Digital Age Teaching and Learning

The Not-So-Ugly Truth about Teaching Children How to Take Tests

The Not-So-Ugly Truth about Teaching Children How to Take Tests

It’s time for a vacation, somewhere tropical no students in sight. Are you ready to leave? Fantastic! One little thing, this is your pilot’s first flight, but don’t worry, he’s studied plenty. He knows all about wind speed, velocity, and the history of flight. No one actually taught him what buttons to push or levers to pull, but hey, that’s the easy part right? C’mon, climb onboard! What we expect of this particular pilot is essentially, what we expect from students unless we teach them how to study and how to take tests.  Understanding the material is useless if your students enter panic mode the moment you say, “begin”. They rush through instructions, worried they won’t have time for answers, forget things they knew only minutes before and spend too much time on one question they will probably get wrong instead of skipping ahead and getting points for the things they do know. Giving students a solid base understanding of how to prepare for and take a test will give them a solid foundation for the remainder of their education.

There isn’t enough time to do it all!

I understand, classrooms are full and most teachers spend their precious time locked into the common core requirements. Finding time to add anything but the strict necessities is a challenge, but teaching your students how to study properly and manage test anxiety will only improve their scores and your success rate. Here’s the basic science: The more a student cares about their grades the more stressed they will get about tests. The more stressed they get the more stress hormones are released by the reptilian parts of their brains. When the rest of the brain gets the “fight or flight” message from these hormones it shuts down all other function. The portions of student’s brains that are responsible for short-term memory close the door to access the information you worked so hard to teach.

How do I convince everyone to chill?

  1. First, you must relax. We can be really caught up in getting everything done, making sure everyone is in the right place, and that we have enough time for what we need to do. If you seem stressed, and you don’t even need to take the test, imagine how your students feel!
  1. Spend some time going over best practices for test taking. Read every question over twice; underline important words (give the best example, which two are not involved in…). Answer the questions you are sure of first then return to those that are more challenging.  If you feel yourself getting upset stop and take a few deep breaths. Don’t worry about people who finish before you – maybe they didn’t know very many answers. When answering an essay question restate the question as an opening statement then provide the answer with no extraneous information.
  1. Get them ready before test day. Remind students that studying over the course of many days is far superior to cramming all in one night. A good way to demonstrate this with older students is to explain that they are creating neuropathways for the information. A path is a road, and a road in the brush is created more effectively by driving over it every day, making solid tracks, and crushing the greenery. You’ll never made tracks as deep and efficient in one night as you will over time. Warn them that skipping sleep to study backfires, a rested brain can react more quickly than one that needs a nap!
  1. Give them a few minutes before the test to get out the jitters. In college, one of my favorite professors taught us about the science of brain chemistry and test taking. She told us, and I have no idea if it is true or not, but she told us that lying flat on our backs with our legs up a wall would help trigger relaxation. It looked silly, but every member of our class could be found in various hallways before tests, legs up the wall, laughing and chatting. It may have been a placebo or it may be scientifically sound but whatever the cause each of us who adopted the method brought our test scores up. Give your students that gift, a moment of quiet meditation, a little yoga, perhaps something more intense like some running in place expel nervous energy and warm up the brain. (See this article on movement and learning)

There are endless ways to help students test well, create scent and sound memories to employ while teaching and then revisited during testing to assist in recall, helping each student find the study method that works best for them, and so much more. The most important thing is to give students the tools and confidence to show what they know! Do you have a trick for preparing students for or relaxing students during exams? When did you learn your best study practices?


- Anything used to inspire children to read/write
- Using movement in the classroom to promote health and learning
- Innovative ideas for non traditional learners
- Games as learning tools
- Avoiding teacher burnout
- Incorporating technology while staying connected to individual students  
- The importance of teaching children how to take tests
- Addressing classroom conflict and bullying
- Making the most out of field trips
- Building better teacher to teacher relationships
- Letting kids teach
- Building self esteem and character in students
- Homework assignments that engage 

My interest in reaching out to teachers began when I was working as a nanny. The eldest of my charges hated reading and could not be persuaded to sit down with a book. He was bright and an excellent storyteller but his grades suffered. Over the years we developed various ways of helping him learn material without actually spending much time with books, however, we reached a real hurdle when he was forced to read Hamlet in high school. He tried. but for a non-reader Shakespeare is a tall order. Nothing we did would convince him to sit down and read. I considered the problem and decided to try something new. 

I told him I was watching a new television series and it was really interesting. I began to tell him the plot of Hamlet, only slightly modernized. He was hooked, I brought him to the edge of his seat and when he was desperate to know what happened I told him there was only one way to find out, read the book. We read it together, I needed to interpret some parts for him but he made connections and stayed with it. 

His younger sister attended my biology classes and labs with me when I got my degree from the time she was in 4th grade. She adored science and could not wait to get to her own biology class in high school. The summer before the class she talked often about her excitement. Sadly she got a terrible grade on her first exam. When I checked her paper I found her answer was correct, her teacher simply did not understand the material as well as she did. The teacher knew what the textbook told her and nothing more about the subject, Michaela understood much more and gave a full response, one the teacher had never heard and so marked it incorrect. I reached out to her teacher and explained the situation, instead of being impressed at Michaela’s depth of knowledge and excited to have such a motivated student in her class she became defensive and did not treat Michaela well. This soured the child to the entire field, she dropped the class and never took another elective science course.

This was the beginning of a long road for me of interest in ensuring the educators to whom we entrust our young minds have the tools and dedication to do their best to reach each student. In subsequent years I became a tutor to students from third grade through college seniors. Watching the light turn on in someone’s eyes when they finally. truly grasp something that had previously been a frustrating mystery is addicting, I can't imagine a better feeling. I would love to inspire more educators to chase that moment at every opportunity. 

I will share something completely off topic as I believe I have already shown you my passion for the subject at hand. When I was a senior in college, only 3 months away from receiving my B.S. in Biochemistry with minors in Physics and Psychology, I fell from a retaining wall and broke every bone in both feet. I was told, within an hour of the accident, that I would never walk again. 

After the first surgery to put pins in the foot with lesser damage I spent 3 weeks in a rehab center waiting for the swelling to go down in the other. A very close friend, one of my professors, did not visit. Everyone else did but he stayed away. Finally a few days before my second surgery he appeared at my door, tentative and looking as if he might bolt at any second. 

I coaxed him in and made him laugh as I showed him the trapeze act I'd perfected in order to move from my bed to my wheelchair. He confessed he’d stayed away because he was afraid I'd be too emotionally broken, too sad and he couldn't bear to see me that way. 

I shrugged. He wasn't wrong to assume I'd be dramatic, I’ve been known to throw a fit or two.  What point would there be to any of that? My mind was still in excellent working order, I'd have fantastic parking for the rest of my life and could now roll over the toes of anyone who annoyed me and they wouldn't say a word. 

A year after multiple surgeries I asked my doctor to send me to rehab, I believed I could walk again. He  refused, saying it would only give me false hope. Instead I waited until no one was around and practiced pulling myself up using the kitchen sink. I taught myself to stand, then to walk with crutches, then a cane.

Two years after the surgery I was running on a treadmill an hour a day, losing 100 pounds and in the best shape of my life. 

Life gives you challenges. It's your job to figure out what the lesson is inside those challenges.

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