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Using Tests To Your Advantage

Jan 25, 2022

A great sports quote I saw recently asked “Which player are you?”  and then said “Bad players don’t take much seriously. Average players take games seriously.  Good players take practice & games seriously.  Great players take academics, nutrition, warm-ups, individual work, weight room, conditioning, film, practice & games seriously.”

I love this quote because it flies in the face of what is part of the demise of recent generations and the age old saying “kids these days” who need instant gratification for any action they take.  When we see all the greats in sports, or any performance-oriented task, we only see their greatness.  Sure, we hear the cool stories of perseverance like how Michael Jordan was cut from the high school basketball team and went on to be the best player who ever played, but we don’t see the thousands of hours they put in to get to their greatness.

And even if someone does take on this mindset in sports, that to be great you have to care about all aspects of what will make you great, it seems even less common for someone to take on this mindset about succeeding in school, and ultimately doing well on tests.

Now, I’m not saying that in your one classroom you should focus on teaching students about taking care of themselves down to the final detail of nutrition and sleep.  Sure, it can be something to address and promote with students, after all, we are teaching the whole student.  But what I am saying is that there is a way to help you students make the connection between what they do in your classroom and their tests.  Better put, there’s a way to help students see the effort to performance ratio.  In that, the more effective effort they put in to your class, the more their performance indicators (tests and grades) will show that.

It’s the same as saying to a player, the more you focus on working hard at practice and taking care of yourself, the better you will be in games… where it really matters.

So, in the spirit of the title of this episode, how about we use tests to our (and our students') advantage, much like athletes use the game (what is ultimately their test) to their advantage?

In this episode I’ve got three ways for you to use tests to your advantage in order to help shift the mindset of your students to clearly understand the connection between their hard work of learning and their performance on tests, ultimately giving you more accountable and empowered students so you can focus on building those connections and relationships.

So let’s get to it.

This episode of the Sustainable Teacher is brought to you by our most sought after resource, the Flipped Classroom Starter Kit.

If you are a teacher who sees the benefit in having an accessible classroom, one that allows your students to take ownership of their learning while you step into the role of guide-on-the-side as they thrive and flourish in the learning experience you’ve created for them, then you need the all new Flipped Classroom Starter Kit.

The Flipped Classroom Starter kit is your guidebook of 5 steps to get started flipping your classroom.  I take all the guesswork out of researching and DIYing it so you can reap the benefits my ten years of experience in flipping my own classrooms and helping hundreds of other teachers do the same.  Grab it now as my gift to you at teachonamission.com/starterkit, that’s teachonamission.com/starterkit.  Now, let’s get back to our episode.

It’s important to address the elephant in the room when it comes to testing before we continue in this episode and that is the over testing of our students and high-stakes testing.

Most of the educational field recognizes that the over testing of our students is a problem, and the high-stakes nature of some tests is setting up certain school for failure.

But the solution to this very real problem is not to eliminate testing all together.  The measurement of learning is most efficiently done through some form of assessment, whether that be traditional testing or a new form of what is ultimately summative assessment.

Although I don’t want to ignore the difficulties surrounding high-stakes testing, in this episode I will be taking the time and space to recognize how our classroom tests and even the larger tests that matter in students’ lives, from elementary to post-secondary, can be used to our advantage by promoting a healthier understanding of the effort to performance ratio.

Student Reflection

First up is the strategy of student reflection.  It would be best to view student reflection as a classroom strategy rather than as just something extra that you get to do if you have time.

Don’t get me wrong, student reflection can be a rabbit hole that easily becomes a time suck if we’re not careful, but if we can keep our eye on efficiency, it can quickly become a massively productive tool in our tool belt.

Students have to be able to see the alignment of your course.  Just as a basketball player needs to see why a good crossover dribble will help her in the game, a student needs to see why the task you’re asking her to do will give her an advantage on her assessment or in life.  Sure, a crossover dribble might be more fun to learn and master than using a primary source document to decipher context or learning to find circumference.  But if they can see (that is if they can be shown, by you) how what you are doing in class directly impacts their performance on specific parts of the assessment, they will invest more.

A great way to do this is through student reflection, and not just at the beginning and end of a course, but after every assessment you give.  If you have taught circumference in class the last few days, giving lots of opportunities to practice, then you should have students reflecting after at least one of those practice opportunities.  Then when they take the quiz, they should reflect again.  Then when they take the unit test, they should reflect again.

Their reflection shouldn’t just include where they went wrong, but also what effort they put in to work in class, studying outside of class, and where exactly they should go now to learn how to improve mastery on specific standards they fell short on.

What the reflection process looks like in your classroom depends on the level and subject area, but the central focus should be on how tests are NOT the end-all-be-all.  They are but a measurement on the path to the big game.  Just as an athlete learns what to improve after every game (because if they don’t, they will continue to lose), a student must learn what to improve after each assessment, both in their learning skills and their content mastery.

Bad, Good, Best

Another way to use tests to our advantage may be one you’ve used to some extent before, but with a little twist.  If your students are assessed on any kind of skill, for instance writing, you’ve probably heard the technique of collecting student examples and showing everyone great examples of student work that meet or exceed expectations, and usually this is done after a test.

We could take this strategy and do two things:

First, either hold on to student examples for a year or create mock-up student examples, and show them to students before the test where they will be assessed on the skill.  Granted, the examples don’t have to be on the same exact question or reveal any part of the upcoming test, but they should absolutely demonstrate the next point.

Second, is to not just show overly awesome student examples that meet every expectation, but instead to also collect examples of work that just meet the standards and examples that do not meet the standards.

You could give all three examples (bad, good, best) to groups of students who each have a graphic organizer to say which example falls where and what the differences are to move up each level.

Does this take time? Yes.  Is it time taken up before the test?  Yes.  But they are talking about the skill and the content and will have concrete ways to improve on an upcoming assessment - that’s a win win.

Eliminate the words “I’m going to study”

The last tip I have for you is to eliminate these words from your classroom: “I’m going to study”.

When you have a test coming up and you’re working with kids on reflecting on their work so far and knowing where they haven’t shown mastery yet, and asking them, “Ok, guys, what are you going to do to prepare for this week’s or tomorrow’s test,” do NOT, I repeat do NOT allow them to say “I’m going to study.”

First, do they even know what that means?  Depending on what student it’s coming from, I certainly don’t.  And, I would argue it’s just become the acceptable answer in order to get the teacher to stop nagging them about caring about how they do on their test.

Second, what exactly are they going to “study”?  Are they clear on what’s going to be on the test?  Are they just going to read over notes or are they going to practice applying what they’ve learned?

Instead I want you to push back a little here and say, “Nope, I need something more specific. What are you going to study and how are you going to study it?”  This is to say that you want to know what they are practicing and how they are practicing it.

An acceptable response, in an ideal situation would be if a student considered all the reflecting they’ve been doing, understood where they haven’t proven mastery yet, and could articulate which standards they would focus on and how they would practice them.  Maybe there’s a certain number of questions they could do on the study guide or practice test.  Or maybe there’s a handout with additional practice, or one they could revisit. This is where the alignment piece and student reflection really come in handy, and spending all that time on student reflection pays off.  Force students instead to use their reflection and have a better answer than “I’m going to study.”

Alright teacher-friend, there you have it for episode 57 on the Sustainable Teacher Podcast with three strategies to use tests to your advantage for your students.

Now, you may be asking, well, Mandy how in the world am I going to create class time out of thin air to do things like guide intentional student reflection or analyze the bad, good, and best examples of student work on multiple skill standards, and how in the world will I have time to focus on alignment of my course so that students see where they haven’t met mastery level and can then properly respond and prepare for a test?

Those are all fantastic questions that are really just asking one thing… how will I make class time to do all this?  And I have a strategy for you to consider.

That is flipping your classroom.

Now, I know flipping is not for everyone, but I do believe that the term “flipping” is going to be irrelevant soon because the technique is more about being responsive to your students and making yourself more available than it is about “flipping” anything.

Plus, no one ever said you have to flip it all.  But, if student reflection, analyzing student examples, or showing alignment of your course is important and you want to make it a part of your regular classroom routine, then flipping is definitely something to at least consider.

And to do that I want to get a very helpful resource in your hands that is built off of my ten years of flipping my own classroom and now helping over 500 teachers flip their classrooms.  It’s the first solid step in the right direction of streamlining your content so you have more class time to reflect and analyze examples, and it is the Flipped Classroom Starter Kit, which you can grab in the description of this episode below where you’re listening.

Go grab that starter kit, and I will see you same time, same place next week.  Bye for now.

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