Mindful Practices to Prepare for Summative Assessments

The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.
— William James

It’s spring time in the U.S.A. The new season brings with it numerous changes: rising temperatures, flora and fauna peeking out, aaaand end-of-the-year testing. Summative assessments (in any form - final presentations, reports, projects, or tests, etc) can be stressful for both teachers and students, but they can also present great learning opportunities for our students. Instilling the crucial life skill of managing stress in a healthy, productive way in our students is easily as important as ensuring that they have learned the academic content that we set out to teach them. By modeling and explicitly teaching a combination of mindfulness practices, planning strategies, and relaxation techniques, we can turn these potentially uncomfortable situations into rich learning opportunities for our students.

To help you shift the tides in your classroom, we at Infinite Horizons have put together a list of the top 5 ways to help students mindfully prepare for summative assessments. (For a deeper look at preparing students for testing, check out our book entitled: “Winning Strategies for Test Taking,” Corwin Press, 2012.) 

1. Get a “Big Picture” view: When students are faced with a high-stakes project or assessment, it can feel overwhelming – perhaps even crippling. It’s important to teach them to take a mental step backwards so they’re able to see the big picture. Remind them that it is only one assessment, one snapshot of who they are as learner, and that they have been working hard all year to master this content. Give students opportunities to look over and analyze exemplars of each form of assessment. Have them evaluate the qualities that made the example stand out as excellent work. Encourage them to visualize themselves doing work that is equally as amazing. Visualizing success is the first step towards achieving it!

2. Break it Down Into Manageable Steps: Once you have gotten a broader perspective of what the overall goal is, the next step is to find a way to break it down into smaller chunks. Identifying the small steps you need to take makes the task more concrete and reaching the end goal more manageable. Students should create tools such as: project management guides with due dates and times for revision, study and review calendars with specific topics or assignments on each day, lists, or even daily routines to follow during assessment time. These guides will not only help them achieve their best on one particular assessment but will also provide a model for what to do when they face similarly big personal, academic, or professional challenges later in their lives.  

*NOTE: It’s important to involve students in the whole process of creating study plans. Don’t just give them the calendars and time lines. They must be responsible for doing it themselves (or with you guiding on the side) in order to take ownership and responsibility for the task.

3. Monitor your Mindset: Culminating projects or assessments are a great time to remind students of the power of maintaining growth mindsets. (See our past newsletter, Growth Mindset Talk, for a review.) 

When challenges present themselves, students’ self-talk can either help them or hurt them. We have all had moments where we beat ourselves up over a mistake or are overly critical of ourselves. We all know how debilitating it feels to have a head full of these types of negative thoughts. Fortunately, we can curb this destructive cycle by cultivating growth mindsets and positive self-talk.

One exercise you can do to support students along the path of developing growth mindsets is to ask them to explicitly counter negative thoughts with a sentence that encourages positivity. Some teachers have created bulletin boards or flip charts in their classrooms in order to model how to replace detrimental thoughts with positive ones. (See samples on the right.) The more exposure to and practice with this type of thinking students have, the more quickly it will become their automatic response to challenges. Create anchor charts in your classroom to remind students of the importance of this type of mindset and to give them ideas of phrases that support it.

Finally, remember to praise students for their effort and hard work & not for being “so smart!” 

4. Find your breath: What should students do if stress still rears its ugly head in the heat of the moment? No matter how well prepared we are, sometimes stress gets the better of all of us. The best thing to do in that case is to teach our students to pause, breathe, and get centered. We can find so much strength in a slow and measured breath and so much calm in a moment of silence. This time to stop and regroup is where we can shift our self-talk from negative to positive.

NOTE: We shouldn’t wait until test time to try this strategy for the first time. It’s important to carve out moments in our daily routine to teach students to learn about mindful breathing and discuss the health and academic benefits of such a small, simple act.  (See our past newsletter, Mindfulness Matters, on mindfulness practices and research.) This does not have to be a big chunk of time. Positive results can come from as little as one minute of mindfulness at a stretch. As students practice learning to deliberately stop and breathe when they feel stressed, they will be come more skilled at recognizing moments in which they need to take these steps on their own.

5. Create a Calm Environment: The final step to mindfully preparing for summative assessments is to create a calm classroom environment. This can mean different things to different people. Some groups may choose to play relaxing music before a big moment. Other groups may take a mindful walk to prepare themselves to sit and focus. Still others may take a moment to meditate before their time to shine. Students benefit from being intentionally and transparently exposed to multiple relaxation techniques so they can eventually choose what works best for them. Try presenting a few options for students to experience and then asking them to suggest new ways to create internal calm.

Although culminating assessments can feel time-consuming and taxing, following these 5 steps will help you and your students make the most out of the situation. Your students will be able to show what they know without nerves getting in the way, and they will be able to transfer these stress management strategies to any future challenge. Preparing our students in this way will help them achieve their best no matter what life throws at them. It’s a simple formula. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: 

Mindset + Skill Sets = Results

Go get ‘em! We’re cheering for you all! Let us know what worked for you and your students. Post your successes on  Facebook or Twitter! 

 Written by:  Michelle Leip with Kathleen Kryza