Guest Post by Jacque Miller from “For the Love of the Children”
5 Ways to Remove Stress from Learning
A few weeks ago, I found out that my class sizes would go from 24ish to about 30 after winter break. My boss had to find a way to provide additional support during the school day for students who were on the bubble of passing our state exam, and the only thing that made sense was taking the teacher who had our overflow of 7th graders giving her a different group of students so that that she could facilitate a study skills class. Of course, as a professional, I outwardly kept it together when I received the news. But inside, I WAS A MESS! My mind started swirling around with what if… and how can I…and what about… I returned to my classroom, and tried to work on lesson plans, but my mind had shut down. I couldn’t concentrate on the tasks at hand because I was stressed out. This incident reiterated that stress affects learning. Stress gets in the way of student achievement. When our students experience a high level of stress, their brains are not in optimal processing mode and their learning is affected. So what would happen if we eliminated much of the stress that is associated with learning?
As a mom of a three year old, I often observe the way in which my daughter learns. She isn’t concerned about tests or bad grades. She isn’t overwhelmed by the amount of things she needs to learn before she goes to school. She finds great joy in learning new things and reviewing them in myriad ways on a consistent basis. Each day we review and build upon key concepts. If she gets something wrong, we correct her and she tries again. Both my husband and I have been astounded at the rate in which she learns and retains information, as well as the way she is able to apply what she’s learned to new situations.
If this is the way in which the human brain works, what’s stopping us from eliminating as much stress as possible from our students’ learning? What if they didn’t have to be concerned about tests or bad grades? What if they weren’t constantly reminded about the amount of things they need to master before the end of the school year? (I’m speaking guiltily here.) What if they got to review concepts in many different ways throughout the year, and if they get something wrong, they are gently corrected and allowed to try again? What if fun activities were incorporated into our standards? The sky would be the limit, right?
With that in mind, here are five ways that we can begin to reduce the stress that is currently associated with school and learning.
1. Give students full credit on assignments for putting forth their best effort, even when they get some answers wrong. Allow them to check and correct their answers immediately. (The full credit comes when they correct any mistakes they made.) Then give them opportunities to redo the lessons throughout the year.
This is one of my students’ favorite ways to learn. No child wants to fail, and if the stress of possible failure is removed, students can concentrate on learning or reviewing concepts. Think about how children perform when they play video games or complete activities on their electronic devices. They master levels because they continue to try again, often using the SAME game or app. We can certainly incorporate this mentality into our classrooms. Students will try to get as many items correct as they can and work to fix their mistakes if they get something wrong. Their DESIRE to master a concept will propel their learning, and they’ll be motivated to try their best.
2. Give students the answer (to constructed response and essay items) BEFORE they do the work. Allow them to have the answer in front of them as they construct their own responses. This gives them a model for their own answers.
This builds on the concept of going over exemplar responses with students. In the past, I’ve waited until after my kiddos wrote an essay to go over an exemplar response, but that didn’t seem to be as helpful as I had anticipated. Then I thought about the decorating ideas I retrieved from Pinterest. I didn’t look at the perfectly designed rooms only one time and then decorate my own room. I pinned as many images as I could from more accomplished designers (though it doesn’t take much for someone to be MUCH better than I am at designing!) and referenced them during my decorating process. The same holds true for our students. Don’t just go over the work of a more accomplished writer before giving students a chance to write. Provide them with a copy of the work so that they can reference it as they complete their own writing task. When I did this with my 7th graders, I was amazed at how much (and how well!) my students were able to write. (Just be sure to give a stern warning about not plagiarizing the exemplar response.)
3. Work independently on an assignment. Meet with a partner, discuss the answers, and change your responses if you want to.
At a recent Smekens conference, Ms. Smekens said not to underestimate the power of discussion. I’ve erred by not allowing my chatty 7th graders to have a lot of academic conversations. They are social beings and often get off task when given the opportunity to talk about their work. However, I thought again about my designing efforts and how much better my finished product looks when I talk to friends who know more about decorating than I do. I am able to get ideas from them and tweak my room so that it comes out more like what I envision (and yet, it’s never quite as good as what I saw on Pinterest…). With that in mind, I laid out my expectations for academic conversations and was quite pleased with the way in which (most of) my students stayed on track and begin changing their answers as needed. (We still have some work to do in this regards.) The reduced stress contributed to better learning.
4. Provide lots of visual aids (anchor charts) so that students can access clues after concepts have been covered.
I’m a visual learner. Visual aids work as a cue for me and I am able to remember so much more when they are accessible. When decorating my room, I constantly reference the images of other decorators so that I know what I’m doing. If my iPad stops functioning and the internet goes down, I’m in full panic mode with not knowing what to do to complete my task! Many of our students are the same way. If we construct our anchor charts as we cover our standards, post them around the room and reference them when we are reviewing a skill, our students will get into the habit of looking at them as needed. Knowing that these visual prompts are available removes stress for students because they know that these cues will help them arrive at the correct answer. (My friends who teach at the elementary level ROCK at this! I’ve learned so much from my colleagues who work with the younger students!)
5. Give students brain breaks. Give them a chance to rest their brain and stop learning for a few moments.
After some intense work, we all need a break. As adults, we sometimes step away from our work for a coffee break. During that time, we may check Facebook or Instagram, text a loved one, or catch up on some blog reading. Sometimes we put our computers aside and move around the house to do some cleaning, watch one of our favorite shows, or relax with a good book. We know that we need these brain breaks to sustain ourselves throughout the day and keep our minds fresh. But how often do our students get to rest their minds throughout the day? I’m not referring to the short 5 minute passing period or bathroom break they get before transitioning to another class or subject. (I’m pretty sure there are some days I’d cry if all I got was a 5 minute break!). I’m talking about intentional times of relaxation. This doesn’t have to be a time where students do nothing. There are so many activities that they can engage in that require little brain effort, such as free reading with no thought of having to complete a reading log or respond to comprehension questions, play time with academic board or computer games, and vocabulary related coloring pages, just to name a few. Throughout the day, their minds are bombarded with learning one thing after another. Allow them to rest their brains. This will reduce their stress levels and rejuvenate them.
I know that we cannot use all of these all of the time. I also know that we must give summative assessments that will affect our students’ grades. But if our instruction were delivered in a low-stress manner, I am confident that our students WOULD perform better on those summative assessments. Yes, this will by no means reduce all of the stress in their life, but it will help eliminate some, and the result will be students who are more ready and willing to learn, which will translate into higher academic success.
Here is a freebie that highlights a program I use with my students where I give them full credit for being 100% honest about the questions they missed. Students receive immediate feedback on their answers to the multiple-choice questions (when they use the computerized portion of this program) and then correct their mistakes. The immediate feedback, plus the repetition of concepts has done wonders in removing stress and helping my students LEARN! Read more about this program on my blog.
~Jacqueline R. Miller
About: Jacqueline Miller is a middle school reading teacher in Hammond, IN. Jacque has been teaching reading for twelve years. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, Master’s degree in Elementary Education, and a middle school English endorsement. Jacque has been recognized as an Outstanding Educator in Hammond and consistently receives top marks in her evaluations because of the work she does with her middle school students.
In addition to teaching, Jacque enjoys being a professional photographer. She takes great pleasure in combining her passion of photography with her love for teaching. Jacque uses photography as a tool to connect with her students.
Jacque has been married to Ben Miller for 14 years and is the mother of a precocious three year old, a true miracle child and gift from God.