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Resist the urge to label your child a "bad test taker"
Applying the label can do more harm than good.
Originally published in the Moultrie News.
My daughter is smart but a bad test taker. What kind of alternative assignments can she be given to accommodate her deficiency?
What makes one a bona fide BTT (bad test taker)? Eating the questions would surely count. Writing the answers in ketchup would also qualify. But what most parents mean is that their kids get bad grades on tests. That’s obviously a concern, but of greater concern might be the BTT label itself.
On the one hand, we’re all BTTs when we don’t know the answers. That’s sometimes because we’re not very sharp. I was a BTT in algebra because I just didn’t get it. But even smart kids can be BTTs if they don’t adequately prepare for tests. For them, understanding how cells multiply is a snap; remembering it for a test takes a lot more preparation.
On the other hand, there could be such a thing as “test anxiety.” One of the first studies on this subject showed that certain test cues can signal danger to a child’s brain because the child is being assessed by authority figures. The irrational fear of failure that ensues may cause poor performance.
In my eyes, significant overlap between these two views is likely. The test “danger” that a child senses could be (and probably is) uncertainty about the answers. This uncertainty could be (and probably is) due to improper test preparation.
As with other psychological designations (ADHD, for example), a faulty attribution of “test anxiety” or even a cavalier parental label of BTT, could potentially do more damage than the actual affliction by giving the child a free pass on the challenges that instill learning.
In a recent study published in the Teaching of Psychology journal, psychologist Jeffrey Holmes puts it bluntly: “One of the best ways to be bad at something is to tell yourself you are bad at it.” Even better is to have your parents, teachers, and counselors agree in unison that you are bad at it.
Thus, the results of being tagged as a BTT can be academically (and therefore professionally) catastrophic. Holmes’ study revealed that college students who identify as BTTs “have lower confidence in their broader academic abilities, expend less effort on cognitive activities and feel entitled to positive academic outcomes regardless of performance.” Those are not ingredients for success.
Psychologist Sue Frantz explains that believing you’re a BTT can be bad because it’s an internal, stable, and global acknowledgment: “Internal: It’s a trait I have. Stable: It’s a trait that’s not going to change. Global: My bad test-taking applies regardless of the test.” As a result, these students never try to improve their preparation.
Frantz suggests that reframing students’ mindsets can help them succeed. After flunking a test, the student who says, “I didn’t know the material well enough,” is making an acknowledgment that empowers. The student believes the grade is due to her own actions, and if she does things differently, she can improve next time. It also only speaks to a particular test, not every test she’ll ever take. This student, Frantz says, “has agency.”
Before labeling your child, investigate her study habits. Many kids think studying means reading something repeatedly. There’s a lot more to it than that, and an internet search can give you dozens of better strategies. Enlist the help of her teacher, who can show her how to prepare and give you insight into her classroom engagement, another issue that could lead to poor test-taking.
As for testing alternatives, I can offer no comfort. Tests are everywhere, in school and out, and I’m afraid your daughter is stuck with them. So, in this case, confronting the dragon is better than running.
Resisting the urge to label your child a BTT can be tough when it means a lot of work for you, but it’s a better path. Parents who don’t want to exert the effort may simply shrug and slap on the label, but that course of action makes me think that the child’s inability to measure up under critical conditions is an observed trait.
Read the original column here.