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Getting more out of your classroom tests

Students taking testHooray! It’s time for a… [fill in the blank].

Whatever word your students come up with to fill this blank, I guess it’s not “test”. If you want to stir up some enthusiasm among your students, announcing a class test possibly isn’t best way to do it. After all, tests are much more likely to elicit groans and grumbles than a chorus of cheers.

Tests are familiar and dreary ceremonies that mark out the school year. Everyone knows the routine: Be silent. Keep your heads down. No copying! Read the instructions carefully and pay attention to the time limits. Yes, it’s boring. Yes, it’s sometimes rather unpleasant, but, like eating your spinach, it’s supposed to be good for you (although you may not remember why).

A familiar routine

At the end of the process there’s a grade or a score and it goes into the teacher’s book. It probably tells the teacher what he or she already knows. The good students, the ones who sit at the front and answer questions, get an ‘A’. Poor students, the ones who aren’t so good at languages and sit at the back and play with their phones, get an ‘F’. At the end of the year, or at the end of the course, the scores are added up and reports written, submitted to the system, filed, and forgotten.

Like their students, teachers generally find testing a necessary, but tedious chore. They may be creative in thinking of stimulating activities to spice up their classes, but when it comes to tests, they just dust off the one they used last year, photocopy the test from the teachers’ book, or cobble together a few questions from here and there. It may not be fun, but it has to be done.

Making them pay!

In some cases, the teacher uses tests as a kind of punishment. If the class doesn’t get motivated by the carrot of my thrilling classes, the teacher reasons, I’ll use the stick of giving them a thorny test to show them they need to study more seriously. In a way, it works. Sooner or later, students realise that the whole point of studying a language is not to communicate with people, but to pass tests.

On the other hand, we all recognise that tests do have their uses. Regular review of material studied in class has been shown to improve retention and promote learning. Tests help to communicate what is expected from both teachers and students: what the class ought to know and be able to do after a period of learning. They can point to what learners understood well and what they are struggling with, helping teachers to see where problems need to be tackled.

Where did it all go wrong?

So, here’s the problem. Classroom tests should benefit and enhance learning, but too often they do little to help and can have a demotivating effect. They should show us where progress is being made, but too often they only confirm what we already know about who is top of the class and who is lagging behind. Tests should be motivating, engaging, and one of the most useful things that learners do in the classroom. All too often they are none of these things.

Unfortunately, it’s not just students and teachers who find tests unpleasant. Teacher trainers also think of testing as something that (if it really has to be mentioned at all) is best left to the end of the course. The trainees are all busy looking forward to the end of the course and the upcoming holidays and so won’t resent such a distasteful topic. Testing is a big part of what teachers and students do, but it’s usually a very small part of teacher training. Perhaps it’s not surprising that it doesn’t always go well.

Ringing the changes

In the webinar, I’ll suggest that testing by teachers is something that can, with a little effort and imagination, be done so much better. Assessment and monitoring of student progress is one of the most powerful learning tools available, but it is too often left in a cupboard to rust. Let’s get it out, tune it up, and start putting it to work!

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Professor Anthony Green is Director of the Centre for Research in English Language Learning and Assessment at the University of Bedfordshire. He has published widely on language assessment and is a former President of the International Language Testing Association (ILTA). His most recent book Exploring Language Assessment and Testing (Routledge, 2014) provides trainee teachers and others with an introduction to this field. Professor Green’s main research interests concern relationships between language assessment, teaching and learning.


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Strategies for Teaching IELTS: Part One – Where to start?

 

continuous learning assessment

Image courtesy of Colin K on Flickr

Stephen Greene is a teacher, teacher trainer and materials developer with nearly 20 years’ experience. He has taught people of all ages and abilities all around the world, including in Taiwan, Poland, Rio de Janeiro and the UK. He is now based in Curitiba in the south of Brazil where he writes a blog about bringing up a bilingual child at headoftheheard.com. This is the first article of a three-part IELTS series, exploring the basics of helping your students through their IELTS exam.

As with most things in life, the key to a successful IELTS course is in the preparation. If you have a clear idea of what you and your students need to do from the outset then you are far more likely to help your students achieve their goals than if you have no plan at all. Likewise, as the expression goes, first impressions last, so if you can impress your students in the first few classes, then they are more likely to trust you for the rest of the course.

It is important to have as much information at your disposal as possible before the course actually starts. This will help you to prepare properly and show your students that you really do know what you are talking about. I have added a number of questions for each of the points listed below, but the answers will often depend on your own context. Where possible, I have included some links which might help you to start finding your own answers.

Know the exam

If this is the first time your students have attempted the IELTS exam then they are likely to be very anxious about what it entails and what they will be required to do. Some questions students might have include: How many papers are there? How does the scoring system work? Which is the most difficult part of the exam? What’s the difference between the General exam and the Academic one?

As well as knowing the ins and outs of the exam, you will also need to know how students go about taking it. Questions they might have include: Where is the nearest exam centre? When are the exams being held? When is the registration deadline? How long does it take to get the results? How much does it cost?

The official IELTS site has some excellent information for both teachers and students, as does the British Council site.

Know your students

It isn’t always possible to find out a lot of information about your students until the course actually starts, so you will probably need to do some fact finding in the first few classes. As well as the usual information about the number of students in the class, their ages and backgrounds, some questions you might want to ask yourself include: Have they taken the exam before? What score do they need? Why are they taking the exam? Where do they hope to study after the exam? What do they hope to study?

Know your timetable

There is a lot to cover in an IELTS course, so make sure you have enough time to pack everything in. While your school might have its own natural rhythm, this might not fit with the dates of exams in your local centre. Questions to ask include: When are the exams? How long is the course? What do I need to focus on?

Find your local exam centre and get in touch to find out their exam dates and requirements.

Know your material

Whatever course you are running, you will need to be very familiar with the material you are using. With IELTS, this is even more key as time is such an issue. As well as a coursebook, you might need to use extra material, such as practice tests (which you can find here) or online material. Some questions to answer include: Is the material relevant to your students? Where can I find supplementary material? In my next article (on the blog next week), I’ll be sharing some of the free online material I use in my classes. Specifically, I’ll explore lexis, Part One of the Writing paper and the Yes/No/Not given questions commonly found in the reading paper.

This article was originally published in the July 2014 issue of the Teaching Adults newsletter. To learn more and subscribe, click here