Test Anxiety and what I do with it

A lot of people have test anxiety and it is completely understandable: you only have a certain amount of time to spill everything you know about a subject and whatever is on that piece of paper determines a big chunk of your grade. I can remember tests that I have taken where I would remember how to do a problem just a couple minutes after walking out of the classroom, which is a horrible feeling. I’m sorry that it took me 53 minutes to figure out the problems, not 50.

Because I teach future elementary school teachers who for the most part, believe that math is their weakest subject, they need to be carefully taught. I want to show them that they can be good at math, and to do that, we have to break down one of those barriers, which is test anxiety. With the help of Diana Herrington, we decided to do three things: either make assessments take-home projects or give students the first 5-7 minutes to talk about the test (with the tests in their hands) without pencils, and always let students buy back points after the tests.

Take-home assessments

Both parties like the idea of take-home tests. I give them 3-5 days to complete a project so they don’t have to feel anxious. With take-home tests, I can ask a little more from them since they have more time to think about it. Additionally, I can use this as an opportunity to extend what they know. Take-home assessments drive the point of “Here’s some information, what can you do with it?” I think it makes the assessments more meaningful. Why don’t we find the area/volume of actual objects rather than bubble in 25 multiple choice questions?

What I like most about take-home assessments is that it takes away the idea that memorization is key to being good at math. Even I used to think that during my bachelor’s. In high school, I was pretty peeved because my friend is GREAT at memorizing, and she would score the same if not better than me on tests. It irritated me because I felt like I understood the concepts better but she would just memorize formulas, which made me think: Does this test accurately assess what we actually know?

Giving 5-7 minutes to talk about the test

If I had to give a multiple choice/short answer test, I would pass out the tests and the students would discuss with their groups how to do the problems. Generally, I give students options (6 questions, choose 5 to answer). Even with multiple choice, there is still a justification portion. I have shared this with some other instructors but they seem hesitant because they see it as the “struggling” students getting help from the “smart” students. Here is my response to that:

Math should be conversational. In what job are you not allowed to ask others for help, or at least a little push? Even if they overhear all of the correct answers, they still need to justify and use precise vocabulary. Honestly, there have been some days where I would overhear their conversations during these 5-7 minutes and I would go to bed with a ridiculously huge smile on my face because these students who claimed to be bad at math are using deductive reasoning, precise mathematical language, and are HELPING each other (which by the way, the world needs more of). In my 5 semesters of doing this, I have never heard a complaint about this from students and more importantly, they explicitly say that it lowers their test anxiety.

In addition to these two ways to lower test anxiety, I also let my students know that they can buy back points after the test is done. This let’s them know that I value their learning even if it means that it took them a month to understand the concept. For revisions, they must reflect saying “I got this incorrect because…” and “I now know…”. Reflection is huge for me, because when they think about their mistakes, the less likely they are going to make that mistake again. Students explicitly appreciate this so much. As a teacher, I’m basically grading everything twice, but I honestly think it’s worth it to instill a growth mindset in these future teachers.

Overall, it is important to somehow reduce test anxiety because students are not performing at their highest if they are anxious. Are we accurately assessing what they know, or are we assessing how they perform in pressure situations?