Tests and exams: How to help students see the bigger picture


“My teachers make me think that the next test or exam is the most important thing in the world”. 

Most high school students know the importance of year-end marks for admission to a university, and it could naturally make them nervous. Teachers do all they can to support their students, but according to our teenage informants, there are some teachers that are going about it a bit like an “academic boot camp”. Perhaps they attended a course somewhere on “negative reinforcement” or such because they keep telling the students things like, “Your test marks will go down this year” or, “you will do worse in tests/exams than last year” or even worse, “most of you will be struggling this year”. 

I am sure that these teachers are just trying to use these scare tactics to get their students to focus and work harder, but on some students, it could very well have the exact opposite effect. In fact, in my opinion, there is absolutely no good reason why such an approach would make sense. Teachers should motivate and drive students towards success and fill them with confidence that they are being well prepared – not have the opposite. Instead of students coming to tests/exams and experience these almost as “life or death” events, students should be prepared to see tests/exams as milestones towards achieving ultimate success. 

The bigger picture?
Although the term the bigger picture is overused – at least it has the advantage that even if it is not always able to fix problems – it is a great way of finding perspective. Coaches, especially when they are in a rebuilding phase, like to talk about the bigger picture (which basically means something like: we are losing now, but be patient we have a plan and when it comes together we will start winning). 

Sometimes they get it right and sometimes they don’t, but the basic principle is sound – long-term success is dependent on a process where even the worst failures become opportunities to learn. When a team wins the league at the end of a year, no one cares about the losses on the way there.

It would be great if teachers and their students also have a similar mindset when it comes to an academic year. Students need to know that it is not so much about each individual assessment as an end in itself but seeing them as milestones towards overall mastery of the curriculum and ultimately gaining skills for life after school. In that context, assessments have a twofold meaning – yes, they do indicate mastery (or lack thereof) up to a particular point. Equally so, and perhaps more important, they are learning events for students to find out what they know, to strengthen neural pathways through recall, to find out whether a particular learning strategy is working, to show some grit and determination, etc. But all of this is only possible in an environment where everyone knows that these assessments are just milestones on a much longer journey.

In the end, students should know that no single test or exam must be allowed to gain more importance than what it deserves.