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[High Stakes Testing] Using Classroom Culture, Test-Taking Skills, and Mindfulness to Overcome Test Season Stress

[High Stakes Testing] Using Classroom Culture, Test-Taking Skills, and Mindfulness to Overcome Test Season Stress

The education community is making significant strides when it comes to testing—the pitfalls of over testing are being recognized, students’ many learning styles are being acknowledged, and alternative forms of assessment are making appearances. Despite that progress, it’s still spring, it’s still state exam season for a majority of students and educators, and it’s all still stressful. To help you calm fraying nerves and ensure students are successful on high-stakes exams, we’ve put together our favorite tips on cultivating a productive classroom environment, teaching effective test-taking strategies, and leveraging mindfulness as your test-prep secret weapon.

Set the Tone for Testing Success

Your students are always playing “follow the leader”, even when they don’t realize it. As an educator, you spend a lot of time with your class, and they will naturally look to you as a model for behavior. If you let stress get the best of you during standardized testing season, there’s a good chance your students will mirror that stress. Here’s four ways to make your classroom a low(er) stress environment.

1. Build trust

Every educator knows that relationships are at the core of teaching and learning. By focusing on those close relationships with your students throughout the year, you’ll build up trust that can make test season a much smoother process. Make sure that students are clear on classroom expectations and avoid surprising them with unexpected quizzes or assignments. When students know they can count on you and go to you with problems, that’s the first step towards a positive classroom environment.

2. Admit there is a problem with test stress

Test anxiety is a real thing, and it’s okay to talk about it with your students! Ask students how they’re feeling about upcoming exams and acknowledge your own stress. Keep in mind that test anxiety won’t look the same in any two students, so make sure you’re familiar with all the symptoms; keep an eye out for physical or behavioral signs and take the time to understand the sources of different students’ stress.  It’s also beneficial to make it a priority to communicate with classroom parents and other school staff about test anxiety and the impact it has on student performance during standardized testing. The more support you can offer students, the better their exams will go.

3. Keep things in perspective

In the grand scheme of things, no single test is going to define a student’s academic career or have that significant of an impact on their future. After all, it’s just one test. As an adult with years of experience on the roller coaster of life, chances are you can grasp this reality more easily than your students. So, make it a priority to share this perspective with your students regularly, and offer plenty of gentle reminders that no test defines how smart, successful, or worthy they are.    

4. Be positive

A little positive thinking can go a long way. Instead of focusing on all the material that still needs to be reviewed, remind your students that you believe in their abilities, and simply encourage them to put forth their best effort. As test days approach, keep the mood light in your classroom by infusing fun into review exercises, celebrating students’ hard work, and making time to ask students about things not related to school.

Looking for more tips on creating a supportive classroom environment? Take a look at this blog post on Making Your School Culture Pay Dividends During Testing Season.

Focus on Effective Test Taking Strategies

Test taking is without a doubt a skill that can be learned. And by treating it as such in your classroom, you can help students overcome self-doubts and do their best when testing day arrives. Make time in your test-prep schedule to focus on these test-taking strategies in addition to standard content review.

  • Work with students to build a personal study schedule
  • Familiarize students with the format of the test, including technology-enhanced item types they will encounter
  • Help students break down complicated questions or problems into discrete tasks
  • Introduce pneumonic devices as a way to help students remember terms and concepts
  • Coach students to read each question entirely before answering
  • Focus on time management and encourage students to skip over questions they don’t understand and return to them at the end of the test as time allows

For more strategies and tips, the National Education Association (NEA) has great resource libraries specific to students in grades K-5, grades 6-8, and grades 9-12, or check out this info-packed article from Scholastic with Test Prep Tips for Reading Comprehension and Math.

Borrow from Mindfulness Approaches

This almost certainly is not the first time you’ve heard about the value of mindfulness when it comes to managing stress. Simple strategies, both while you’re preparing for tests with students in the classroom and when students are actually taking their exams, can go a long way towards ensuring that students are able to truly demonstrate their knowledge. Here are six of our favorites to start with.

1. Create a “calm down spot”

Designate a quiet corner in your classroom where students can go when they need to take a few moments to calm their anxiety. Make sure your “calm down spot” has comfy seating, and stock it with sensory items like fidgets, stress balls, or headphones for calming music. You can also hang up posters with breathing exercises or keep a stack of reflection sheets for students to journal about their feelings.

2. Teach them how to breathe 

Focusing on breath is so simple and so effective. Teach students some basic mindful breathing exercises that they can use anytime, anywhere (including during tests!) to help them calm down and be more present. Even having students simply place a hand on their belly and observe it getting bigger and smaller with their breath can have a significant calming effect.

3. Lead guided meditations

Guided meditation can be a great tool to help students calm down and focus on the task at hand. Try leading your students in a simple, short (5-10 minute) guided meditation to kick off test review sessions—you can even incorporate some visualizations of what success on their upcoming test will feel like.

4. Encourage mindful coloring

Not every moment of the school day needs to be dedicated to intentional review and test preparation. Coloring, especially using mandalas and other pattern sheets, can be a great way to give students a mental break, decrease anxiety, and improve focus.

5. Come up with a mantra

We all have a continuous stream of self-talk, and that inner monologue can have a huge effect on stress levels. Working with your students to come up with a class-wide or personal mantra to use during their test can be a great approach to help students manage their self-talk, maintain that critical positive attitude, and stay focused.

6. Give yoga a try

Humans aren’t designed for endless hours sitting at desks—so is it any surprise that students tend to get anxious and fidgety in the classroom? Try incorporating movement into your classroom routine while preparing for tests to give students a much-needed break with simple yoga postures and flows. Plus, yoga is a great way for students to tap into the calming power of their own breathing.

Check out this article from Edutopia for even more great ideas on Integrating Mindfulness in Your Classroom Curriculum.

Ready to take a real deep-dive in to all things testing season related? Check out Edmentum’s library of blog posts on test preparation and test taking! Whether you’re looking for more stress-busting strategies, state-specific resources, or general review session ideas, we’ve got you covered. And remember—you and your students got this!'s picture

Sarah Cornelius is an Associate Product Manager at Edmentum and has been with the company since 2014. In her role, she works to provide educators with engaging and insightful resources. Sarah received her B.S. in Professional Communications and Emerging Media from the University of Wisconsin - Stout.