Part II of our series on Emotional Test Prep
Educators know that learning fundamentally depends on failing. More specifically, learning depends on the ability to fail and learn from the experience, what psychologists call a “growth mindset”: The belief that we can improve over time, despite setbacks and failures, through effort and perseverance.
Cultivating a growth mindset also means providing students a safe, low-stakes environment to fail. The problem with high-stakes tests is that, well, they are high-stakes, meaning they often play a decisive role in a student’s access to future opportunities. Psychologically, high-stakes tests can feel as though they compress months of time and experience into a single, self-defining event: Instead of seeing the story of a student’s learning and growth, tests leave us with little more than the scores achieved on a particular day. And for students, these high stakes mean failure is not an option.
So how do we foster a growth mindset for tests that leave such little margin for error? We can take a cue from emergency workers--like firefighters and paramedics--who must train to deal with high-stakes emergency situations: The key is practice, practice, practice. Practice tests, drills, and diagnostics for high-stakes tests provide students a critical opportunity to familiarize themselves with tests in contexts that also provide a safe place to fail--that is, fail, grow, and learn from the experience.
The benefit of all that practice is not just academic but psychological: The mere repetition involved in practice tests helps to normalize the experience of the test itself, offsetting the tendency to frame test day as a singular life-changing event. Students have the opportunity to witness their own growth as they identify and focus on particular areas of improvement over time. Greater familiarity also means greater comfort and confidence on test day.
Beyond academic practice, there are other ways you can foster a growth mindset in your students. Therapist Robin Gluck recommends boosting your test prep with strategies from narrative therapy, which focuses on the stories we tell about ourselves. Instead of internalizing our challenges, narrative therapy “casts” those challenges as just another character in our story.
Here’s what that looks like in practice:
“I’ve just never been good at math” becomes “Math is usually the subject that gives me trouble.”
“I always miss questions like this” becomes “Questions like this are really difficult.”
Even a student’s tendency to feel anxious can be reframed through the narrative therapy lens, so “I’m so nervous right now” becomes “My nerves are really trying to take over right now.”
The goal of this narrative therapy strategy is to help students see themselves as separate from any obstacles, rather than just accepting those obstacles as an inevitable, identifying characteristic of themselves. According to Robin Gluck, narrative therapists are fond of the phrase “You are not the problem; the problem is the problem,” and the same principle applies to a growth mindset as well.
The key is to help students avoid the habit of “overidentifying” with a challenge: Seeing a challenge as a fixed or defining part of their identity. When a student says something like, “I’m just no good at writing,” they don’t simply communicate that writing is a challenge. Rather, they view the challenge as part of who they are. This tendency is particularly problematic for teens, who are actively developing the narratives that inform their sense of identity. When students begin to internalize academic challenges as inherent character traits or “flaws” in their identity, they tend to avoid challenges and opportunities for growth. Shifting to a growth mindset means avoiding the tendency to define oneself in fixed terms.
High-stakes tests often play a defining role in a student’s access to academic opportunities. It’s no wonder then that many students tend to define themselves by their test scores. Their scores become part of the story of who they are. The lessons of narrative therapy and growth-mindset psychology can help students break the pattern of overidentifying with tests.
If you hear students speaking negatively about themselves, encourage them to re-cast the problem in a different way. Make it fun and light-hearted with a question like, “Hang on, what’s the problem?” and then affirm them and their potential for growth when they answer.
Student: I just won’t ever be able to remember all the rules about commas.
Teacher: Wait, wait, wait, what’s the problem?
Student: Oh, I mean, uh…all the rules about commas are tricky and hard to remember.
Teacher: You got it. The rules are tricky, but I know you’re capable of learning them, right?
It might feel silly for a while, but if you keep it up, you’ll help each student strengthen their growth mindset and prepare them to think about any anxiety they face on Test Day in a new, more constructive way.
A self-proclaimed slacker in his early academic career, Dr. Owen Matson graduated from Buena Park High School in 1992, then worked his way through community college, UCLA, and eventually on to Princeton University, where he earned his Ph.D. in English in 2007. Drawing on his broad range of experience as a student, Owen became passionate about teaching and digital pedagogy, and before working at Shmoop University, he taught at both secondary and college levels for over 14 years. He is especially proud of Shmoop’s innovative SEL tool Heartbeat® and helping students achieve more academically.
Tara Patterson is the Content Manager at Shmoop. Before joining the team full-time, she played the long game as a Test Prep/ELA contract writer for Shmoop for more than six years, and prior to that, she worked in public relations for one of the largest firms in the Southeast. She attended Belmont University with 99th-percentile scores on both the ACT and SAT, and she graduated summa cum laude with a degree in journalism and thousands of dollars in student debt.