Maybe these traditional study habits are based on traditional learning styles that work well for traditional teaching environments. What about kids who’ve tried these, but need more? Well, this blog is meant to give some other ideas to try.

Here are some things to try:

  • Sometimes, just reading the question or concepts out loud helps. That’s a technique that’s not always taught. Sometimes, we just didn’t read the question and so we get the wrong answer and can’t figure out why.
  • Here’s a really helpful one that is often not used: look at the material before you come to class. The teacher will hopefully be following some sort of shared schedule and you can look at the topic ahead of time. That way, when you get to class, you have an idea about the topic and you are actually now hearing about it for the second time. This is a good idea as there are sometimes distractions during class and we don’t always have full focus every minute. This is a really helpful habit to use in college.
  • Make vocabulary flashcards.
  • Make a cheat sheet even if the teacher doesn’t let you use it.
  • Read the chapter review section and the practice test problems (back of the chapter) before the end of the unit. Look every week, not just at the end right before the test.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Eat well.
  • Exercise.
  • Be realistic – it may not happen for you just by wishing. Do you need to put your phone in another room while you study? Are you really concentrating? Have you been avoiding thinking about math and avoiding spending time on it? Do you think you can study right before the test and do well?
  • Are you telling yourself positive things or negative things? Tell yourself you can learn, and you can succeed and do well. It takes work, and you can do it. If other people can do it, so can you!

I provide my Algebra II students with a list of habits – some traditional, some of the above – as well as a schedule. I keep getting better at presenting this. Every grading period (we have 3 per semester) I make a new one and each one is better than the first. The first time, I just put the space for them to write the topic, then I included the topics, then I included the topics and the dates. Prior to that, I had a separate calendar sheet, assignment tracker and habits checklist. Now, it’s combined. Attached is the most recent: r3-assignment-tracking-and-self-checks   The second page is the habits/topic schedule and checklist.

I really need to reinforce it, too. I want to spend more time reminding them to check the list.

What do you do that works well? Let me know!

Creating a culture of observation and sharing

I’m really interested in trying to perpetuate a culture of classroom observations with my colleagues at school. I think most of us value the opportunity to observe and be observed, but we are all soooooo busy!

Fortunately, we have had some funds become available for instructional coaching in our district. One of the ways this can manifest is through release time to observe other teachers. I’d be happy to do it during some of my prep time, but not everyone feels the same way or is able to do it during that time.

After some discussion with the coaches, and knowing we have two new teachers this year who would probably enthusiastically sign up for this, I’ve just sent the email, hoping to get back some positive responses. Oh wait… my email just dinged… YES my first yes, “I am interested.” Now, just a few more and we can get this going, right?

What could go wrong? Well, a lot if people aren’t on the same page about observing and reflecting and respecting the vulnerable position of the observed. For help with learning how to be observed and how to be a good observer, check out this Education World article.

I’m really excited about getting this going. I think it can really transform our teaching and our sense of collegiality and support. The main thing is that it’s really best for students when it’s done well.

I can’t wait to write about how it goes…

PS. Check out Robert Kaplinsky’s #Observe Me post

Partner Quiz + Evaluation = Fingers Crossed!

Last week I gave a partner quiz to my Algebra II classes.They liked the quiz and seemed to be highly engaged. The rules were simple. Work with a partner – open note, open book, scientific calculator – all allowed. I was also being observed and evaluated by one of our Assistant Principals. So, I had my fingers crossed that everything would go well.

My job was in the partnering and in giving feedback during the quiz. My goal was to give each partnership feedback as they worked. The feedback came in the form of green dot (correct) or pink dot (not quite correct). Or no dot, if a problem was in progress or not started.

As I moved through the tables with my two highlighters, kids were very excited and filled with anticipation as I examined their quizzes and marked either green or pink. Some errors were small – losing track of a negative or not writing the plus/minus symbols in front of the answer to a square root problem. Those things they could find themselves usually. Other errors were bigger, more along the lines of not fully understanding the question or how to start a solution.

When students were not understanding how to start on a solution or not understanding the language of the problem, I was able to discover this gap and then help out. All students were getting feedback and I was learning who needed more help. The nice part, was that I was able to check in with every student multiple times during class and help them where they were. It felt like a pretty good differentiation strategy on hindsight. I didn’t realize that going in to this activity.

The first round of me going through the room was just to give green or pink dots. I didn’t give much help or feedback beyond that for most pairs. I would approach each pair of students and look only at one person’s quiz. The next round I would look at the other person’s quiz and give deeper feedback as needed.

By the end, I had several pairs of students who had completed every problem correctly. I asked them to help out certain students who were having questions or just wanted to know if they were getting green dots on the rest of the problems I hadn’t checked or on any pink dots that needed to be looked at again. By the end of class, everyone had reached 100% green. Well, almost everyone. Two students returned during our study hour to get some more help and finish up. Then everyone had green dots.

I did ask for feedback about the quiz process. The students seemed to like it and wanted to do it again. I got a couple of suggestions for improving the system of checking at the end. Next time, I’ll give the students who finish early a green and pink highlighter just like mine so they can officially check quizzes of students who are finished and waiting.

So, while I didn’t want to give a quiz during an observation lesson, this type to be good for an evaluation. Overall, I think it was an engaged class period where students and teacher learned in a formative way about mastery of concepts. It was low risk and ended in better understandings for all students. A couple of students reported that they learned from the quiz. Excellent.

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Student feedback

As far as the evaluation part, my Assistant Principal gave me some ideas for managing the quiz differently next time. One suggestion that I liked was about having each student in the partnership have a different version of the questions and the other one have the solutions. That way they could coach each other. I think that would work well for a maximum of 5-10 problems and would be a good idea to use as an assessment activity after a few lessons. I could circulate and listen to conversations and help out with guiding how students could coach each other. I think it would have been too long of an activity during midterm level review (which this was), covering  good deal of content. But, I will use that idea sometime in the next month. It sounds like a great way to have students use and learn the vocabulary, too.

It was a great day for learning in my classroom.

The kids were a bit unruly today…

I take that unruliness as a challenge to work on a more engaging experience for them. Today I was teaching polynomial expression operations, which is, admittedly, one of the more nuts and bolts type of topics and not terribly exciting math. This blog post is about how to find ways to raise the engagement on some of the dryer topics that we cover.

And, what’s ‘dry’ to me means that I can’t readily think of great activities, applications, or problems that engage. 

To create a higher level of interest is to create a higher engagement level. This means less need for a disciplined atmosphere centered on direct instruction when the kids are just not in the mood. Which is often in my 5th period (after lunch) class.

The kids are energetic, they are social and they are comfortable enough that they interrupt, throw stuff and eat candy, throwing the wrappers on the floor, sometimes near the garbage can. God bless ’em. 🙂 I really do love these kids and I have fun with them. BUT, I do have a hard time getting through direct instruction for 20-30 minutes, so it drags out longer, which makes it even tougher for me and for them. Way too much!! Especially for the half of the class that is quietly waiting to get through a concept or problem.

Let me say, direct instruction has it’s place, but it’s not working well for me with this group. So, I need options. First stop: Desmos. What great activities already exist for us?

So many! Here’s a link to the classroom activities that come up when I search on Polynomial Functions: http://bit.ly/2drqtGd and a screen shot of the list. If you haven’t already, please set up a teacher account at Create Desmos Teacher Account and get inspired!

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It think for polynomial function operations, though, I’m not really seeing anything that I could use. Bummer. Hmm… Let me think about a flipped approach.

What if I had thought sooner about this being a dryer topic and had planned in advance? I might have had student preview the material, using a YouTube video or checking out Flipped Math’s Algebra 2 topics. Ah, yes, there it is. Here’s a screen shot of the webpage with a video lesson and some links at the bottom, where kids can print the notes sheet or do an assignment. In the past I’ve printed the notes sheet ahead of time, made copies and distributed them during the previous class.

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At the site, you can click the Semester 2 tab, then click polynomial functions, there’s a lesson for operations. The site provides a student note page that students can print and fill out while they watch the video. This way, they have guided notes, they can go at their own pace, and they can ask questions when they get to class. In class, we can quickly summarize the key concepts and ask questions. They can do that in groups, or as a whole class.

Would this really help in terms of engagement? Well, hard to say, but at least I wouldn’t be trying to hold their attention so long when it’s just physically hard for them to stay tuned. They would get a very similar experience of direct instruction, just when they are not in a group with their friends after lunch on a warm day. So, I think it’s an improvement, but it’s not exactly innovative or exciting. 

Next, if I do the flipped math for instruction, what activity could I have this energetic group do during class? One option is some sort of matching activity. But, wouldn’t it be better to do a live matching activity where they are the variables? Like, everyone gets to be a cubed-x or a squared-x or a single-x or a constant term? Then, I could write problems on the board and they could group themselves as the equation and solution, and maybe make a video, and maybe put it on YouTube and maybe I could tweet it and blog about it. 🙂 Wow, I’m gonna do that next time.

Another option is to create some open questions. Ways to do this include using some closed questions, like most of the text book questions and simply withholding some of the information and/or instructions, then ask students what are we going to try to solve and what information do you need?

If only I had thought ahead. Well, for me, next time as I look ahead in my planning, I’m going to be a bit more proactive for the sake of this particular class.

Direct instruction + Dry topic = Headache by the end of the block. Never again. 🙂

My Classroom Culture Is Shifting

Well, it looks like the past six weeks of having students sit in groups and emphasizing that they work together is possibly paying off. Today, instead of hearing, “I have a question…” I heard “We have a question…”

That was beautiful to me. I had just rearranged the seating chart. At our school, we have moved into our second of three grading periods for the semester. These kids knew to work together with their new partners, and they were doing it. They knew I was pretty much only answering questions no one in the group could answer. They are learning to check in with the other students in the group before asking me for individual help.

I highly recommend this type of group seating and emphasis on student-to-student communication. It’s been so helpful to have students talking to each other about math. This should happen during warm-ups, work times, activities, and class discussions. To get them to start talking to each other, I sometimes ask why something works a certain way and ask them to discuss it with each other. Then, I might walk from group to group to check in with the group. Then I might summarize for the class what I learned from the groups.

Full disclosure: I used to be afraid to have them “Discuss at your tables…” because I was afraid they would talk about other things. And, that was often true because I was letting them sit with their friends. Better to mix them up. I first made a seating chart that was alphabetical. That was helpful to get to know their names and faces and to check off homework and take attendance quickly. Now that I know them better, I mix up the seating thinking about male/female, test scores, personalities, etc. I plan to change the seating every grading period. We have six throughout the year.

Groups are working better than two partners. I think it’s because students have more people to talk to who might know the answer. It’s important for me as the teacher to circulate to each group several times during the class period. I ask if the table has any questions. If there are questions, I ask if anyone at the table can answer. Then, if so, I’ll listen to that discussion and help if needed. Or, I’ll walk to the next group and repeat. I try to only answer what students can’t answer.

Students learn that I’m available and want to help, but can’t take the time to answer every single question from every single student. It’s like an economic situation where the teacher’s time is the scarce resource. Students are learning to make their questions be worthwhile to their group.

 

Demonstrating the Structure of Quadratic Functions with Desmos

I am a big fan of empowering students to look for and make use of structure in Algebra 2. This is most true for me as we work with functions, parabolas, and quadratics.  I’m writing this post about what I’m finding to be an indispensable tool for helping students quickly learn about the structure of the equations of quadratic functions. This tool is easy to use. Simply project the Desmos calculator (use the links below) and activate the sliders.

One of the many great things about Desmos is some of their built in functions on the calculator. Like this one, using vertex form of a parabola:

Link 1: Vertex Form of a Quadratic Function

In this window, you can activate the sliders* individually to demonstrate to students (and share with your math team)  how a, h, and k affect the parabola. You may want to stop the slider and manually slide a to values you want to emphasize with the class (a = 2, 1, 1/2, 1/3, 0, -1/3, -1/2, -1, -2 for instance).

*To activate the sliders, click on the arrow buttons in rows 2, 3 and 4. To stop them, click again, or manually move the slider to any spot.

Next, move to standard form, which is really interesting.

Link 2: Standard Form of a Quadratic Function

I suggest you first let c slide and have students watch as the parabola moves up and down. Ask them whether the shape is changing. Some will think it is, but it’s just an optical illusion. Tell them to look again.

Then, stop c and let a slide. Kids can see how the parabola stretches, shrinks and reflects just as it did with vertex form.

Last, the fun one. Ask them to predict and then tell their partner/group what they think will happen when b slides. Will the shape change? Will it move up, down, left, right? Then, activate the slider.

This is where the math just gets cool. Ask them, as they watch the motion, “What is the path of the vertex?” (it travels along a parabolic path); “What is happening to shape of the graph?” (nothing, it stays the same); and, “What is happening to the y-intercept?’ (the parabola travels through the point (0, c) and the intercept doesn’t change).

I found this to be so helpful to me as a teacher and to students to see quickly what the structure of these equations do. To get to them and many others, just click on the bars at the top left corner of the window for the desmos calculator. There are all kinds of great functions to work with. Here’s a picture I made in paint – screen shot, save in paint, edit with brush – to help you find the drop down menu.

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P.S. I need to create a note sheet for this where they summarize these structures and the impact of the key components. Next week. Yep, next week. 🙂