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ASSESSMENT is MORE THAN a TEST: It’s Physical, Emotional, and Social Too

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FIRST, learning and assessing can be stressful, whether mastering a two-wheeler, making sense of the periodic table, or settling classroom discord. Think for a moment about your learning and teaching stressors?

SECOND, assessment can cause physical and emotional stress. Brain hormones such as cortisol affect the hippocampus, leading to changes in mood, sleeping, and reasoning. Stress can result in fingers tapping on a table or shortened temper. It can also lead to long-term physical effects such as high blood pressure, sleep disturbances, and digestive problems.

ASSESSMENT-SAFE classrooms rely on instructional and assessment practices that are coherent, comprehensible, cohesive, and consistent in ways that support learners and learning. For example, chunking facts, linking concepts, or incorporating memorable actions or rhythms to boost learning. Think about what you learned from the “Hokey Pokey” or how your thinking was changed by John Lennon’s “Imagine.” What rhymes, mnemonics, and movements strengthened your memory and mastery. Consider how you could use these in the classroom to engage learners in risk-free learning: Thumbs or down (with eyes closed), sticky notes,  3-2-1, correct the wrong, or responsive technologies such as Kahoot or Plickers.

Movement can be calming and also improve assessment outcomes by relying on the mind-body connection. THE RESULT IS LEARNING THAT LASTS!


Wiggle, Giggle, Signal, Fidget 

1. Tests and assessments can set off a stress reaction that leads to unpleasant, even detrimental, mind and body responses.
2. The resulting stress and anxiety can cause physical symptoms such as digestive and cardiovascular problems and even cognitive fog such as forgetfulness and disorganization.
3. Incorporating movement within learning and assessment can reduce stress and strengthen the brain connections needed for learning.

There is little disagreement that the mind affects the body and the body influences the mind. It is also widely agreed that stress can impede learning, while good nutrition, exercise, a positive attitude, and supportive relationships strengthen it.

Movement helps the brain construct, organize, and retrieve learning by developing dendrites and synapses (a.k.a. connections between neurons). “Walk-abouts” or “learning stations” with specific tasks and well-defined outcomes are better for learning than passive seatwork. Additionally, meaningful gestures and actions promote thinking, and humor reduces stress. Examples include orbital motions (hand and body) when explaining the solar system, sing/or write songs about historical events, or use rhymes and puns to make learning memorable. Here’s some punny stuff:
1. What do you call a knight who’s afraid to fight?  SIR RENDER  
2. I was going to make a joke about sodium, but then I thought, “NA, nobody would understand.”
3. Why are fish so smart? Because they live in schools

When a child faces his palms upward, he could be gesturing a lack of understanding or explaining, “It’s all gone.” For most gestures, the context of movement is as important as the content (i.e., clenching fists while saying “it’s fine” is a mixed message). From a simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down (agree/disagree) or the number of fingers on the chin (level of confusion), learners become more engaged through activity. Students can also demonstrate opposites such as generous or stingy, relationships like backward and forward, and linear vs. exponential growth. Laughing also increases oxygen consumption, which is vital for brain function.

As feasible, include movements, energizers, and props within teaching and learning: Perhaps as reminders of vocabulary, steps in a process, characters in a story, or weather patterns. Here are a few additional strategies to use during teaching, learning, and assessing:

  • To build confidence, sequence assessments through the taxonomy: Begin with recall questions to remind students of basic concepts and vocabulary before asking them to apply and analyze.
  • Provide options for student responses. For example, Charissa wants to describe the event and explain its outcome, while Chad dreams of illustrating and annotating the sequence.

Movement can be calming and can also improve assessment outcomes by relying on mind-body connection. When teachers engage students in corresponding movements, tongue twisters, and other forms of silliness, learning is more apt to linger. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=41gtxgDfY4s

1. Add your own ideas and strategies for engaging learners and reducing assessment stress through movement. What have you used or would like to try?
2. Discuss with your teaching team and students, ways to reduce assessment stress and engage learners IN assessment and AS self-assessors?

The Mind-Body Connection in Learning. Ruth Palombo Weiss https://www.researchgate.net/publication/234740517_The_Mind-Body_Connection_in_Learning

https://www.longbranch.k12.nj.us/cms/lib/NJ01001766/Centricity/Domain/466/Mind and Body Connection.pdfTo Boost Learning, Just Add Movement: https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/movement/
Gesturing Makes Learning Last: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2265003/

For more ideas on best practices in assessment, visit the Assessment Network

1.2: TRAIN the BRAIN: Ease the Stress

When someone is stressed, neurotransmitters flood their brain in preparation for a primitive fight or flight response. Brains are more apt to be in a state of relaxation when learners are prepared to learn, goals and purpose are clear, progress is visible, and learning is relevant. Research has shown that breathing exercises, muscle relaxation, and calming sounds can also lessen the stress that comes from assessments.

Judy Willis, a neuroscientist and educator, explains that stress can have a negative impact on the brain and body. Alternatively, relevance, purpose, and engagement can improve the brain’s circuitry for learning. https://npjscilearncommunity.nature.com/posts/12735-the-neuroscience-behind-stress-and-learning

1. Increases anxiety, restlessness, depression and reduces motivation.
2. Interferes with short and long-term memory.
3. Leads to physical symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, headaches, digestive problems, and insomnia.  
4. Impedes relationships with others due to withdrawal, dishonesty, or conflict.

When learning and testing lead to stress, there are ways to reduce it:
Before Assessing:
1. Confirm that learners understand the assessment purpose, methods, and their significance.    
2. Throughout learning, incorporate and respond to formative check-ins.
3. Review and prepare learners for assessments in informative, engaging, and fun ways.
During Assessment
4. Sequence student assessments through the taxonomy, starting with recall before application or analysis.
5. Provide alternative pathways for students to show what they know and can do.
6. Include opportunities for revisions and do-overs.
Assessment Ambiance 
7. Practice mindfulness, deep breathing, and other relaxation techniques.
8. Reduce clutter, noise, and other annoying distractions.
9. Monitor your own stress and be respectful about unintentionally passing it on to others.  
FOR DISCUSSION: What other things do you or can you do to provide safe and student-friendly assessments?

1. Reduce assessment stress:  The human stress reaction, our fight or flight response, is activated by a need for survival. In a split second, a student may find themselves ready for conflict or prepared to flee. The limbic system, located deep within the brain, is our primary emotional response center. When the amygdala, a small gland within, senses stress, it sends a signal to the hypothalamus that activates the nervous system to fight or flee. It is also activated when a student anticipates failure or senses hostility from others. Lower-stress assessments are aligned with the learning purpose and process, scaffolded and sequenced in complexity, and include options for displaying learning. Source: RESTORATIVE ASSESSMENT

2. Rely on brain-friendly assessments: Learning is a dynamic process. Synapses in the brain are firing and neurons are continuously strengthening connections. Sitting passively, learning through one modality such as listening, completing worksheets, or filling-in worksheets is not as effective as engagement in learning and assessment. Participatory assessment means that learners are actively involved in assessment, including collaborative actions such as think-pair-share, generating alternative solutions or outcomes, creatively summarizing learning visually, consider its applicability to other uses and situations. STICKY ASSESSMENT

3. Incorporate multiple pathways: include movement, words, and images: In small groups, students can illustrate or act out a concept for others in the class to identify and explain. In a culinary class, Ms. Burr had her students demonstrate cooking terms such as boil, rise, stir, melt. (Hint: You may want to avoid knead and peel.) Consider other ways to engage learners as assessors of their own learning. STUDENT-ENGAGED ASSESSMENT

In these ways, assessment can build self-confidence, perseverance, reflection, and ownership. Here’s an abbreviated example from RESTORATIVE ASSESSMENT

STANDARD: *NGSS ESS2.C Water cycles among land, ocean, and atmosphere and is propelled by sunlight and gravity. Density variations of seawater drive interconnected ocean currents. Water movement causes weathering and erosion, changing landscape features.

                                                      MAESTROMASTER   INTERN   ROOKIE 
1. Learning
Outcomes/ Succcess
Plans/carries out an investigation using multiple variables. Defends SolutionUses a planned process to identify influences on the weather.Describes
the water cycle when presented with a
Recognizes/ Illustrates some vocab of the
water cycle.
2. StrategiesAdheres to the scientific method, gathers data, and presents analysis.Follows a plan, compares to cycle, explains differencesDescribes the effects of wind, land and oceans on the water cycle.Fills in blanks in a narrative on water cycles using a word bank.
3. EvidenceUses rubric to self and peer- assess strategy, data, and analysis.Annotates a checklist of steps used in the investigation.Labels and explains the determinants of local weather patterns.Matches terminology to images with 70% accuracy.
Attainment Level w. score conversion. (As needed, Add Annotations)Exemplary 90-100Proficient 80-89Developing 70-79Emerging Below 70
√ Check the Scaffolds, Supports, and Modifications Provided    __Deconstruction of standard
__Adjusted number and complexity of vocabulary.
__Use of timely feedback for improvement. __Guidance on completing missing/incorrect responses in order to include additional evidence of learning and/or raise the quality of work submitted.
__Additional teacher or peer support________________  

Emotions Can Encourage or Hinder Learning

Consider the word “TEST.” Like many educators, you probably have knowledge, experience, and beliefs about their design and usage. Maybe you also felt an emotional reaction, perhaps from a spelling test or AP exam. For some, the word “TEST” or “Deadline” can activate the cluster of cells called the amygdala (uh-mig-duh-la). Right about here:

An individual’s beliefs and predispositions toward tests and assessments are rooted in the amygdala, a primitive part of the brain involved with emotional expression. The amygdala, within the brain’s limbic system, activates our “fight or flight” reflex. The amygdala also plays a significant role in forming memories that are shaped by emotional experiences. Thus, TESTING can result in negative emotional reactions, especially when the tests are surprising or demanding in content or process. Think for a moment about emotions that were involved in your worst and best testing and assessment experiences.

In “All Learning is Social and Emotional,” authors Nancy Frey, Doug Fisher, and Dominique Smith explain that emotional and social skills underlie all learning. CASEL and Aspen Institute advocate for fostering these skills within teaching and learning: From kindergarten teachers who emphasize sharing and following rules to professors who expect accountability and metacognition, there are numerous emotional competencies essential for successful learning.

While tests may elicit responses, from resistance or discouragement to affirmation, purposeful assessment strategies and practices develop and reinforce learning, moderate strong feelings, and engage learners in self-assessment. Here are some guiding questions for priming students as confident self-assessors.
     1. Do students understand the purposes and outcomes of their learning.
Can they explain them in their own words? Are exemplars, templets, and models available to help them visualize the outcomes?
     2. Are they aware of their foundation as well as their preconceptions for learning? Are pre-assessments routinely incorporated?
     3. How well do they understand the process for learning, and how capably can they monitor progress using checklists, progress trackers, and concept maps?
     4. Is feedback routinely provided in timely, specific, and usable ways: Informative, descriptive, and prescriptive?
     5. What opportunities and choices do students have for showing their learning: Written, orally, graphically, and visually?    
     6. Can they identify and explain the connections between the learning intentions, their actions, and the outcomes of learning? i.e., What worked well? What would they do differently next time?
      7. Do they have foundations and skills for self-monitoring, self-regulation, and self-assessment?

ENRICHMENT: “Assessment Choice Boards” give students a sense of ownership and competence. Here’s an example from “Sticky Assessment.” Students can decide how to earn the predetermined number of required points.  For example, 9 points can be three 3s,  a 6 and 3, or one of the 9 point choices.

Points/Level of LearningChoice 1Choice 2Choice 3
3 Points Recall and UnderstandArrange puzzle pieces of the story into the correct sequence.Illustrate and explain the 3 steps that were taken/followed.Write questions to use in a peer review of new vocabulary.
6 Points Scrutinize, Analyze, and  ApplyDevelop and add
a new character. Explain their purpose and influence on the storyline.
Defend how your chosen resources support/align the learning targets.Evaluate experts’ solutions to a problem. Design a pros/cons graphic.
9 Points Synthesize and CreateMarket/sell your story to a publisher based on the guidelines.Design a game to help others review their learning.Develop, explain, defend, an original solution to the problem.


  1. What steps can you take to ensure that students understand the purposes and intentions of learning?
  2. How can students be supported in monitoring and improving their own learning outcomes?
  3. When and what opportunities do students have for displaying their learning?
  4. How can you guide learners in recognizing, understanding, and responding to their emotions during assessments?

Twelve SEL Organizations Making a Difference https://www.gettingsmart.com/2016/10/sel-organizations-making-a-difference/
Greenstein, L. Sticky Assessment: Classroom Strategies to Amplify Student Learning. Routledge/Eye on Education, 2016
Greenstein, L. Assessing 21st Century Skills, Corwin, 2014

For more ideas on best practices in assessment visit the Assessment Network

Communication, Collaboration, and Relationships Matter

From classroom quizzes to large-scale tests, assessment is generally considered a solitary undertaking. However, whether you rely on traditional measures or alternative and authentic methods, there are strategies and processes to strengthen communication, collaboration, and respectfulness.

From preschool to the workplace, being able to work with others is an essential life skill. It is also a proficiency that can be developed and assessed. Learning and working communally requires listening, understanding, considering, and relying on others’ knowledge and competencies. In the classroom, students can learn to share information, provide feedback, gain and summarize insights, and monitor their own interactions.


A. Collaboratively explore the meaning of social skills such as teamwork, reflective listening, and empathy.
B. Include opportunities for students to display, demonstrate, and teach others what they learned together. 
C. Routinely ask learners to identify the social skills they used to achieve their goals. With words and illustrations.  

Virtual learning
may be practical for sharing information, but research shows that in-person learning is more successful for considering multiple perspectives and solving problems.
Susanna Loeb at Brown University believes that the effectiveness of remote learning varies depending on the student, teacher, and whether the learning is synchronous or asynchronous. “In a comparison of both, online classes aren’t as effective as in-person for most students.”
Jessica Heppen, Peggy Clements, and Jordan Rickles at AIR at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research explain that “Despite high spending on technology, schools have not seamlessly or efficiently shifted to distance learning.” Why? Because learning is also a social endeavor that prepares students for their future roles and responsibilities.   

CHECK-IN: Which of these pairs of prompts (select A or B) leads to more robust engagement as well as more explicit learning pathways for students? Why?  
______1A. “Synthesize your learning by writing a summary.”
______1B. “Summarize the main ideas by clarifying how your steps align with and support the learning purposes.”

______2A. “Try to include more descriptive words in your self-assessment.”
______2B. “Explain how, where, and why you used our art vocabulary, i.e., composition, perspective.”

______3A. “How can you be more specific than “It looks like you worked hard” in your feedback? “
______3B.  “I can see right here… how your summary aligned with and furthered your goals of learning.   

______4A. “What else can you do to get the reader’s attention?”
______4B. “The first part was ingenious, but then return to your goal of…..and explain how you achieved it.”

Answer: in each pair, the clearer and the more supportive choice is B. Discuss and deliberate these ideas with your peers.
REFERENCE: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept12/vol70/num01/Seven-Keys-to-Effective-Feedback.aspx


  1. Provide foundational resources that all learners can rely on while supporting others who want to delve more deeply or set their own path.  
  2. Consider the student’s research skills and ability to sort worthwhile resources from invalid/substandard amateur ones.  Here’s a quick summary of how to do that: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WC7byVybj9Y&feature=emb_log  and then there’s the CRAAP test:  https://www.emergingedtech.com/2015/09/favorite-tools-for-evaluating-web-site-credibility/
  3. Ensure adequate time and resources for independent learning. Support students in collectively evaluating the information and resources they have discovered by relying on pre-determined criteria such as expertise, authenticity,  and timeliness of the resources.
  4. Guide and support them in collaborative sharing, learning, and questioning. While there are caveats for collaborative learning, there are also numerous best practices for maximizing its value and usefulness. https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/making-cooperative-learning-work-better/
  5. Rely on consistent and aligned scoring criteria and rubrics when providing feedback on student’s progress and outcomes. You can find examples of these and others, for example, assessing collaboration and communication in Assessing 21st Century Skills.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Successful collaboration can strengthen students’ understanding while opening their minds to multiple perspectives and diverse solutions. Yet, I admit that it can be a challenge to have the whole class collaborate on assessment. What works best is starting with a thoughtful and prudent purpose for doing so, along with an actionable and defined process, and clearly aligned assessments. 

“Be the best you can be, then when you know better, do better. Maya Angelou

Heppen, J., Clements, P., and Rickles, J. (2020)  https://www.air.org/resources/lessons-learned-what-research-shows-about-students-experiences-online-learning

For more ideas on best practices in assessment visit the Assessment Network

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