I have worked hard over the last several years to build a foundation of growth mindset in my mathematics classroom. We start each year with activities to teach students about growth mindset, build community among group members, and emphasize the importance of learning from mistakes as part of the growth process. Students enjoy these activities and can explain to me what a growth mindset is MOST days of the year. The exception has always been “Test Day”.
When students come in and see the class set up in rows, they always have a quick change in demeanor. Students tend to go into a panic mode, fretting about the test and talking themselves down. It is common to hear, “I am about to fail” or “Can I do a retake after this?” It is frustrating to see all the work we do together to build a growth mindset go out the window because it is a test day.
In an effort to help ease this anxiety for students, I have adopted practices to change the mood on test day. My class is still set in rows for a test and students still have a visible reaction when they walk in and see it. However, I have established routines to help ease the transition from this initial shock (even though we spent the prior class period preparing together) to actually taking the test. I remind students to put away non-testing materials, make sure they all have calculators and writing utensils, and allow them to get out the notes pages they have prepared to use on the test. Rather than simply handing them a test as they walk in, this transition time helps them calm down and prepare for the test. Then I take the whole class outside and pass out the test. I give the students about 5 minutes to preview the test and discuss it with their classmates. They are not allowed to have writing utensils during the preview, but they can talk to as many other students as they want to. I typically see a couple large groups form and a few smaller pairs of students looking over the test on their own. There is always a student or two who doesn’t talk to anyone else, but just looks it over on their own. When we go back inside, all students sit quietly and take the test on their own. I play soft background music during the test as students work.
I recently polled my students to see how they felt about these changes in testing routines. 100% of students reported enjoying the opportunity to preview the test. Some claim it helps them sort out their thoughts before they start working. Others say they are able to clarify ideas they have with classmates. About 80% of my students reported that they enjoy the background music. They say that it helps them not be distracted by a silent room, that they concentrate better, and that it is soothing. Others reported that the music was distracting or that it made them sleepy.
While I don’t believe that it is possible to make test days feel like any other day in class, I do believe that I can help to ease the pressure students are used to feeling anytime they hear the word “test”. I am excited to keep adapting my test day routines to help students feel ready for success rather than to fear failure.