Maybe it was the first time I actually noticed it, but this year it seemed like more students than normal were freaking out in class. Every class I was getting questions like “How many points is this for?” or “Can you read this – will this get me an A?” or “What can I do extra to get on the Honor Roll?” When I would outline a project, students would ask question after question, seeking clarification because they were assuming simple challenges were actually stealthily complex tasks. The worst was when calm students would, out of nowhere, mishear an innocent phrase and blurt out queries like “What? We’re having a test?” or “What!? We’re doing a DBQ today?!”
I decided to get to the root of these anxiety issues through a student survey. Below are the questions I employed and a little background into what I was hoping to find.
There are only 10 questions as I was using the online survey site www.surveymonkey.com and the free version limits the number of questions.
In addition, the first nine questions were sliding scale questions where students were able to slide their response and place it anywhere along a spectrum of responses between 0 for Never and 100 for Always – with the feeling of Sometimes being in the very center (50). The tenth and final question was an open-ended response question.
FYI – 65 seventh grade students responded to the survey, out of a total of 85. So, I feel the results will be significant in terms of the opinions of the grade level population.
Question 1: I feel sick before tests.
Question 2: I read the test questions and my mind is blank – I feel like I don’t know any of the answers.
These questions were designed to look at general test anxiety. Many students get so anxious before tests, they literally get sick or go blank. Why? Sometimes it is the point value of the test. The higher the stakes, the higher the stress levels. Sometimes it is the test style. Some styles limit a student’s ability to demonstrate their understanding. With limited wiggle room needed to explain or add details, students are either right or wrong – no other possibilities.
It might be wise to take a look at your tests and reconsider the style you employ. Years ago, a former colleague used only those pencil-in-the-tiny-box Scantron tests. She was so hooked on them that she literally hoarded all of the school’s Scantron forms right at the beginning of each year! And, I understand the attraction of closed-ended questions – they get to the point, they are easy to grade (one letter versus a paragraph), and class time is limited.
Open-ended questions have some advantages to consider. In an article on the St. Olaf College website (wp.stolaf.edu) they had this to say about open-ended vs closed questions “One of the strengths of open-ended questions is that they allow for the discovery of unanticipated responses.” You might be surprised what your students actually know. Who hasn’t had a student forget a keyword/phrase for a test, but demonstrates they get it by answering with an illustration or paraphrase. Here’s what one student had to say about tests vs projects in the open-ended question at the end of the survey: “Tests are really stressful because you need to know the exact information, but in the other hand in projects you can express what you know.”
For the first question (I feel sick before tests). The average response was 37. This means that in the range between Never and Always, students were closer to the Never zone. So, students may not feel good before a test, but they are not vomiting.
For the second question (read test and mind instantly goes blank), the average response was 31. So, like the first question, in the range between Never and Always, students were closer to the Never area. Again, indicating that the level of stress felt was relatively minor.
Question 3: When a teacher assigns a project, they are always trying to trick you. They may ask for for something easy, but really they want something more complicated from you.
The purpose of this question was to get at the root of the issue of non-content related clarifying questions – questions like “When you say ‘list’ do you mean just to list, or do we have to provide reasons why?”
Some students intrinsically want to do more. They want to please the teacher or simply show off. But, sometimes the issue might be fear. Some students are terrified that they listened to directions, read the instructions, followed the steps, but are still missing something – something that will cost them significant points. Here, I wanted to understand why students feel this way. Are teachers being unclear in their instructions? Are students not paying attention when teachers actually do explain clearly? Do students simply mistrust us?
The responses averaged out to 39. So, stronger than the responses in questions 1 and 2, but not significantly so. Students, it seems, were again concerned. They weren’t totally mistrusting teachers.
Question 4: I work hard on school projects, but only when there are skills points for the work.
With this question, I was trying to find out if students really only put in effort for work where they were receiving credit. In other words, were they intrinsically or extrinsically motivated? This question was born from all the times I explained an activity/project only to have the first student question be “Is this for a grade?”
I hate, hate, hate, hate, and hate that question.
The only reason to ask it, I feel, is to determine how much effort to put into the work. I wanted to see if my gut reaction was accurate and so included this question.
The responses for this one were a surprise. Like the above, they averaged out around 36 – so closer to the Never zone. I was shocked to see this. If students don’t really consider grades when working, then why do they always ask that question? I have been teaching for a long time and not a year has gone by and not a project has gone by (no matter how small or large in scale) where I wasn’t asked this question. Even when I go over the rubric and announce the point value, students still ask. This is a complete mystery to me. Hopefully, as we evolve to a more growth model, focusing on failure and learning from failure, students will stop asking about the points. The rewards will be self-evident.
Question 5: Every quarter, I am afraid of not making the Honor Roll.
This question was driven by the amount of weight that is attached to Honor Roll. Being on the Honor Roll is always featured on student goals documents. Beginning-of-the-year goals? Be on Honor Roll. Parent conference goals? Be on Honor Roll. When we are spending time in our Advisory class doing a grade check, students are always busy calculating their chances of getting on the Honor Roll. And, if a student feels they should be on the Honor Roll, but for some reason have been left off, then watch out! The office can soon expect a visit from an irate parent. In fact, at one school I worked at, a student was inadvertently left off our end-of-year Honor Roll list. The fallout from that incident was so severe that a special ceremony for that particular student had to be organized at the beginning of the next school year, that featured a detailed and deferential apology from the administrator responsible for the oversight. So, Honor Roll is important to students. And to parents. I just wanted to find out how pervasive this feeling was.
The response here was a little more serious. Responses averaged out at 68 – much closer to the Always range.
What does this mean? Well, on one hand, we as educators have done a great job generating an extrinsic motivational tool. Perhaps we did too great a job! Based on the responses (and general student and parent reaction) being on the Honor Roll is what is driving students, not necessarily learning. And, once we have them hooked on this system, weening parents and students off is not going to be easy. We need to think of ways of celebrating overcoming failure. We need to think of ways to celebrate growth. And, they need to be as public and affirming as our grand Honor Roll assemblies. One way could be events where students show off projects to parents or members of the community. Students would not only show a finished product, but would discuss obstacles overcome and lessons learned. It would definitely signal a shift to a growth mindset.
Question 6: I worry about my grades even when I am not at school (weekends, vacation, travel)
This question was included to look into the issue of general grade anxiety. Later, when I reviewed the question, I felt that it covered the same ground as some of the questions above. And, for surveys, that is not always a bad thing. Sometimes you need to include questions that cover similar areas as a way of checking the respondent’s honesty. If they provide wildly different answers to similar questions, then are the responses reliable?
And, when I looked at the responses – averaged at 61 – I couldn’t help but wonder if the results were to be trusted. After all, in questions about motivation through grades, test stress, and trust concerns, the answers indicated that students were not that concerned. But, in this question about general worry about grades, the opposite appeared to be true.
So, what’s up with this? I teach 7th grade students and it saddens me that, being so young, they are already stressed by grades. I get that grades are important in high school – prospective colleges are looking at those numbers closely. But in 7th grade? Isn’t middle school about developing skills and good habits? As you will read below, the more and more stress our students feel, the greater the negative impact on their learning.
Question 7: Having more than one teacher is confusing for me.
Question 8: I am never sure what my teachers want from me – each teacher is so different.
Question 9: I wish my teachers were clearer about what they want.
I created these questions while reading the book Engagement by Design by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, Russell J. Quaglia, Dominique Smith, and Lisa L. Lande. For me, the central theme of the book is that engagement doesn’t just happen, teachers have to purposefully generate it. For instance, teachers need to ensure students understand why they are doing what they are doing – they need to know the larger context. In addition, teachers must be deliberate in ensuring students understand what is expected – if you are expecting something, you must be explicit and you must ensure students actually know how to do what you expect of them. You can’t simply assume another teacher is taking care of that skill.
Another issue, not in the book, was the issue of multiple teachers that middle school students must deal with. In my school, students see eight different teachers every two days. Yes, teachers meet and share best practices, expectations, and ideas over lunch and over social media. But, we could be better.
These three questions were added to explore the above ideas. The results were very different:
For question 7 (Having more than one teacher is confusing for me) students did not feel that this was a concern. The average score was 14 – significantly close to the Never end of the response spectrum and, in fact, the lowest result in the entire survey. So, students seemed to be okay juggling different teachers.
For question 8 (I am never sure what my teachers want from me – each teacher is so different) the averaged score was higher – 36. For me, this signified that the issue was a concern, but not a noteworthy one.
Question 9, on the other hand, is where things got interesting. For the statement I wish my teachers were clearer about what they want, the students indicated that this was a significant concern. The averaged score for this statement was 56 – clearly in the Sometimes zone.
Although not a major concern, students seemed to be wishing for a little more clarity in the classroom. Douglas Fisher, a professor in the College of Education at San Diego State University (whose book I mentioned above) says that clarity has a significant positive impact on student learning. During a lesson, students need to be able to answer these questions:
- What am I learning?
- Why am I learning this?
- How will I know that I have learned it?
Fisher suggests spending time going over your grading rubrics with students. Then, post the rubrics up in your room for students to check with and for the teacher to refer to when necessary. And if you want to ensure students are clear, then ask them. You can ask them during class or, use some sort of exit slip system.
Although greater clarity is an critical issue, there is more to this than meets the eye. Recently I moved the deadline for in-class presentations, giving students more time to complete their work. I told the students and then wrote the new deadline (in colored markers) on the board. I had students chant the new deadline to me in unison. I even made the new deadline a question in our daily warm-up quiz. And yet, a day later (on the original deadline date), students came up to me – with full panic in their eyes – asking if the presentations were due. I had been over-the-top in my explicitness. So, what was the problem? Turns out stress is the issue. In an article in www.eurekalert.org, a University of Iowa study showed that stress hormones can lead to short term memory loss. Although students know the information, stress is causing them to forget it. I get it – we need to prepare students for the challenges ahead of them in high school and beyond. But, Dr. Fisher points out, the goal of rigor is to move students to a zone of fluency – where students grow with their workload, so that it eventually becomes habit/easy for them. The goal is NOT to overwhelm them and drive them crazy!
Question 10: What sort of projects give you the most stress? Why?
This was an open-ended question. Students were invited to type in their responses into a text box with unlimited space for answers. Some responses were short, while others provided interesting and surprising details.
Below are some highlights/, or rather, the lowlights. I have grouped like concerns to simplify analysis.
Large Scale Projects
- some stressful assignments are huge 30+ point assignments because i need to work a lot and it makes me a bit stressed
- Big 7 pages test always give me a hard time
- Multiple step ones cause i feel like if a get one part wrong I will have to restart the whole thing.
- I think tests give me most stress because it’s basically a huge part of my grade or like an anchor and it determines if my grade goes down or up.
- The ones that are worth the most points, because those assignments are the ones that seriously affect your grade.
- The assignments that give me the most stress are the ones that involve a lot of skill points.
- Big tests- I’m worried about if I get a bad score it would ruin my grade
I love (but am saddened by) the anchor metaphor one student used. You can just imagine this massive iron object dropping beneath the waves and clunking down on the seafloor. Why do assignments have to be clumped together with gigantic and high stakes point values? Why not break them into smaller, less daunting chunks?
- What gives me the most stress is when all the teachers give us assignments and projects at the same time because it’s hard to put your best effort into a project when you have another six to work on.
- The problem is that all of the teachers give me assignments in the same weak and same day that stresses me out.
- The majority of the stress for me is coming not for a test, of the fact that we may have 2 test and 2 project the same week and in one day I have too study and work for all 4
I get this. And my colleagues and I are working to minimize large assessments being scheduled on the same days. But, admin needs to help out. As teachers, we are expected to provide a minimum number of assessment grades every cycle. And, since assessments tend to come after instruction, they tend to occur closer to the end of each cycle. Overlap in assessment between a number of classes is almost inevitable. Perhaps the solution here is, as outlined above, breaking up large projects into more-manageable bites. That way, assessments for different classes may overlap, but students are not juggling a number of very large and high stakes assessments, only a series of small, bite-sized ones.
Document-Based Question Assignments
- Social Studies DBQs
- DBQs, Science projects and assignments, book projects, and assignments that I feel like the teacher didn’t prepare me for
- DBQ’s are the most stressful assignment they have given in school.
- Essays or long paragraphs (DBQ) because at first you don’t know what to write
- DBQ’s because I don’t get them.
- Assignments with a lot of steps, Like when we were assigned us a DBQ.
These responses were particularly distressing for me because I was part of the team that inflicted them on our middle schoolers. DBQs, or Document-Based Questions, are an assessment tool that our middle school Social Studies team (which I am a part and was once the chair of) adopted about five years ago. Here’s how it happened: we had a vertical integration meeting with our high school colleagues to better align our curricula and ensure the middle school was adequately preparing kids for the challenges ahead in high school. A number of our high school Advanced Placement history colleagues told us that they felt that middle school students were coming into high school unprepared for AP class DBQs. If we had that meeting again today, I would tell my high school colleagues that it is their job to prepare students for their assessments. After all, middle school teachers don’t go down to first grade classes and ask teachers to assign first graders a five-paragraph essay. Another solution would have been to break the skills required for a DBQ into smaller, individual components and have students practice using them. Instead of pushing back or making adjustments, we decided as a team to begin assigning full-scale DBQs – at least 2 per year – beginning with our 6th grade students.
And this was just wrong.
The reason DBQs are used in high school and beyond is because they are developmentally appropriate for older students. They are not appropriate for 10 and 11-year old kids. And the aftermath of us employing them is even worse than these survey responses reveal. Sure, eight responses out of 65 is significant. But, I see the real impact of DBQs in the classroom on a regular basis. I assign Daily Quizzes as a warm-up routine. I call them DQs. Whenever a student hears the letters “DQ” or sees them on the board, they literally freak out thinking I meant a DBQ. Students will gasp in horror, groan in pain, and their eyes widen in terror. I see it now with my 7th graders, and witnessed it regularly when I was teaching in 8th grade. No other assessment has this effect on them. (In fact, as I was editing this, a student was reading over my shoulder and, with terror in her voice, asked “Are you making us do a DBQ?”) It saddens me because students were clearly scarred by our decision. And, it is sad that we took a tool for developing important and useful skills and ruined it. Forever. Makes me wonder if the high school phenomenon of “senioritis” – when some seniors seem to disconnect from learning and devolve into slackers – is a result of our mishandling of instruction and assessment starting in the middle school.
I am not sure where I will go from here based on this survey. I know that I will certainly begin breaking larger, high-stakes projects into smaller units. I will endeavor to break complex skills into easier-to-digest and more age-appropriate chunks. I will ensure my lessons don’t occur in a vacuum – students will understand what we are doing as well as why we are doing them. I will do a better job of pro-actively going over rubrics and expectations so that students will know, throughout a project, where they are and what success will look like when they arrive there. Also, I will do my best to share what I have learned with my colleagues so that we are all doing what is emotionally and pedagogically best for our students.
And no more DBQs – until that situation gets sorted out!
I know that I am coming off as really preachy. And please understand that I am not trying to appear as a know-it-all. I am simply an educator with a massive load of guilt on my shoulders. I just want to share these survey responses and encourage my peers to look at this information. Hopefully it will trigger a small change in practice so that we stop burning our kids out before they even really get started.