Climbing a Mountain: Student Anxiety and Event-Style Assessment
Recently, I was approached by a colleague that indicated some students were concerned about an upcoming exam for a course they felt was challenging. Their anxiety was palpable, my colleague noted, and my colleague was concerned that there would be some backlash from parents once the test was administered. This got me thinking again about assessment, but this time I contemplated a separate aspect of assessment. Is an examination of knowledge a mountain to be climbed that a teacher places in front of students?
Student anxiety derives from their perception of whether or not they are prepared to "climb the mountain," as well as the "supportive" approach the educator assumes when showing them the challenge. Do students feel prepared for an event-style exam? What purpose does the event-style exam serve? How much accuracy did students demonstrate prior to the exam regarding the use of the skills, concepts, knowledge necessary for success on the exam? Was there sufficient practice and feedback given to each student about their level of mastery of the skills, concepts and knowledge? What will be the consequence for success or failure on the exam? These questions, when thoroughly addressed by the educator, can do much to alleviate some the anxiety experienced by students.
Event-style examinations can serve a function in classrooms. They can mark the distance or the height we climb intellectually. With adequate practice and feedback, students can climb the mountain. Yes, there still may be anxiety, but over time, the student will grow accustomed to the anxiety level and begin to perform at a level commensurate with their abilities or desired outcome. My recommendation to teachers, however, is to use event-style exams sparingly during their instructional time with students. Unless real-time feedback can be provided to the student, it is my contention that event-style tests can have more detrimental consequences, than positive effects on learning and study skills in the long term. In addition, challenging topics, concepts and knowledge - those most useful to both students and educators (in which higher-order thinking skills are engaged) - are best approached (think performed) with the support and presence of other learners and the educator themselves, rather than all alone by the learner.