I am a product of the American public school system during a time when standardized tests, quizzes, and unit tests were how they measured your intellect and academic progress. In my 14 years of schooling, you see I failed kindergarten and had to complete a year of Transition before moving into the First Grade, I completed numerous tests and quizzes. The total is probably somewhere in the 100s. However, despite the focus on tests and quizzes as a way of measuring what students know, not once in all of my years in school did I ever learn how to effectively prepare or study for tests. No teacher ever explained how to study for a test or prepare to complete a test. Not one of my teachers ever went over how to attack a test, especially one of the standardized nature. I never learned how to prepare for the mountain of tests I was forced to complete. Luckily, school came easy for me. I figured out the system by the sixth grade and learned how to do school like a professional student. I achieved the Honor Roll every quarter from the sixth grade through to graduation. I learned early on how to please teachers and give them what they wanted. While this skill helped me be successful while in school, in retrospect, it is also what prevented me from learning the material in a truly meaningful manner. While I retained the basics from my many years in school, I don’t recall much more than that. My knowledge of what I should have learned from my many history courses is shaky at best. I wish I had learned how to effectively learn what my teachers were teaching me. I wish I was provided with tips on how to retain information and move it from the working memory into the short-term memory, and so on. I wish my teachers had given me more of a foundation in the skills of learning instead of focusing on the learning and facts themselves.
As a teacher who realizes the negative impact of not learning how to effectively learn, I make it a point to focus on the foundational skills of learning throughout the year in my class. I want my students to know how their brain takes in information and stores it. I want my students to see that if they can link facts or pieces of information with prior knowledge, it will more easily be stored in the brain for future use. I help my students see the power in learning something in a fun, novel, and engaging way. I teach my students tricks regarding memory retrieval, as that is the vital part of the process of learning. I don’t want my students to graduate from high school feeling as though they didn’t really learn much. I want my students to learn how to learn for the sake of learning. I want to empower my students with knowledge on how to prepare for tests and quizzes. I want my students to be and feel like successful students.
While I am not a huge fan of cumulative unit tests, I can’t deny the fact that my students will be taking tests of that nature in the sixth grade and beyond. During the first half of the year in my fifth grade classroom, my students learn how to learn. I teach them about the power of their brain and how it works. I provide them with tricks on how to retain information. I teach them skills ahead of knowledge. I teach them how to use their peers as resources. I show them how learning and school can be fun and engaging. Then, during the second half of the academic year, I focus on preparing them for the numerous challenges they will face in the years ahead. I teach them how to prepare for tests and quizzes. I teach them how to manage their time in order to complete their work and assignments. I teach them how to attack school with vigor and fury. I prepare them for a future of taking in information and regurgitating it in some form again, and luckily, I am not alone. The great school at work I work promotes this idea of skills first, knowledge second across the grades. Students at the Beech Hill School learn the value of learning.
As we are in the downward hump of our school year, I am focusing my energy on helping my students learn how to prepare, study, and complete tests and quizzes. As we just finished a large unit in Science class on Ecology, I took the opportunity to introduce and teach test preparation skills. Prior to the test, we played a fun review game that covered all of the information learned throughout the unit. The students retained almost every knowledge nugget I had thrown at them. Yes, they learned the value in the retrieval strategies I had taught them earlier in the year. Then, following this fun review game, I spent a period exploring test preparation skills with the students. How do you prepare for a test? What does that process look like? I introduced the steps of the process to the students before I taught them how to create an effective study guide. I also explained to the students the power in asking questions. “Some teachers,” I said, “will be very straightforward with you about what will be on a test, while others will not. It is your responsibility to ask questions regarding things you don’t understand or know. If the teacher doesn’t tell you what will be covered on the test, just ask.” I allowed my students to pepper me with questions. I even showed them the test and went over it. I don’t want them to think of the skill of test preparation as some secret and scary thing. I want them to learn that it’s part of the learning process. Solidifying and reviewing the information that is stored in their short-term memory, will allow it to be more easily moved into their long-term memory. After our lengthy discussion and study-guide-making period, I explained the next step, studying. What does studying look like? “Knowing yourself as a student is crucial for this final step of the test preparation process. Knowing how to best review the material will help you be more effectively prepared to showcase what you retained,” I told the students. I then had the students think about how they learn best? Are you a visual student? Do you work best with others? Do you take in information auditorily? What works for you? Each student then generated a study activity that they felt would work best for them. One student made a Kahoot! review quiz, as he learns best from doing. Another student chose to create a mock test from her study guide, as she learns best from thinking through all possibilities. Other students worked with a peer to test each other on the material. Each student chose a strategy or activity that works for them. Their homework that evening, was to complete this process.
I felt confident that this first lesson on test preparation was successful. Of course, this is only one of many lessons like it that I will teach throughout the year to help fully prepare my students for the numerous learning opportunities they will face in their future years of schooling. I did feel as though the students seemed to understand the power in effectively preparing for a test. They asked many insightful questions, created a useful study guide, and brainstormed some very cool ideas on how they will study for the test. I felt hopeful.
Then came the test on Friday morning. While I know that my students do indeed know the material covered on the test, I also realize that test anxiety is a real struggle for some students. Despite knowing their stuff, some students freeze up during a test and are unable to recall what they know. As this was our first large test of the school year, I wanted to be sure that my students felt as stress-free as possible.
Before the students arrived to school that day, I had left them each an inspirational note on their desk. “You can do it. You know this stuff. You’ve got it,” were some of the messages I wrote on the sticky notes I stuck to the tables where they were working that day. They seemed to like these notes. I think it helped to lighten the mood in the classroom as well. Directly preceding the test, I explained the brain research on test-taking before having the students complete some Brain Gym exercises. They seemed to really enjoy these activities. They liked being able to move around and get their blood pumping. I then gave the students time to get some water, sharpen a pencil, and go to the bathroom before sitting down to complete the science test. I then went over the importance of not talking during the test so as to respect your peers. Once I handed out the tests, they got right to work. I played some instrumental focus music via Youtube so that the room wouldn’t be entirely silent during the test. Research studies have shown that soft music can help with memory retrieval and serenity during stress-inducing situations like taking a test. I also handed out, to those students interested, a small butterscotch candy that I called test fuel. Having something to chew or suck on allows the brain to do its job more effectively. Throughout the test, the students asked very few questions. They drew diagrams and wrote lengthy explanations to questions about ecosystems and biomes. The one thing I didn’t see in the classroom during the test was stress or nervousness. None of the students fidgeted in their seats or looked around the room confused. They all seemed to look as though they knew what was going on, as if they were prepared. It was pretty awesome. Everyone finished in the allotted time as well. After all of the students completed the test, we celebrated with a round of applause and tasty gummy worms. It felt really good to me. I was excited to assess their tests and see all that they learned about our unit on ecology.
Later that day, I graded and assessed their tests. I was most impressed and excited by how well they all did. Their diagrams showing how plants grow, including the process of germination as well as the resources required for growth to take place, were detailed and nicely demonstrated their understanding of this concept. Their answers to the written responses were thorough and spot on. Only one student struggled with one of the graded objectives, and when I met with him that afternoon to reassess him one-on-one through a discussion, he was able to explain his diagram in a way that showed me he understood the concept very well. I can’t say that I was blown away by the result of this first major test-taking experience because this class of students is so amazing on a regular basis anyway, but I was incredibly proud of how well they all did. They took this chance to practice taking a test very seriously. They put their best into this whole adventure.
Our first foray into preparing for and completing a test was a huge success. Was it the in-class preparation we did on Wednesday and Thursday of this past week? Did the fun review game help them to retrieve the information from their memories? Was that what helped? Or was it that they learned how to prepare for and study for a test? Did that lesson on the steps of the test-taking process help them effectively prepare for Friday’s big test? Perhaps it was that I had provided the students time in class to create a study guide and study for the test. Maybe that was the kicker that put them over the top. Or was it something that took place on Friday? Maybe the Brain Gym exercises helped alleviate some of their stress. Or perhaps it was the test fuel or the positive notes on their desks. Maybe those helped them attack the test with confidence and energy. While I could probably ponder this whole experience until I am blue in the face, I don’t believe that it was just one thing. Taking a test is an experience with multiple prongs. The students have to have learned the information in meaningful ways first. Then, they have to prepare for the exam in an effective manner. Once they are ready for the test, they then have to complete the test in a way that will reduce the amount of cortisol that is released in their brain. It’s a multi-pronged experience. All of what we did throughout this unit led to Friday’s awesome outcome. The students did so well because of every aspect of the learning process. It’s good to know that they are now well on their way to being effectively and meaningfully prepared to attack the many tests and quizzes they will see in their future.