So, it’s the holidays, and we are supposed to be happy. My wife, Jennifer, sometimes gets after me for being such a Scrooge. And I guess I lean occasionally in that direction because I see this time of year not a lot of joy, but a lot of stress, and a lot of concern about what we don’t have rather than thankfulness about what we do have. In schools like Randolph, that stress this time of year is driven by semester exams.
Some students seem to thrive on exams. They come off to the rest of us like those born with great natural talent. They excel effortlessly, or so it appears. They don’t have to study, they’re never pushed for time to get every question answered, it’s almost like they’re mocking the teacher to ask something harder. Like a great athlete who thrives when the game is on the line, or the actor who’s at her best when she steps out on stage, these young scholars are just in the flow when exam time rolls around.
But the rest of us (and early in my school career I was certainly in this category) get really stressed out by exams. The pressure’s intense, and there’s a lot on the line. We never really feel like we know enough. We’re not sure when to go to bed. We fear the inevitable brain cramp that will crater the whole semester.
The fancy word for this is “test anxiety,” but it’s really just stress, and few of us perform at our best when we’re worried about making a mistake or being wrong. Test anxiety (and stress, of course) is not limited to students in a school community. This time of year it’s not unusual for me to have a quick visit with a Randolph parent and hear, “We have a math exam tomorrow.”
Early in life my most harrowing academic experience came in Algebra I at Mackenzie Junior High School in Lubbock, Texas. Those who know me well know that I have never been in the flow with math. It’s always been a struggle. My teacher, Coach Orville Fox, was a mountain of a man and a great teacher. I was determined to do well, but I kept coming up short. No matter how hard I tried, it just wasn’t clicking. There was always something important that I couldn’t figure out when the grades were on the line.
This was public school, and the class size was big and his management skills were impressive. When someone fell asleep in class, he would whack the yardstick on the board so hard that we knew we had to stay awake. The shrieks in class at moments like that were such that he had our attention. I locked on to him the best I could, but I never really connected, and it was a mighty struggle.
Mom could tell how stressed out I was by Algebra I, and, sure enough, she got stressed out, too. I remember one day before a big test she gave me some “memory pills.” I have no idea what they were, maybe something she got off the Home Shopping Network. But I remember breaking out all over and having to go to the doctor, missing my test, and having Mom stress out even more.
Yesterday the divide between the haves and the have nots became crystal clear to me when I was at a restaurant at lunch and saw two Middle School students come through the door. We said “hi,” and then I asked about exams. The different responses could not have been more stark. One girl said, “I bombed it. I sat down and totally went blank.” The other girl said confidently, “I think I did really well.”
It’s tempting for students AND parents (and sometimes even teachers) to fall prey to the fixed mindset and buy into the perception that some of us are natural born test takers, and some of us are not and destined to a school life of misery and suffering. But all around us are examples of students who over time figured it out. It happened for me in boarding school in Virginia when I learned that exams were just like a big game, and that I usually knew more than I thought I knew and had a good opportunity to show it one last time before the end of the semester. That’s a very different mindset than being consumed with worry that I would make a mistake or miss a question that everyone else got right.
This growth happens all the time at Randolph, too. Middle School students often become more comfortable with exams as they make their way ahead in the program. Fewer and fewer parents say “we have a math exam tomorrow.” And more than a few find out that in a good life effort and will power and tenacity and toughness and persistence matter far more than talent. One Randolph senior (who would never describe herself as a natural test taker), by the way, re-took the ACT twice this fall and through hard work and commitment, saw her score jump from 23 to a 26 to a 31. Now that’s worth celebrating, and shows what happens when we dig in and invest in a growth mindset and live out what it means to be learning all the time.