Many students we have in our classrooms struggle with writing tests. There are so many reasons for this and, believe me, I have so many thoughts about traditional tests.
Assessment is a major part of our role as teachers; we need to know how our students are doing and how effective our teaching methods are. However, traditional rote memorization tests are still largely used. Even more so, simple multiple choice tests are still often used.
I don’t like these primarily because they are used as they are easy and cheap to grade en masse. However, they rarely are able to test for deeper skills we hope students are learning in school.
However, that’s just a little rant of mine; I am well aware of the fact that large scale tests are still the norm in Western society and, therefore, our students do need to know how to succeed at them, whether or not I agree.
So, here are some tips for improving students’ ability to complete tests.
ALLOW EXTRA TIME
Of course, one of the best things we can do for students who struggle during tests is to provide additional time.
There are many reasons this is an effective support. It can take some students longer to remember the information they know, some students are slower at writing or typing than their peers, many students need extra time to organize their thoughts and ideas before writing, it’s important for many students to check over their answers at least once, and so on.
It’s fairly standard practice at this point to allow students the time they need, but make sure you’re taking advantage of this and letting kids know when they can have extra time.
I find that reminding students several times before we begin a test that they can have extra time helps to alleviate (some) of the anxiety that many students feel around tests.
TEACH TEST TAKING SKILLS AND STRATEGIES
Many of our students have never explicitly been taught test taking skills. Whether or not we like it, these are skills they’re going to need through their academic careers. So, we may as well teach them!
I suggest teaching these to the entire class, then giving extra support to the students who continually seem to struggle during tests.
There are a lot of different types of tests and test questions, so there may be several different reasons why a student is struggling.
If you can pinpoint specifically what types of tests or questions a student has trouble with, you can plan your support specifically for them.
For example, they may get overwhelmed with the length of an exam, so you could work on breaking it into sections. They may overthink multiple choice or get very confused by “best option” when more than one choice work.
When you can work directly with a student to support where they’re getting stuck, you can really help them improve their test scores.
USE ALTERNATIVE TEST FORMATS
Often, students do poorly in tests because they are being assessed on a format they struggle with.
If you’re able to, using a format which works with their skill set is an awesome option.
Keep in mind that just because traditional pencil to paper tests are how we tend to assess, it doesn’t mean they’re the only way to check students’ skills and knowledge.
For example, if you’re assessing if they know all the planets and their order from the sun, that’s something they can orally tell you, they don’t have to do an exam.
Break the actual content away from the idea of tests and you’ll find innumerable ways to check what students have learned.
LET STUDENTS USE TOOLS
If necessary, some students may require tools such as reference charts or calculators when completing tests.
These are helpful for things where you are testing students’ ability to utilize their reasoning or critical thinking skills, but don’t really need to memorize certain things to do that.
For example, if you want to see if a student knows how to follow the steps to solve an equation, you don’t really need ot have them spend unnecessary time solving simple addition questions. This is because you assume they do already know how to do this, and maybe they have issues with time.
Or, if you want them to be able to solve a complicated word problem in physics, you can just give them the equations they need; what you’re really testing is that they understand what they are looking for and how to get to the final answer, not that they can memorize all the equations.
I mean, if they grow up to become an engineer, they’ll have access to Google anyway (believe me, basically everyone I know is an engineer and they use Google for equations all day long).
USE CLEAR AND UNCLUTTERED TESTS
If a test is too cluttered, it can be overwhelming and confusing for students.
I actually started “decluttering” my tests when I taught a class one year with two visually impaired students. They were unable to focus on what was actually important if a test was too cluttered with unnecessary things or used fancy fonts.
In supporting these two students, I found that many other students benefited as well.
When you have students who genuinely cannot see as well as their peers, you begin to think about every little thing to ensure that they are being accommodated for. This supports not just them, but other students as well.
Any line for “matching” questions that was just a little bit off, or an A that looked kind of like an O, or a border that was super cute, but maybe distracting, were all fixed. Having students be able to focus just on the material being tested, and not being distracted by anything else, or confused by what something is, is extremely beneficial.
Using tests which are clean and uncluttered are a good way to ensure students are not distracted or overwhelmed by anything on the page and can focus solely on showing their knowledge.
PROVIDE EXTRA SPACE
Many students need a lot of space and/or time to plan, sketch, solve problems, and so on.
Make sure that your tests have enough room for students to plan out their response as well as to actually write out the final answer.
This may mean you have to provide them with “scrap paper” or include space in the actual test to provide places for students to write. I know lots of teachers who always print their tests (if they’re pen to paper) single sided. That way, students will always have the back side of the page to write on if necessary.
Personally, I’m a bit of a hippie and don’t want to waste any paper if it’s not necessary. So, I always have three piles of paper at the front of the room when I’m giving tests: scrap paper, lined paper, and blank paper.
I do this whether the test is pen to paper or online.
The scrap paper is always old paper, maybe something that printed wrong, or worksheets that didn’t get used. The kids can use blank spaces or the back of it to do things like solve equations before writing their final answer on the test.
Lined paper is for students who need a bit more structure than scrap paper can offer, especially for those very anal about math equations (like me). It’s also for students who need more room for written responses. They can just add the extra pieces of paper to their exam, and I don’t need to print off extra that isn’t used onto everyone’s exams.
Finally, the blank paper is for responses that require a chart, diagram, picture, or so on. Once kids start getting used to me and how I test and teach, they will often draw me pictures, even if I don’t directly ask for them on the exam. This is because I really drill it into their heads that I want for them to show me their knowledge, in whatever way they feel most comfortable to do that; if it’s a weird picture of some sort, so be it!
ALLOW FOR USE OF A SCRIBE
If a student has a difficult time with processing speed or getting their ideas out as fast as they think, a scribe may be a good option.
I’ve spoken before, even if briefly, about how a scribe is not my favourite option.
I do feel that it takes away a lot about what we can assess in a student’s progress. For example, we can’t really see a lot of their organizational or grammar skills.
I do find that, as students age up, they do want to move away from scribes in order to appear more “normal”.
However, in younger years, if scribes are offered too often, they can become a major crutch for students and some basic fine motor, grammar, and organizational skills may be lacking.
That being said, if a student is extremely low and using a scribe is the only way to get them to produce any work, then it’s the obvious choice.
If you’re grading something like social studies or science, then grading from a scribe, where you;’re just looking for content, will be no issue. However, if you’re teaching something like language arts, you’ll need to only grade content and continue working on organization, spelling, and grammar with the student. As long as you make sure this is reflective on progress reports and parents know what’s going on, there shouldn’t be many issues around this.
WRITE IN A QUIET ROOM
So many of our students are easily distracted at the best of times let alone during tests. To provide the best opportunity for these kiddos to do their best, make sure they have the opportunity to write in a quiet and distraction free environment.
Of course, your classroom is likely going to be very quiet any time there is a test going on.
However, even in a quiet space, some students may be distracted by little things you wouldn’t even think of.
For example, just being in a crowded room may be distracting. Or, in a quiet room, listening to others breathe can be distracting. It sounds bizarre, but it’s a real issue for a lot of students.
Have you even noticed that when you’re working in a quiet library, the smallest sound of a shoe scraping sounds infinitely louder? That can be extremely irritating and distracting for some students.
If you can, let some students write in an alternate classroom, just out in the hall, in the library, or so on. Just this simple change can be extremely helpful for them.
Well, what do you think? Are these strategies helpful? Did I forget anything you find helpful? Let me know!
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