The other day I did something that I have been meaning to do for quite a while now, I deleted every maths test from my hard drive. I did not do this selectively, I searched for the word test in my maths folder and deleted everything. I haven't done a test in any of my maths classes for the last 3 years (other than the compulsory 1 or 2 all maths teachers must do statewide) and can't see myself wanting to do any in the future, it is not a practice I place any value on any more, so this step is me wiping the slate clean.
I have come to this decision by watching my students engage with tests over the years, and in more recent years through what I have learnt about the 'science of learning'. By the 'science of learning' I am referring to the interplay between the neuroscience and the psychology and how this impacts on learning. In particular in recent months my focus has been on developing a stronger understanding of the role of maths anxiety. To be honest I knew that maths anxiety existed, however it wasn't until I saw the video below that I realised how prevalent it was, nor had I taken the time to understand the neuroscience that underpins it.
.The anxiety felt is a result of increased activity in the amygdala, this part of the brain is responsible for processing our emotions, including fear, and for determining what memories are stored in our brains. This consequently reduces the capacity of our working memory which we use to make sense of, and solve, mathematical problems. Because our working memory is reduced we then do not perform as well as we could on that test and this further raises our level of anxiety and the cycle continues. All of this is symptomatic of maths anxiety regardless of the maths being worked on, however the effects of maths anxiety are further emphasised if a time limit is put on the piece of work like what occurs in tests.
I guess what prompted me to think a little bit more about why I hadn't just deleted all my tests was in watching the documentary "Race to Nowhere". In that documentary there were numerous occasions where kids spoke about cramming the information into their head for just long enough to put it down on the page but only a week or two later they could no remember the work at all. This is not the type of learning I want for my students, they deserve better than that
To make that final move of pressing the delete key I needed to ask myself a few questions about tests, these were
However to finish this post off I want to address something you may have thought as you have read this which is, "they are going to have to do tests/exams eventually". I am not naive, I know that eventually, the kids I am working with be required to do tests and exams in their final years of schooling, I wish they didn't have to, but that is the reality of it at the moment. However I also believe that the putting them through timed tests regularly for many years before that is not the best way for me to prepare them for tests later on in their schooling. Kids need the time, the space and the opportunity to develop robust and flexible mathematical knowledge by understanding the connections between key mathematical ideas, this is where I feel the secret lies for success in tests many years down the track, and developing this understanding is where I feel that my role lies. This focus on understanding rather than speed may help them in their tests much later down the path, but more importantly it helps them out a lot with what they are doing right now.
Senior Leader of Pedagogical Innovation and Mathematics Coordinator in Regional South Australia.
Opinions in this blog are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of my employer.