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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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Child-friendly testing for young learners

Girl sat at computer smilingAhead of our webinar on the Oxford Young Learners Placement Test, Verissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, looks at how you can make testing a child-friendly experience for your young learners, and useful for you.

“Testing young learners? Really? Seriously? Why?”

That’s usually my reaction when I hear teachers talking about testing young learners.

“So, how do you decide what to teach them? How do you know how to teach them? Testing young learners gives you important information.”

As a friend said this to me I realised my problem was with the word “testing”. For me, testing is judging and labelling, not teaching. Of course, I have always gathered information about my learners and used it to help me teach better. Testing is one way to gather information, but testing young learners needs to be a friendly, positive experience for them. You need to consider their age, use bright colours and fun images, and give them a sense of achievement for having gone through the experience.

Making testing a positive experience

In her book, Teaching Young Language Learners, Annamaria Pinter writes: “In order to understand what children have learnt, teachers may need to use a variety of assessment methods.” Along with observation, portfolios, and project work, testing can be a valuable tool, providing teachers with information quickly and easily. It is important, however, for teachers to take out any of the stress and tension usually associated with testing and work to make it a positive and motivating part of the learning experience.

Understanding the range of abilities in your class

The test also needs to be useful. After all, you are, in essence, gathering information about your learners to help you teach better. Firstly, information from a test can help a teacher place learners in groups of similar abilities, either as a class, or as groups within a class. Knowing the mix of levels in a class or a group, or the strengths and weaknesses of an individual student can help a teacher provide the right kind of support that motivates each student to learn.

Using the results to inform your teaching

This brings up the point of differentiated teaching. A test can provide teachers with important information about each of their students. Who is strong in their use of the language? Who is weak in listening? Who may have difficulty with vocabulary, or grammar? Having the answers to these questions can help a teacher target their teaching to the needs of the class.

To find out how to make placement testing a fun and positive experience for your young learners, whilst also giving you accurate and reliable results to help you target your teaching, join our webinar entitled An introduction to the Oxford Young Learners Placement Test‘ on 9th June 2015.

 


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Child-friendly Placement Testing

Girl sat at computer smilingAhead of her talk at IATEFL Liverpool, Amy Malloy takes a look at the importance of child-friendly placement testing. Amy is an Assessment Manager in the Test Development Unit at OUP, specialising in young learner assessment.

Young learner assessment is becoming an increasing issue in primary language teaching. Parents, fellow teachers, and educational authorities all want more and more information on the standard of English of children under their care.

In a world where language testing is becoming increasingly important, with decisions on scores being potentially career-defining for both teenagers and adults, we have a responsibility as educators to ensure that this pressure does not begin to impact upon younger learners.

We can do this in three ways:

1. By finding ways to assess our young students’ language ability in a low-pressure, fun, enjoyable way in the classroom. Research has shown that young learners actually produce and respond to language better when they are having fun.

2. By ensuring that any information learned from this assessment is used to target our teaching to each individual child’s ability. This can increase the child’s motivation and maximise learning outcomes.

3. By understanding more about the different types of assessment tools at our disposal and what they should be used for. We believe that accurate and reliable assessment can be integrated into everyday classroom teaching, as part of an enjoyable and positive experience for young learners, rather than causing anxiety.

The best place to start is with accurate placement at the start of the year. By creating a fun placement lesson at the start of a course or school year, not only do the children start off motivated and engaged, but you also gain accurate information with which to confidently plan and customise your teaching for the term or year, which in turn serves to maintain motivation.

My presentation at IATEFL Liverpool will take a workshop format, looking at different types of assessment tools and the information they can give us, how to create a positive placement testing experience in the classroom, and finally, ways to integrate the new online Oxford Young Learners Placement Test into an engaging first lesson of your children’s school year or language course.

Amy Malloy will be talking about Child-friendly Placement Testing at IATEFL Liverpool on Wednesday 10th April in Hall 14 at 3.05pm.


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Web apps and teaching – who uses them and why?

Oxford English Testing logoDo you use any web apps for your work? For blogging, project management, collaborating, referencing, lesson planning? If so, what’s been your experience of them? Are there any you’d recommend for teaching?

In July 2009 we launched our own online testing and practice web app for organizations – oxfordenglishtesting.com. A smaller version for students had already been launched the year before. The app hosts the Oxford Online Placement Test, online exam practice tests, online skills practice and a Learning Management System to manage it all.

We felt this was a good time to thank our customers, and do some research on what they thought about the app.

When we launched the app it was a bit of a leap in the dark. Yes, teachers had been downloading resources from the Internet for a while, used it for research and showing interesting videos, and yes our research and user testing showed they liked our new testing app. But would the reality of using the Internet work for them? Would it make their work easier? Would students respond well?

So to find out, we ran a competition asking for their favourite feature and what they’d like us to improve. In this post we’ll look at the three winning favourites. Next time, we’ll report back on their suggestions.

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Are we finally bringing placement and practice testing into the 21st century?

Oxford English Testing2009 proved to be the year when long periods of investment by a number of publishers and exam boards in the application of new technology to language testing have finally came to fruition and resulted in a range of significant new additions to the repertoire of resources available to those involved in ELT. In particular, the new OUP website, oxfordenglishtesting.com, represents a remarkable step forward in the online provision available to learners, teachers and language teaching institutions in two key areas, placement testing and practice testing.

As someone who has been involved for many years both in test design and as a test user, my initial professional interest in the site was primarily in the new placement testing facility developed by OUP, where the benefits of what can be achieved with the latest ‘custom built’ software can be seen not only in the learning management system (LMS), which allows for efficient and flexible administration of the test, but most crucially in the design of the placement test itself. The Oxford Online Placement Test is a CAT, a computer adaptive test, ‘the test you do with a mouse’. CATs are very difficult and expensive to produce, but when a CAT approach is taken to placement testing it brings huge benefits, because of the very nature of placement testing and the fact that it involves the need to determine the language levels (and ideally the language profiles) of learners of unknown levels. Traditional placement tests, even the best of them, are unavoidably inefficient in the sense that a proportion of the items will always be wasted, either being far too difficult and/or far too easy for a learner at a given level. CATs, because they are based on item banks from which items are chosen based on the testee’s previous responses, tailor the test to each test taker. They are thus able to achieve the ‘holy grail’ of placement testing, in that they can be quick and accurate, as well as being far more secure than their ‘pen and paper’ cousins.

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