As the end of the school year approaches, the weight of high-stakes, end-of-year exams can start to feel heavy for you and your students. While we as teachers may not always be excited about these exams, we recognize the reality that they are often necessary for students to earn credit for our courses and move on to the next step in their education. Students also recognize how important these exams are, which can bring with it a lot of stress. Luckily, there are ways you can help students face these exams with confidence and composure–and celebrate their success when it’s all over.
1. Acknowledge Student Emotions and Concerns
Every year, as May and June rolled around, my classroom took on a noticeable energy shift whenever I mentioned the end-of-year math exams students were required to pass to be promoted to the next grade. My students would get nervous, antsy, and say that they didn’t want to take these tests.
To this day I remember that stress I had felt as a student in middle and high school when it was time for exams. I would get myself so nervous, so worked-up, that even if I knew all the answers, I would talk myself into changing them. The days leading up to the exams would feel exhausting and I wouldn’t feel much better when they were over. I knew that I didn’t want that same reality for my students.
The first thing I did to help make sure my students wouldn’t feel drained by the time they got to their exams, was to designate time and space to talk about and work through some of their anxiety. On days where we would review for the exams, I would also make time for students to journal or talk in pairs about how they were feeling. I saw my students grow more calm as they processed their stress and recognized that they were not alone in feeling overwhelmed.
In addition to taking the time to acknowledge how they were feeling, I also took steps to alleviate any unnecessary stressors. At my school, the testing schedule was very different from a normal school day and this change was an added level of uncertainty that my students didn’t need. Before the testing schedule was put in place, I spoke to my students about what their day would look like, how long each test would take, the number and length of breaks, and, for students testing in small groups, what staff member would be proctoring their exam. By giving my students this preview of the testing day in advance, they were able to focus fully on giving their best effort to the exam rather than thinking about the extraneous details.
2. Show Support and Motivate Students
As test day arrives, it becomes increasingly important to explicitly show that you support students and believe that they are ready to give their best effort. One of my favorite ways to show this support, specifically on test day, is through notes to each student. When I taught two classes of about 30 students each, I was able to actually write a short, encouraging note to each student that I left on their desk for them the morning of the exam. Many of my students came to me later and said it was just the boost of confidence they needed!
With a larger class size or number of students, you can still provide a few words of encouragement by typing up and printing out notes for students. Whether you decide to write a few sentences to each student or print out a generic message, students will be greeted on test day with meaningful, confidence boosting, supportive words from an adult that means a lot to them.
While you as the teacher have the ability to show your support, you are not the only important person in your students’ lives. You can leverage your students’ families as another layer of support moving into these higher stress days. Before testing week, I would send home a letter to all families that included the testing schedule and some ideas of how to best support students at home. These included the importance of a good night’s sleep before each exam, recommendations for helping students study, and a reminder to share words of encouragement when students needed them.
As you consider how you want students to start their day before taking a potentially high-stress exam, think about the things that help you feel confident and composed. For me, I always like to listen to music to get myself mentally ready to take on a challenge. In my classroom, I asked students to share their favorite (classroom-appropriate) pump-up songs and played a few before we shifted into testing mode. I could see my students visibly relax and start to get themselves into the right mental space to tackle something difficult.
If music isn’t the best way to get your students ready for testing, you might consider a whole class pep talk or individual pep talks for those that need additional attention. In my classroom, I had a few students that were very close with our behavior interventionist and I knew I wanted them to be able to check-in with him before testing. I coordinated to make sure he could come by my classroom before testing and pull those students for individual pep talks that got them focused and feeling confident.
3. Celebrate Student Success
Finally, once the testing is over, it is important to allow your students to celebrate the accomplishment. While you likely won’t know how students performed on the test, you can still celebrate the fact that they showed up, tried their hardest, and have passed a major milestone in their current grade.
One of the ways my students and I would celebrate after testing was by taking time to acknowledge how far they had come in the school year and set goals for the future. I encouraged my students to journal about the school year and their favorite moments inside and outside of the classroom. Students were then able to share out in small groups and as a whole class to reflect and reminisce on their progress together.
In terms of setting goals for the future, I prompted students to first think specifically about high-stakes testing: How did they prepare for the test? How did they feel during the test? What would you want to do differently and what would you want to repeat in the future? Students could then share these goals out if they felt comfortable. Not only did it help my students to reflect, but it also helped me understand what they were thinking and feeling before, during, and after the test so I could better support students in the future.
If you have additional class time, or if students have more exams in other classes coming up, you can take time to shift your celebration towards a few fun academic activities. I would often allow my students to play Kahoot or Quizizz to review for other courses’ tests. There are many pre-made activities on both platforms that are also intended to be just for fun for students that you can use to break up content review and keep students engaged in a more fun, celebratory environment.
No matter how you choose to celebrate your students, it is just important that you acknowledge their hard work and remind them that, although high-stakes tests can be stressful, they can develop strategies to be confident and composed test-takers.
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Rachel Fuhrman is the Curriculum Marketing Manager at Fishtank Learning. Before joining Fishtank Learning, Rachel spent 5 years as a Middle School Special Education Teacher in New Orleans, LA and Harlem, NY. Outside of the classroom, she has been a frequent contributor to multiple education blogs and focuses primarily on student engagement and instructional practice topics. Rachel earned both her Bachelor of Arts in Economics and her Master of Science in Educational Studies from The Johns Hopkins University.