Hooray! 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!
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.