Testing is a high-stakes event for students and for teachers and so we want our students to do their best. At the same time, our students want to show us their best work.
Another factor to remember is that our students’ test results matter for our jobs, because our supervisors are looking over our shoulders to see how students are progressing. Compounding the issue is that we are not always in control of the way our students are tested as those tests often come from the math department, an outside consultant, or even from a statewide testing agency.
That brings up the conflict I know I often feel: How much time do I spend teaching math test-taking strategies as opposed to focusing on the content. Am I teaching to the test? How important is that?
With the Standards for Mathematical Practice, there are now “constructed response” items that focus on problem solving, reasoning and modeling; multiple-choice questions with more than one correct response; and other type of items that we teachers never saw on a test when we were students.
That’s why we do have to focus on test-taking strategies for students, and I feel better about it when I remember that we are teaching them about problem solving, reasoning and modeling. For that reason, I am want to explore math test-taking strategies for elementary and middle school students.
Within each strategy, you will find downloads and other resources you can use in your classroom or bring to a professional development session or team meeting with your colleagues. Each of the downloads can be found in my FREE Math Test-Taking Strategies Kit.
The Math Test-Taking Strategies Kit is filled with resources to help your elementary students answer various question types and manage test anxiety. The printable worksheets included in the kit will address:
Today’s multiple-choice items are much more sophisticated than those most of us took as students. Certainly, the standard strategies apply to that we learned:
A great mnemonic for these standard strategies is RELAX!
Read and re-read the question carefully.
Examine every answer before choosing one.
Look for information in tables, graphs, and charts.
Always check your work!
X-out answers you know are incorrect.
I've created a R.E.L.A.X. Math Multiple-Choice Strategies Poster you can download and hang in the classroom.
Math-multiple-response questions, also known as multi-select items, are common on state standardized tests. These questions are formatted similar to multiple-choice test questions, but differ in that they have more than one correct answer choice.
We must expose students to the new type of “selected response” multiple-choice items that show up in today’s tests. Check out my previous blog article, Trends in Math Assessment: Math Multiple-Response Items for a more thorough discussion of these item types.
One of the most important strategies for students is to pay close attention to the wording in the item stems as these indicate how many responses they should choose. These tiny phrases can be easily missed by students and have a great impact on their chances of correctly answering the question! Caution them to watch for phrases such as:
- Select the three correct answers.
- Which statements are NOT true?
- Select the two number that are not prime.
- Select three properties that describe both figures.
- Select each correct answer.
- Choose the one correct answer.
- Choose the best answer.
- Which of the following…?
I've created an awesome handout that will help students review and remember multiple-choice and multiple-response strategies. Its a great tip sheet for students to keep in their folders!
I have always called these questions “Open Response” items, but the more modern term is “Constructed Response” items. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, these item types focus on reasoning and modeling. If you are not familiar with how these modern tests are structured, I would encourage you to look at my previous post about one of the popular national tests. Over one-third the points for the test are devoted to constructed response items based on reasoning and modeling.
If you have not already done so, I would also highly recommend that you download constructed response items from past tests so you can see what they look like. The national tests (PARCC, Smarter Balanced Test Consortium) provide sample test items and practice tests. Most state departments of education also post practice items and past test questions. I like to use test questions from previous grades for my students. For example, I use grade three questions to train grade five students. It allows students to focus on the process of answering a constructed response question with math content that is easier for them.
Constructed response strategies for students include:
Reread the test item to identify and summarize the information you will need to solve the problem.
Use context clues to help determine the meaning of any unfamiliar words in the problem.
Make notes on the steps needed and refer to them as you solve the problem.
Analyze your answer.
Check your answer in the context of the problem and make sure you’ve answered all parts completely.
A great mnemonic for constructed response items is ACE: Answer, Compute and Check, Explain.
Download the A.C.E. Constructed (Open) Response Items Poster and Tip Sheet, and discuss each strategy with students. Give each student a copy so they can review these strategies leading up to an exam!
I have received some great professional development at my school about helping students with anxiety. Various reports tell us that 15 to 30% of our students experience anxiety in the classroom. Anxious thinking restricts a student’s working memory and consequently hinders their ability to demonstrate their knowledge. There are many strategies that we can teach students to manage their anxiety, but the first step (as I learned in my training) is that we have to teach students to recognize that they are feeling anxious.
Once students realize they are in an anxious state, they can start to implement strategies to address that stress. Many of these techniques must be taught to students and you can easily find them by entering them in a search engine. We should provide test-taking strategies for students not only for content, but for their anxiety!
Strategy Outline for Educators
In the Math Test-Taking Strategies Kit I've included a tip sheet for educators that outlines four strategies students can be taught to manage feelings of anxiety that may arise during test-taking (or life).
The R.E.S.T Strategies for Managing Anxiety Poster is a great way to remind students of the mnemonic for test-taking strategies they can use.
The mnemonic for managing test anxiety is R.E.S.T. is something I go over with students on a regular basis. Whether preparing my students for an exam or notice students seem anxious during a regular class period, these strategies are helpful to review!
Realize you are anxious.
Engage a strategy to manage your stress.
Sit up straight with your feet flat on the floor.
Try to get back to work.
Additional Test Anxiety Strategies
There are also several other activities schools can implement before testing that are helpful for students:
1) Enhanced breakfast provided in or near classrooms ensure that students have the opportunity to take the test on a full stomach
2) A twenty-minute walk around the gym—or outside if the weather permits—gets students active and ensures they have had a chance to wake up in the morning
3) A free write before starting an exam can help to improve anxious students’ performance. I was previously unaware of this strategy, but Beilock and Willingham advocate its use. They used the following prompt:
Take the next several minutes to write as openly as possible about your thoughts and feelings regarding the exam you are about to take. In your writing really let yourself go and explore your emotions and thoughts as you are getting ready to start the exam. You might relate your current thoughts to the way you have felt during other similar situations at school or in other situations in your life. Please try to be as open as possible as you write about your thoughts at this time. (American Educator, Summer 2014)
We all have to face the reality of testing and of getting students prepared for standardized testing. Solid mathematics teaching gives students the foundation they need, but further instruction is needed in order to help students prepare for the various types of multiple-choice and constructed (open) response questions. We need test-taking strategies for students to help not only with the various question types, but also for students to be able manage their test anxiety.
The R.E.L.A.X., A.C.E., and R.E.S.T. mnemonics will provide your students with a way to recall the tips in this post. You can help your students with math test-taking strategies using the four downloads provided below and the fifth gives students strategies to manage their stress during testing.