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7 Standardized Testing Hacks From Cognitive Science

//7 Standardized Testing Hacks From Cognitive Science

Let’s face it, for many teachers this time of year can be a nightmare of anxiety and stress due to all of the standardized testing that takes place in the spring. Whether the tests your students have to take are low stakes or high stakes; whether they are state tests or national tests; and whether or not you yourself have some personal stake in the outcome (maybe the scores are tied to promotions or raises, for example), you always want your students to do well.

I’m going to do some assuming here (and yes, I know the old saying about “those who assume”). I’m going to assume that you have done what you can prior to testing day to prepare your students to do well. This includes teaching your curriculum well, making sure your curriculum is in alignment with the test, giving students some advance guidance about the structure of the test and of individual test items, and including similar items on your own classroom tests to give your students some familiarity with how to answer them.

OK. Let’s say that you’ve done all of that (good for you!). Now it’s the day of the test. Is there anything else you can do this late in the ballgame to make sure your students do a good job? Well, if you look to cognitive science for the answer, you will see that yes, indeed, there are actually a number of things you can do to help maximize your students’ performance. Today I will give you seven great testing day “hacks” that you can incorporate with very little effort or expense. Sound good? Sure! Who doesn’t like something that’s cheap, easy, and effective?

1. Episodic/Contextual Memory: Why “Where” Is So Important

The first issue to consider is where to administer the test. I understand that, if you are a classroom teacher, you may not have much input on this question. But if your administrator(s) want to schedule the testing, for convenience sake, in a place other than your classroom (such as an auditorium or cafeteria), you need to speak up and see if your students can be tested in your own classroom. Why? It has to do with episodic (contextual) memory.

You see, when we learn facts and ideas (semantic memory), we also process other details about our surroundings (episodic memory) along with that information, and it all becomes part of that same memory trace. And when it comes time to retrieve the facts and ideas, having “cues” around us in our surroundings can help us with that retrieval.

For example, a student might be stuck trying to retrieve a piece of information on the test. If he or she is in the same location where the original learning took place, some little detail about the surroundings (seeing the same poster on the wall, sitting in the same location in the room where the original learning took place, recalling something that happened in the classroom on the day of the initial learning, etc.) can serve as a stimulus to help access the semantic memory of the needed information. For this reason, studies have consistently shown that students score better when tested in the same location where the initial learning took place (Schacter, 1996).

So, if your administrator(s) have scheduled the testing of your students to take place anywhere other than your classroom, have a conversation about what I have just shared. It may be that they are simply unaware of the research. Even if they won’t move the large group testing for everyone, you might be able to have your students exempted and have them tested in your own room (maybe you could sell it as a “research study”). Believe me, this could make a big difference in your students’ scores!

2. Circadian Rhythms: Why “When” Is Also Important

Now, while we’re talking about messing up all of your administrator’s best-laid plans for testing day, let’s talk about the best time for the testing. Most school districts do large-scale testing in the morning, usually starting as soon as the school day gets rolling. For younger students (elementary through pre-adolescents), this schedule is just fine. That’s because the circadian rhythms (daily arousal rhythms) for younger students matches with the rhythms of most adults. That is, once they are fully awake and at school, they are usually good to go until they hit the dreaded mid-day slump when energy drops to lower levels. All of this means that younger students will tend to do their best on tests if tested anytime in the 7 a.m. to noon window.

But teens are a different matter. Research has shown that starting with adolescence and lasting through early adulthood, circadian rhythms shift approximately one hour later (Millman, 2005). This is not news to anyone who has ever tried to teach teens early in the morning, of course. As a result, testing high school students starting at the very beginning of the day is a recipe for under-performance. Starting no earlier than 8 a.m. (and 9 a.m. would probably be even better) and running the testing through about 1 p.m. would be the best schedule for these students. What should you do with that extra time between 8 and 9 a.m.? See Tips 3 and 4, below.

If you teach teenagers, and your administration has not taken the arousal patterns of your students into account when setting up the testing schedule, you should have a discussion with them about circadian rhythms and testing performance. And again, if the testing schedule has already been set for the majority of students, perhaps you can get a waiver to have your students tested when they are fully awake (and, of course, in your own classroom).

3. Before the Test: The Power of the “Brain Dump”

OK, we’ve addressed the two big scheduling questions–where and when–that can radically impact your students’ scores on standardized tests. Now let’s talk about some very effective things you can do with the time right before the test starts to prepare your students to do their best.

One thing you can have students do is a couple of quick, simple writing exercises within the thirty minutes before the test. First of all, one study has shown that having students do a quick (ten minute) expressive free writing about how they feel about the upcoming test can reduce test anxiety and lead to better performance (Ramirez & Beilock, 2011). This study showed that simply having students write about their worries about the test boosted scores by more than 10%!

Another quick writing exercise that can help is called a “brain dump,” which consists of having students write down everything they can think of about the subject matter to be tested. For example, if the testing session is going to cover science content, simply have students write down all of the science facts, formulae, etc. that come to mind, as quickly as they can. They won’t have time to write down all that they know in 5-10 minutes, of course (well, let’s hope not), but this simple writing activity helps them access prior knowledge to prime them for success and can calm students’ fears that they don’t know the material.

These two quick writing exercises serve as great warm-ups to testing and help to put students in a more relaxed mood and positive state of mind–which can go a long way toward better performance.

4. Attention, Take One: Arousal

Alright, we’ve addressed the best location and the best time of day for the testing, and we’ve talked about a couple of quick writing exercises to put your students in the right psychological frame of mind going into the test. But there’s another major issue that comes into play during the testing situation–attention. A standardized test is a big challenge to our attentional systems, and we need to do what we can to make sure that students are able to focus their conscious attention on the test in order for them to do well.

There’s not room in this article to go into any depth about the complex interplay of human attentional systems, but here’s a quick overview: there are basically three types of attention that come into play in a learning (and testing) environment. The first is arousal, which is our baseline level of wakefulness and mental sharpness. The optimal amount of arousal for academic work is a moderate level or just above (not so much that we are stressed out, not so little that we are drowsy or “foggy”). The second type of attention is focused attention. This is what teachers usually mean when they ask students to “pay attention”–that is, we want students to focus their attention on the academic task we have set for them. And the third type of attention is stimulus-driven attention. This is our built-in, constant scanning of the environment that alerts us to movement, sudden sounds, and any other stimuli in the environment.

How we manipulate conditions just before and during testing can go a long way toward maximizing the amount of focused attention students can bring to the test. Let’s start with arousal first, and then we’ll discuss the other two systems in the next section. Like I said above, on test day we are shooting for a moderate level of arousal. If testing starts early in the morning, your students could probably use a little waking up to reach an optimal level of arousal. And perhaps the best way to wake up both the body and brain is aerobic exercise. Getting respiration and heart rate up for 10-12 minutes can both raise arousal and reduce stress, both of which can lead to improved academic performance.

Not only does aerobic exercise affect the general level of arousal, but it can also have a number of other positive side effects. For one, exercise increases noradrenaline in the brain, which promotes a narrowed focus and improved memory–just what you want on testing day. In addition, one study found that having students run at a moderate pace on a treadmill for 12 minutes prior to testing greatly improved students’ selective visual attention, a key component in being able to focus attention on a reading task (like a standardized test). This simple intervention led to a dramatic improvement in test results–and the effect lasted 45 minutes (Tine, 2014)!

Now, I know you probably don’t have treadmills in your classroom, but simply having students jog in place at a moderate tempo for 10-12 minutes beside their desks should be enough to raise arousal, reduce stress, and prep visual attention for the task ahead. It only takes a few minutes, it’s free, and it works!

5. Attention, Take Two: Removing Distractions

OK, let’s say you have followed all of my suggestions above leading up to the start of the test. Your students are in their own classroom where they feel comfortable and have contextual cues around them to help them remember what they’ve learned; they are alert because (1) the school has taken circadian rhythms into account when scheduling the test time and (2) because they have just jogged in place for 10-12 minutes right before sitting down to take the test; and they are feeling confident because they have done a little writing as a “brain dump” both to express their fears about the test and to access prior knowledge.

All of this is fantastic, but now it’s time for the test itself to actually begin. Are there some things you can do during the test itself to positively impact scores? You bet! First, let’s return to our discussion of attention. We dealt with arousal in the previous section. Now we need to talk about the battle between focused attention and stimulus-driven attention.

I use the word “battle” consciously, because that’s what it is–a constant struggle the mind engages in when trying to focus on a task. We try to exert conscious control to shine the “spotlight” of focused attention (that’s the metaphor that’s often used) on the academic task at hand. At the same time, our stimulus-driven attentional system is always at work in the background, monitoring our environment for anything that could pose a threat to our survival. Of course, there aren’t really any threats to our survival in the testing environment (I hope), but our stimulus-driven attentional system doesn’t know that. This system evolved to keep us safe, and anything that moves quickly, especially in our peripheral vision, or any sudden sound will alert us to shift our attention away from our current focus (in this case the test) to the new stimulus.

For this reason, we need to do everything we can to eliminate distractions that might call out to the stimulus-driven attention system. For example, school bells should be turned off during the entire testing time if at all possible. No announcements should be made over the intercom system. The classroom door should be kept closed to keep students’ attention from wandering to someone walking down the hall. If there are windows in the classroom, curtains should be closed to keep students from noticing what’s going on outside. Such little actions can go a long way toward helping students maintain focused attention for longer stretches of time.

And if you have been using background music during individual seatwork in your classroom, by all means use that same music quietly in the background during testing. This will help filter out other distracting ambient sounds in the testing room itself (such as shuffling feet, tapping pencils, and turning pages).

6. Using Brain Breaks to Refocus

If you’ve done everything suggested in the previous two sections, you will have gone a long way toward maximizing your students’ attention on task during the test. But there’s one more important aspect of attention that you need keep in mind: the human brain is not built to employ focused attention for long stretches of time without a break. At some point, mental fatigue is going to kick in and your students’ focus will fade. If you are prepared for this, you can be proactive and reset your students’ “attentional clocks” to allow them to refocus.

To do this, simply plan short “brain breaks” into the testing window. Just ask your students to stand up, put on some energizing music, and have your students do some kind of movement, from simple stretching on the light end of the scale to more vigorous movement such as dancing, walking to touch each wall of the room, or doing jumping jacks. This doesn’t have to take long at all. One or two minutes will re-energize your students’ bodies and minds and allow them to refocus on the test. Have the students sit back down, take a few slow, deep breaths with their eyes closed, and then start back in.

7. The Good Side of a “Sugar High”

Finally, it can be helpful to provide your students with a little glucose (blood sugar), which will help them sustain energy, focus attention, and better access memory over the testing period (Krebs & Parent, 2005). One study actually looked at the effects of giving students a little peppermint candy to suck on during the final review for the test and then repeating this procedure during the actual test (Barker et al., 2003). Believe it or not, such a simple, inexpensive action can help students maintain focus (especially if you explain to them in advance what you are doing and why) throughout the test.

Putting It All Together: An Integrated, High-Performance Testing Day Protocol

So there you have it–a “master plan” for test days that you can cheaply and easily implement and that can greatly impact student scores. Here is a quick review of what we’ve covered:

Step 1: Prior to test day, work with school administrators to make sure that your students can be tested in the classroom where the initial learning took place.

Step 2: Prior to test day, work with administrators to make sure that the testing times match your students’ circadian rhythms.

Step 3: Starting 20-30 minutes before the test, have students do two 5-10 minute writing exercises: (1) have them write about their feelings about the upcoming test, and (2) have them write down everything they know about the subject matter to be tested.

Step 4: 10-12 minutes before the test, have students stand up and jog in place (or do some similar moderate movement that gets heart rate up).

Step 5: At the beginning of testing, make sure as many distractions as possible have been removed from the testing environment. If you’ve been using background music during seatwork during the school year, start the music right as testing starts and make sure your playlist is long enough to cover the entire testing period (minus the time you will turn it off for brain breaks).

Step 6: Every 15-30 minutes (watch your students’ body language to know exactly when to do this) have students pause, stand up, and move around a bit to some energetic music before sitting back down and refocusing.

Step 7: About 30-45 minutes into the testing period, when the effect of the pre-testing aerobic movement is beginning to wear off, give students a piece of peppermint candy to replenish glucose stores. Repeat every half hour or so for longer testing windows.

Adding these steps to your current test preparation protocol will give your students the opportunity to do their very best. Here’s wishing you the very best of luck with your testing!