Can We Raise Test Scores (again)?

By Eric Jensen

PART ONE: Recent Discovery

This month, we'll explore how you can boost test scores by making small interventions and simple changes at the last moment.

First, a simple disclaimer: I don't support 95% of all the testing being done on kids. I love accountability, but not crazy-making testing that gives self-serving data; data that helps you do better on the next test, instead of in real life where the tests should be targeting. Having said that, things are what they are. Let's focus on the here and now.

Here is a plan that will help you maximize testing for your students. For the specific strategies, keep reading...


The Research

PART ONE: Recent Discovery on Testing

You have only five variables you can tweak in the days, hours and minutes before the actual test time. The biggest variable is how well kids have learned what will be on the test. If you haven't taken care of that variable all year long, you have fewer options. It's too late to add much content when you get real close to test time.

The single best thing you can do in the weeks and days before the testing is...have students take tests. Testing produced better overall recall than did restudying (Roediger and Karpicke, 2006). Give them small chunks of "mock tests" that will mimic the real ones. But the research gets a bit more complicated from here out. What about getting feedback on the mock tests?

When tests are NOT accompanied by feedback, some items (i.e., those that were not correctly retrieved) might not benefit from testing (Pashler et al., 2005). This tells you feedback has two sides: if you get it wrong, you NEED feedback. If it's right, it's less important to get feedback. The debriefing should begin as a social event with the teacher and classmates involved. Then shift it to a personal assignment. Let students improve their "mock" test cores with a reflective test analysis. Here, students write about each question they got wrong: 1) what was their approach, 2) how they came up with the wrong answer, and 3) what they would do differently next time. Give students partial credit for each debriefed corrected answer. This empowers students by helping them become more thoughtful tests takers and reduces their stress by putting more of the process in their control.

Read carefully to what a team of cognitive psychologists says; "Information that has been tested will be remembered better over time than information that has been restudied. This test-induced benefit is apparently stronger when repeated tests over the same information are provided. These results suggest that tests should be utilized often in educational contexts to maximize retention of information over long time periods." (Carpenter, et al., 2008, page 446).

Encourage (even mandate) the asking of questions in the weeks and days leading up to the test. Students who are struggling academically are rarely asking the most questions in class. Researchers have found that low-achieving students are often the most reluctant to seek assistance and that a negative or fearful perception of "help seeking" is to blame (Ryan, et al. 1998).

The Ryan study involved 500 students and 25 teachers in 63 sixth-grade math classes throughout 10 Michigan middle schools. The researchers found that low-achieving students tend to perceive question asking as a sign of inability and associate it with feeling "dumb." Conversely, high achievers with greater confidence are less likely to worry about what others think and tend to focus on the benefits of seeking help, notes the study.

Advise learners to take inventory of their projected goals, time-management skills, and study habits; and to reorganize them appropriately. Students who give their academic concerns top priority and allow ample time for studying (including exam preparation) often perform best (Yaworski, 1998). If help is needed in establishing a personal study schedule, or if chronic procrastination persists, encourage learners to seek the advice of a guidance counselor or related professional.

Next, in the days coming up to the testing, students often get stressed (the teachers are, of course, totally relaxed!) The three best ways to get kids more relaxed are each about control (it's the counterbalance to stress.) First, help them take more control over the process of making choices for when, what type of, and where to prepare. (You pre-select the options.) For example, let them choose which content sections they want to prep for first. Second, teach them self-regulation strategies such as slow deep breathing to relax. Third, teach them how to reframe the testing experience, to help them be more in charge of it. Tell your students, "Tests are a school's way to assess their schooling success. We want to find out what we're doing well and what we need to do differently. The tests tell us what changes we can make to develop your brain as best as possible."


PART TWO: Applications and Contributions

Provide learners with short quizzes that ultimately lead up to the final exam. Research by Bruce Tuckman (1998) reported that students, rated as procrastinators, performed 12 percent better on final examinations when quizzed subsequent to completing each text chapter. In fact, the known procrastinators outperformed non-procrastinating students who were asked to only outline each text chapter as a homework assignment. Engage anxious students in peer study groups composed of more confident learners.

Here are the five variables that run the mind/brain at test time: 1) context: the location and circumstances, 2) mindset: how students approach the test and think about their own capacity, 3) brain health: sleep, nutrients and liquids in the brain, 4) the strength of working memory, and 5) capacity to handle stress.

Let's walk through the variables at test time. First, do your best to match the study/rehearsal location with the testing location. At the least, do one review in the exact same location as the test. Second, remind kids that this is a test to find out how well schools are doing in helping students learn; it's actually NOT how smart a kid is! The mindset for kids should be, "This is just a temporary reading on things. Brains can change and get better!" Third, brain health is enhanced by a good night's sleep; that matters a great deal. As far as foods go, to take tests well, the brain needs a constant supply of energy (e.g. glucose, oxygen, nutrients.) Best breakfast would be either complex carbos (oatmeal) or proteins (eggs, breakfast meats and yogurt.) Avoid: fruits, fruit juices (fructose not helpful) and stay away from carbos that surge the sugar (e.g. processed cereals, pastries and breads) (Ross et al., 2009).

To support working memory, the brain training program has to be done over a period of weeks, so there's only one thing you can do the morning of the test: enhance dopamine levels. Do that through fun, physical activities, brisk marching, energizers or celebrations. Finally, teach kids how to handle the stress that often comes with the test. Instruct learners how to relax and breathe with confidence. And well before tests, encourage learners to relax away from the classroom with soothing, meditative music, walking, or quiet meditation while prepping.

Tests are here to stay. Let's go get some high scores this year. Brain-based education says, "Be purposeful about it." Now, go have some fun and make another miracle happen!

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