7 Expert Ideas to Boost Test-Time Motivation

Help your students stay engaged and energized throughout testing season using these innovative methods.

Female high school teacher assisting a group of students in a classroom

by NEA Member Benefits

If you think your students have a short attention span, you’re right. In 2002, the average attention span was 13 seconds. Now we’re down to a mere eight seconds—one second less than the attention span of a goldfish. 

The many distractions of technology and everyday living make it difficult for children to stay focused. That, in turn, makes it harder for educators to keep kids engaged and energized—especially during assessments, when students can be expected to sit for long periods of time.

Despite the challenges, educators are finding inventive ways to spur their students’ interest and hold their attention. From high-stakes standardized testing to the weekly assessment of student work, here are some creative ways to keep everyone engaged.

1. Let students take charge

Give students ways to take charge of testing situations. The more involved they are the more interested and focused they’ll be. Stephen Jones, an education expert with more than 30 years experience helping K-12 and college students succeed on tests and author of “Seven Secrets of How to Study,” the “Parents Ultimate Education Guide,” and the “Ultimate Scholarship Guide,” suggests forming student study groups before tests and ask participating students to establish their own test-taking goals. “Get students to create their own tests and try them on each other,” Jones suggests.

2. Apply associations

“Create test questions that are relevant and engaging,” suggests Shiv Gagliani, a Johns Hopkins medical student and co-founder of Osmosis, a web- and mobile-learning platform that improves student engagement and memory retention. Use associations in your questions because they “are powerful memory hooks. For example, we have an entire question bank related to celebrities and pop culture icons from Kim Kardashian to Ben Franklin,” he says.

3. Go for Games

“Testing can be tough on kids” and is often stressful, frustrating and confusing, says Suzi Wilczynski, founder and president of Dig-It! Games. Wilczynski is a trained and seasoned archaeologist who taught middle school social studies in the District of Columbia and Philadelphia. She believes in the power of games to promote critical thinking and problem solving skills, as well as cultural awareness.

It’s important to blend fun and learning when helping students prep and review for tests, Wilczynski says. She recommends “game-based learning,” which can be a powerful tool when used correctly in the classroom. “Digital games encourage students to make mistakes and learn from them in a positive environment,” she adds, “without fear of penalty or embarrassment.” To be effective, they have to be fun.

One example of a game used for test review is Loot Pursuit: Pompeii. “It’s a short game that aligns to Common Core standards [so] teachers know their students are seeing forms of questions that are likely to appear on an assessment, and [that] they’re reviewing the topics that are most important to master -- algebra, geometry, ratios and more,” Wilczynski explains.

4. Motivate yourself, motivate your students

“It’s very important for teachers to stay motivated during testing season to keep kids focused and motivated,” says Kathryn Starke, a literacy specialist, author and speaker who spent 13 years serving as a K-5 literacy specialist in Richmond, Virginia. She believes educators need to give students daily positive energy, praise and encouragement so they’ll feel confident in their workload, no matter the task. “Students look to their teachers as models,” Starke says. “If the teachers are stressed, children will be too. If the teacher is positive, the students will be too. And if the teachers instill confidence in their students, the children will do their best.” 

5. Try take-home

While this won’t work for standardized tests, in other assessment situations try letting students take the test at home so they can do it in the comfort of their rooms or in groups with other students, suggests Michael Provitera, author of “Mastering Self-Motivation,” and professor of organizational behavior at Barry University School of Professional and Career Education (PACE) in Miami, Florida. For example, you might have them watch scenes from a movie, video or documentary, then give them a take-home test that will challenge them to apply theory or models using critical thinking.

6. Stand up!

Something as simple as standing up can help keep students focused. “Activity and motion are key components in learning,” according to Carrie Schmitz, Ergonomic and Wellness Research Manager of Ergotron, an Eagan, Minnesota, a company that makes standing desks. “Never have students maintain a single posture for longer than 20 to 30 minutes.” When people are seated for long periods of time, they tend to “drift forward and down into a slumped posture that limits the intake of oxygen and leads to fatigue of mind and body,” she explains.

When you notice students starting to fidget or when their bodies tell them to move, have students stand up and flip over their test papers (in appropriate situations) for a few moments before they sit back down and resume the test, Schmitz says. That helps students “change postures frequently throughout the school day,” which is closer to the natural rhythm of human physical activity, she explains.

7. Move your class

The three keys to keeping kids motivated are movement, healthy snacks and making learning fun, says veteran teacher Linda Nathan, who worked with Denver and Cherry Creek School Districts in Colorado for more than 25 years.

“Tests are a half-hour to an hour, each subtest,” Nathan says, but kids can’t hold their attention that long. Even adults can’t sit longer than 20 minutes before they lose focus. That makes the rest of the time “a waste,” she says. Break up those blocks of inactivity by having students do calisthenics in place, walk around the room, or do some aerobics if they’re old enough.

A good snack would be in order before the test, Nathan adds. If your school allows snacks, choose nutritious, easy-to-eat ones such as sliced bananas or sliced apples.

Make learning more fun. Take away the performance anxiety by shifting students’ perspective away from pass-fail toward a progress check. Nathan explains to students that the test isn’t as much about them as it is about the teacher. “It’s for us to learn what we need to teach you,” she says. It helps when kids know “they are not the victims,” Nathan says; “they’re helpers.”