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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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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 www.oxfordenglishtesting.com 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 at www.oxfordenglishtesting.com.

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