Drawing Conclusions

Grad student uses kids' art to gauge their testing anxiety

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

When School of Education doctoral student Stephanie Sartain set out to do a study on the effect of anxiety on test performance, she asked schoolchildren to draw pictures of themselves taking exams - and the results were telling.

One fourth-grade boy drew himself with sweat pouring down his face as he was accosted by two giant pencils, while a seventh-grade girl depicted herself surrounded by hovering question marks and thinking, "Why didn't I study? I never study."

"There were more 'sweaters' - people with sweat coming off their heads - than I would have imagined," said Sartain, who surveyed 322 children aged 6 to 13.

Sartain's method might seem unusual, but BC education researchers find grade-schoolers' drawings can provide valuable insights into children's attitudes toward learning. Although pictures do not always tell the whole story, Sartain says, she hopes the study might better inform teachers on how to alleviate test-taking anxieties.

Stephanie Sartain with some of the children's drawings.

"A little bit of anxiety is not a bad thing," she said. "It can be a great motivation. But a child like our sweating friend might not have the best chance when he's taking a test, because he's too nervous about it."

Sartain, who conducted the pilot study for a research course with Prof. Walter Haney (SOE) last fall, arranged with her mother, an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles, and teacher friends in Atlanta and Chicago to collect student drawings.

Most of the children responding drew "neutral" pictures of themselves that expressed neither positive or negative reactions to test-taking, said Sartain. A few pupils did draw pictures expressing confidence or even enthusiasm toward exams. One fifth-grade girl, described by her teacher as above average in academic and testing skills, pictured herself wearing the smug smile of a "Jeopardy!" winner while musing, "This is easy."

But it was the small group of "panickers" at the other end of the sample population whose drawings "stood out more than the other pictures," said Sartain. Their responses likely stemmed from the emphasis most parents place on good grades, she said, and the often unnerving atmosphere that characterizes standardized tests.

"Most of the time, these testing situations are high stakes and the kids know it. The older the kid, the higher the stakes," Sartain said. "You're facing a big clock and the teacher says, 'You have five minutes left. You have one minute left.' It's a pretty stressful situation, even for adults."

Although the pictures can be revealing, Sartain warns against reading too much into them. "It's just a sample of behavior," she said. "You need to be cautious not to over-interpret what's there. A kid may be having a bad day, or may be thinking of having a hamburger while he's taking a test."

W hatever their limits, "drawings have far more potential for use in educational research than we've seen in the past," said Haney, calling Sartain's research "a very interesting extension of this idea of using drawings as a method of inquiry."

Haney, a senior research associate at the Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation and Educational Policy, notes that the center has used the technique in a project at a Worcester school, where pupils were asked to illustrate their views of their teachers. Other SOE doctoral students also have used the technique for their work, he said.

Sartain points out that in her case, not all her subjects necessarily followed directions. Some students balked at the idea of drawing themselves taking tests - a task, she said, that some viewed as a test in itself.

"One first-grade boy refused to make a picture of taking a test," Sartain said, "but he would draw a picture of himself wearing his Lion King shirt."

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