Explore Nueroscience in Education with Dr. Lori Desautels

Testing Begins/ Strategies to Ease the Tension

Testing Season Begins

Within a few weeks, students from across the nation will be embarking upon a series of standardized tests following intense days and weeks of test preparation accompanied by much anxiety and worry from parents and educators. Students from a variety of grade levels will begin trying to remember how to use text evidence in reading passages, pulling up numerous steps, arrays, and trying to conceptually explain algorithms, while desperately trying to understand the format of bubble sheets, computer compatibility, and how to interpret “test” questions. Many of these test participants are English as Second Language learners, students with a wide diversity of learning potential, social and emotional challenges, strengths, cultures and interests. Among these young learners, there are many who put themselves to bed in the evening, get themselves up and ready for school, and do not have the hot breakfast, arranged homework times or an adult present guiding their days. .
For the very first time in the history of this “test-taking” movement in education, I am intimately involved. Last week, I found myself rushing through fifth grade instruction, neglecting the personal and emotional comments and questions from 11- year -olds in a way that demonstrated a “felt presence.” I felt pressured to make sure we spent every minute, re-teaching, reviewing, and testing their endurance for academic mastery
I am concerned that in this culture of increased assessment measures, without “informed instruction,” we are forfeiting an incredible amount of time, energy and the innate plasticity of intelligences of so many of our students! If a child or adolescent does not perform well on a test, I want to know why! I want to know where the errors were. Was there an anxiety in simply taking the test that immobilized the parts of the brain that think , problem solve, and discern with logic and fluidity.
Research from many higher education institutions are sharing the knowledge that “how” we are currently teaching and “testing” is the exact opposite of how the brain is wired to learn. Dr. John Medina, developmental molecular biologist with the University of Washington School Of Medicine speaks of many researched brain rules. We do know this. Brains learn through novelty, contextual patterns, questions and movement. From an evolutionary perspective, our brain developed while working out, walking as many as 12 miles a day. The brain still craves that experience. We are not wired to sit for long periods of time learning in sedentary positions.
We did not have this research 30 years ago! We do now. Emotion drives attention and learning. As biological beings, we are wired to pay attention to every stimulus in our environment. The brain always processes meaning before detail. Have we created meaningful associations in our testing environment?
Many of our students are walking through our classroom doors in a chronic survival mode, where everyday stress is a waking part of his or her life. We know that stress shuts down learning; there is a definitive cognitive collapse. Perceived stress is as individual as our thumb prints and its direct impact on the limbic system in our brains directly affects our ability to learn and remember.
Connections and relationships created between students and educators are game changers in the life of academic success! What can we do in these final weeks of review and re-teaching so that we prepare our students emotionally; stimulating an environment where creative thinking, self-efficacy and problem solving, are brought to life
1. We can engage our students with helping them to see their own expertise in so many areas within their own cultures and lives. We can share with students that these tests are important, but they do not define their personhood or intelligence.
2. We can encourage and notice every small effort or action that is positive no matter how insignificant. Notice everything positive. Create a positive sheet with behaviors you noticed that were on target and send home every day during these weeks.
3. Share your frustrations and stories that invite empathy letting students know, “you are not alone” in your thinking and feelings!
4. We can weave the tested material into stories where we create context and patterns because our brains are wired for story-telling. For example, if I am teaching persuasive writing passages, I can create my own writing passage in an area of student interest and model a story of how I came up with the topic, comparing the topic sentence to the boss of a company while equating the details of the paragraph in the story to the employees in a chocolate factory…for example, Hershey.
5. We can take brain breaks, pulling up a casual and mutually inclusive class discussion for a few minutes on a popular topic or read a story of interest together. We can get up and move, practice some deep breaths, or listen to music for five minutes.
6. We can encourage our students to write out their worries, and sadness’s on small sheets of paper to be tossed in a basket before an assignment or test. Research reports that when we write out any worry or concern before a test, we create space and cognitive capacity in the working memory.
Remember, emotions are contagious and how we are feeling at any given moment is subconsciously mirrored by our students.

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