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Boosting student confidence and performance with online practice tests

Asian woman sitting using laptop Stacey Hughes examines some of the benefits of online practice tests and explores how they can help prepare your students for their exams.

If you have ever taught an exam preparation course, you will know that students who take such a course tend to do better than those who don’t. These courses do several things. Firstly they help students become familiar with the structure and content of the exam. Secondly, they teach exam strategies – whether to skip a question and come back to it, for example, and how to approach different sections. Also importantly, they draw students’ attention to the assessment criteria so that they know how they are being marked. The topics raised in exam prep courses mirror those on the exam, so students who take these courses will have the advantage of having thought about and built knowledge and vocabulary around them. A final important benefit relates to confidence. Exam prep courses build student confidence when taking the exam.

Why use online practice tests?

In an exam preparation course, students will naturally want to practice taking the exam, and this is where the online practice tests available on the Oxford Placement Test are highly beneficial. In practical terms, because most of the test is automatically marked, teachers are saved marking time. This means that teachers have more time to spend giving valuable feedback on the speaking and writing parts of the test. Online tests are also easier to manage both because they don’t require the photocopying that paper tests do and because they can be taken by the students at school in a computer lab or at home. The results are stored and managed in the learning management system, so teachers don’t have to worry about carrying around a lot of student test papers.

Focusing your students on the exam

Teachers have the flexibility to assign the test in test mode or practice mode, giving them the added benefit of using the tests as a testing or learning tool. In test mode, students complete the test without any learning support, the same as they would in the actual exam. Test mode is useful towards the end of the course to help students get mentally prepared for exam conditions.

Helping your students learn from their mistakes

In practice mode, the tests can be used as learning tools. In practice mode students can:

  • get tips to help them answer the questions before submitting their answer. This extra layer of scaffolding supports students’ thinking about the right approach to arriving at the right answer.
  • get feedback on each question. This is beneficial because students learn the rationale behind correct and incorrect answers and strategies for dealing with each question. The extra support can also build confidence in weaker students. Because feedback is immediate, the response and context are still fresh in the student’s mind and this means the feedback is more likely to help students learn from their mistakes.
  • use the online dictionary. This extra learning tool in practice mode can help students build their vocabulary and get to grips with content and topics.
  • listen to their recording of the speaking section and re-record if they are not happy with the result. This feature gives students multiple opportunities to record and can build their confidence. There is also a useful language section to help support their speaking if they need it.
  • see a sample answer to the writing task once they have written their own answer, allowing them the benefit of seeing the type of response expected without hindering their own creative thinking.
  • do part of a test and finish it later. The teacher may also choose to assign just one part of the test. This flexibility allows teachers and students to focus on one particular task or section and can be a more manageable way to approach the test.
TOEFL iBT OPT support features

Practice mode gives students extra learning support

 

Tracking your students’ results

As students work through the test in test mode or practice mode, it is automatically marked and the results are sent to the markbook. The online markbook shows the score for each section and also which questions each student got right or wrong. The teacher can choose to allow the students to see their scores on most parts of the exam, and speaking and writing papers are sent to the teacher to mark. There is a space for the teacher to type in comments and a grade for the speaking and writing sections which the students can then view.

How can you use online practice tests during your course?

One approach would be to assign a practice test in test mode at the beginning of the course just to introduce the students to the format and to provide a springboard for discussion about the test: How many sections where there? How did you approach the … section? What sections did you find easy/difficult? Why? Were there any sections you weren’t sure about or didn’t understand? Did you feel you had enough time to complete all the sections? How did you feel about speaking on the topic? etc. At this point, the teacher might choose NOT to let the students see their scores since so early in the course low scores may be demotivating. The same test could then be used in practice mode with the teacher assigning different sections at different times after some work in class on strategies for completing them. The results of these attempts will be sent to the markbook so that the teacher can see if there is any improvement, and this information may be shared with the students. Towards the end of the course, the teacher could then assign another online test in test mode to get students mentally ready for taking the exam. This would also highlight any weaknesses that the students need to work on.

It’s easy to see how the online practice test can become a learning tool which help students become familiar with the exam, learn strategies for completing the different sections and gain confidence. The tests can be an effective additional tool in the exam course to help teachers and students prepare for their exam.

Ready to start using online practice tests?

To find out more about using the online practice tests with your students, including how to assign the tests, track your students’ progress, and see their results, watch the recording of our webinar Making the most of online practice tests.

You can also find out more about online practice tests here.

Watch the webinar recording


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Get your students ready for Trinity success!

Trinity GESE exam successDr Mark Griffiths shares some thoughts about his webinar, “Get your students ready for Trinity success” (watch a recording), which looked at some of the key features of the Trinity College London Graded Examinations in Spoken English (GESE) exams, focusing in particular on Grades 3-4. Mark is a professional linguist, teacher, teacher trainer, author, researcher and language consultant with more than 25 years’ experience in the fields of English language education and linguistics research. As a specialist in the field of Trinity, with more than 10 years’ experience of training teachers in preparing students for the exam, he offers a range of ideas, tips and preparation strategies.

Have you prepared your candidates for a Trinity exam? Or are you thinking of preparing them for Trinity in the future? Maybe you’re just interested in activities that create a more communicative classroom?

I’m Mark Griffiths and in my webinar I’ll be looking at some of the key features of Trinity College London’s Graded Examinations in Spoken English, (or as many people call them, the GESE exams). I’ll show you lots of practical activities you can use in your classroom to prepare for Trinity, and to improve your students’ communication skills.

We’ll look at the format of the Trinity GESE exams and we’ll see how this changes from Grade 3 into Grades 4, 5 and 6. We’ll look at the language focus of the exams, especially the very popular Grades 3 and 4, and we’ll also explore a range of different ideas for practising the grammar and lexis communicatively.

One of the most important aspects of the Trinity GESE exam is preparing a Topic to discuss. We’ll explore ways of helping your students to think of a Topic and we’ll discuss how we can help them to prepare material for their Topic presentation that is both communicative and personal. And would you like to know some typical examiner questions for the Trinity GESE exam? I’ll show you some in our example ‘Aim at the Exam’ practice section, and I’ll share activities that you can use in the classroom to practise the conversation between the examiner and your students.

Many teachers also have questions about grading. Which Trinity GESE grade should my students do? Are they ready for Grade 3? Could they pass Grade 4? I’ll show you a grading tool that will help you to check if your students are ready for the Grade and show you how the typical examiner questions can help you to decide the best Grade for each student.

All of the material in this webinar has been developed in consultation with Trinity College London and so you know that all of the grammar and lexis, the example questions, and the types of practical activities included in the webinar will practise the language and communication skills that the Trinity examiner wants to hear.

This webinar really is ideal for anyone preparing Trinity. I offer a range of ideas, tips and preparation strategies for Trinity and show you how to pass the exam, how to impress the examiner and how to avoid those typical mistakes!


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#EFLproblems – Learning English Beyond the Exams

Disappointing exam resultsWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. This week’s blog is in response to Raef Sobh Azab’s blog comment regarding the challenge of motivating students who are in an exam-focussed environment. Stacey Hughes from the Professional Development Team discusses how to take English beyond the focus of exams.

One major problem is that the educational system in my country is mainly exam-based. Most teachers, students, and even parents do not care at all about the quality of learning. They are mainly concerned with passing the exams. L1 is all the time used in class, real life English is not stressed, language skills are not practised at all, learning aims are not achieved, and private lessons given to students at home or in private centers are the norm. This is really frustrating for some teachers who are keen on improving their teaching skills and eager to get their students engaged in the learning process, thus, achieve a real progress and taste the beauty of language.”

Certainly, one way to ensure students are exam-focussed is to make exams central to the course. Constant reference to exams either by the teacher, parents or institution will show students that passing the exam is the goal.

But how can we make English communication skills the goal?

1. Determine personal learning goals

The first thing is to find out from students what their personal learning goals are. Do they want to just pass the exam or do they actually want to learn to communicate in English? Do they want to be able to listen to music, watch films, or search the web in English? Do they want to be able to go to an English speaking country and speak with people there? Do they want to be able to get a job where they use English to communicate via email or telephone? Or maybe they want a job that allows them to travel – in this case, English may be useful.

Help students find an intrinsic reason to learn English – one that is important on a personal level. It also must be said that there may still be students who don’t really want to learn English, and for whom passing the exams is the only goal. However, if the exams are based on reading, writing, listening and speaking in English, then maybe they will see that improving these skills will also help them pass the exams.

2. Use English as the classroom language

Create the expectation that for the time that English lessons are going on, they will be conducted in English. This change may take some time for students to get used to, so take it slowly. Maybe you could aim for half an hour at first and then build on that. Make sure you reassure students that, during the last 5-10 minutes of the lesson, they can ask questions in the L1 if they didn’t understand. Make your instructions clear and make sure you use examples, visuals and, if necessary, written support on the board to accommodate students who aren’t confident in trusting their listening skills. Finally, encourage students to use English when speaking to each other and praise them when they do.

3. Make sure each lesson has a clear communicative aim

Instead of an aim such as, to learn the present perfect, make the aim, to talk and write about things I have done before. This shift in focus lets the students know what the communicative purpose is for learning the tense – how it can be used in real communication. Scaffold tasks so that students have lots of support. So, for example, you might do a Find Someone Who… type exercise in which students have to ask each other, “Have you ever…”Write the kernel on the board, brainstorm some endings and write them on the board: …walked for more than five miles, …eaten foreign food, …run a marathon… Keep these on the board during the discussion phase so that students can refer to them for support. Stronger students will be able to make up their own, so this is an example of an activity which could work well in a mixed ability class.

4. Don’t make exams the only focus

There are lots of ways to bring in on-going assessment and even self-assessment to show students that each stage of the lesson is important. Listen to students during tasks and tell them if you think they are doing a great job at speaking in English – give them an “A” for the activity. Create a check list that students can use to self-assess: I can talk about what I’ve done. I can ask someone if s/he has ever done something. I can write about what I’ve done. (etc.). Ask them to assess themselves honestly and set review tasks if students feel they can’t really do that yet.

5. Take learning out of the classroom

Ask students to set some realistic personal language goals that are not part of the course: respond in English to a blog post, listen to a song and copy out the words, look for information about a favourite subject in English on the web – there are many possibilities.

Breaking out of the exam-based mentality can be difficult. While it is still important for students to do well in exams, there is nothing to stop them from having their own personal goals for learning English. Even if their goals don’t ‘count’ towards a grade, for the student, they may be even more important.

Invitation to share your ideas

We are interested in hearing your ideas about teaching English beyond the exams, so please comment on this post and take part in our live Facebook chat on Friday, 6 December at 12pm GMT.

Please keep your challenges coming. The best way to let us know is by leaving a comment below or on the EFLproblems blog post. We will respond to your challenges in a blog every two weeks. Each blog will be followed by a live Facebook chat to discuss the challenge answered in the blog. Be sure to Like our Facebook page to be reminded about the upcoming live chats.


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The pitfalls of exam preparation

Girl sat at desk writingAhead of his talk at IATEFL Liverpool, Zoltan Rezmuves looks at some of the tough choices that must be made when preparing students for exams.

What’s your main goal in teaching English? You’ll probably say something along the lines of “enabling students to communicate well in English” and perhaps also “developing students to be better people“. But have you ever had a group of students preparing for an examination? Then you know that your success or failure will be measured not by how well they can express themselves in real life, and not even by how well they fit into society. Where there is an important exam at the end of the process, you can only succeed if your students pass the exam. It’s that simple. But what does this mean in terms of classroom practice?

EXAM PREPARATION TO-DO LIST

1. You will have to cover the exam syllabus (the topics, the grammar and vocabulary, the skills and sub-skills), and make sure you don’t miss out anything.

2. You will have to familiarise your students with all the exam task types, and provide them with strategies to complete each type of task with maximum efficiency.

3. You will have to familiarise your students with the assessment criteria – so they know how to maximise their point scores, and how to avoid losing valuable points.

4. You will have to provide students with practice and rehearsal opportunities, so when they get to the real exam, it’s not their first time completing it.

The above is just a rough shortlist of tasks for you. Can you think of other things students will expect of you?

To continue with the same train of thought, what does this mean in terms of what you’re NOT going to do in the classroom?

EXAM PREPARATION NOT-GOING-TO-DO LIST

1. You are not going to cover language points that aren’t required in the exam. Students probably won’t mind. But don’t forget that often we only teach language points because we know they’re going to be tested. Throughout my career as a learner, there has always been a massive emphasis on irregular verbs. They are certainly useful, but the reason we spent so much time memorising long lists of them was merely because they were going to feature in our exams. Think about this – is there any language you’d skip or spend less time on if it wasn’t in the exam?

2. You are going to prioritise the task types that do occur in the exam over those that don’t – which means you’re probably going to reduce task type variety. You feel responsible for your students’ success, so you make sure their exposure to exam expectations is maximised. When it comes down to a choice between, say, an open personalised speaking task and another multiple-choice gap fill, perhaps you’re going to go for the gap fill… again.

3. In order to prepare your students well and to make sure you’re not leaving even your weakest student behind, you’re going to spend a lot of time focusing on what’s needed for the exam. When pressed for time, you are not going to do too many activities which have no connection to the exam. This includes games, drama, discussion of controversial / intriguing (depending on your viewpoint) subjects, jokes and humour in general… can you continue this list? Exams are neutral, non-controversial, and let’s face it, pretty bland. Which is fine because tests are measurement tools, and it’s important to reduce unwanted extra factors, like emotional responses. But bear in mind that “pretty bland” is exactly the opposite of what language classes should be! How are you going to motivate students if you’re spending so much time doing stuff that isn’t motivating?

What I’m saying is that our general aims in language teaching and the aims of exam preparation are linked, but sometimes their priorities clash, and it will be up to you to strike the right balance and to blend learning for real life and exam preparation.

Zoltan Rezmuves will be talking about Speaking and Writing in Exam Training: Blended Solutions at IATEFL Liverpool on Wednesday 10th April in Hall 4b at 11:40am.