Standardised tests are shite, but might also have their uses

Perhaps as some kind of cosmic joke, I’ve spent the past 3 years being nominally in charge of the TOEIC class at my school.  Instead of worrying overly much about TOEIC, I mostly just ran a series of classes which used a wide range of standardised tests (TEOIC, EIKEN, TOIEC-Bridge, TOEFL, TOEFL Jr.) to help students become independent learners.  But this April, quite suddenly, I was told that I would be in charge of training teachers on TOEIC prep for our entire school system.  The reason, which is not a particularly bad one, is that my students showed sharp gains in their TOEIC scores over the past school year, a mean jump of 105 points in 9 months.  But it’s put me in kind of a bind as to how I can train teachers to teach something that I haven’t actually been teaching myself.   So I thought I would put together a series of blog posts to try and get down in concrete form the 10 principles that have been guiding what I do in my “TOEIC” classes, so that, hopefully I can pass my ideas on to the teachers in some kind of usable form.  This first post will focus on the first three principles.

  • (1) Don’t torture your students: when I first started teaching TOEIC, I actually did have students work with TOEIC materials.  Mostly what happened was a bunch of students would ended up sighing heavily and saying things like, “I don’t understand any of this.”  Which led to one of my deep seated beliefs about language teaching; when it comes to learning, asking your students to regularly engage in tasks which are clearly beyond their abilities is similar to setting a hungry dog’s food bowl on the other side of one of those invisible electric shock fences.  They start off all happy to do what they think they are supposed to do, put pencil to paper, give it their best shot, experience serious pain, and when it’s all over are left wondering what the hell happened.  They also associate the stimulus (difficult test) with the uncomfortable physical (exhaustion) and mental (depression) result, pretty much guaranteeing that they will avoid thinking about the test whenever possible.  So while all of my students have to take the TEOIC test at the end of the school year, no students in my TOEIC class are forced to take practice TOEIC tests.  Instead, I have begged, borrowed, copied, and downloaded a wide range a standardised tests at a wide range of levels and students are free to take any test at any level which I have placed in a series of boxes spread throughout the room.  When I think a student is able to get a fairly decent score on the TOEIC, I might nudge them towards starting to do a few TOEIC practice tests, but, in the end, I leave that choice up to the student.   This means that there are all kinds of TEOIC test prep books which have been bought for the students and remain mostly untouched.  This makes my boss a little crazy.  But it doesn’t seem to bother my students.  As an added bonus, over the past few years I’ve come to recognise that independent learners are students who are pretty good at selecting their own learning materials.  By allowing students to select a test they think is appropriate, take it, tally up their score, and see what language they have already mastered and what language they still need to acquire, students have a chance to develop the ability to select appropriate materials.

 

  • (2) Let ’em take tests: over the past 3 years I’ve come to realise that test taking is a skill, and like any other skill, time on task and repetition are essential to getting better at it.  I think Paul Nation (2007, p. 1) has a very succinct take on the time-on-task principle, “How can you learn to do something if you don’t do that during learning? How can you learn to read if you don’t do reading? How can you learn to write without writing?”  And I would say similarly, how can students learn how to manage their time on standardised tests, weed out incorrect distractors, utilise their own oral memory (by very quietly vocalising questions during a test), and do all the other things that help moderately boost test scores without practice?  So my students take a minimum of one practice standardised test a week.  Since it is both the taking of the test and the manner in which they take the test that matters, the scores they get on these practice tests have no impact on their semester grades.  There’s another reason why I think that taking more tests as opposed to less tests is a pretty good thing; it all comes down to input.  Sure students could take one test and then study the hell out of it, look up every word they didn’t know, parse the grammar in each reading passage.  But in the end, I think that, for the most part, what my students are missing in their language learning here in Japan (an EFL context if there ever was one) is exposure to lots and lots of comprehensible English.  And while the vocabulary and grammar focus test questions and longer reading passages are not the most scintillating material in the world, if the test is at the students’ level, it very much is meaning based input, and a pretty large chunk of input at that (I once sat down and counted the number of words in a EIKEN Step test for lower intermediate learners and came up with 2500 words, or the same number of words in many graded readers targeting the same level).

 

  • (3) Dream is to goal as watching sports is to exercise:  I’ve got a lot of students who sit down in my first TEOIC class and tell me that their goal is to get 800 points on the TOEIC test.  These students are just starting their intensive language education, are often reluctant to speak, and have had minimal exposure to the target language.  So while I know that at the end of 3 years in my program some of them will actually get around 700 or more points, 800 points is probably not the kind of goal they should be focused on at the beginning of their language journey.  Part of becoming an independent learner is being able to identify achievable and time constrained goals and map out the incremental steps needed to reach those goals.  So each practice test a student takes in my class is accompanied with a goal for that immediate test as well as a monthly goal or overarching goal for 4 tests.  I also work with each student to make sure that their goals include a metacognitive component, or to put it in plain English, a goal that gets students to think about the test itself and pay more attention to how they are taking the test either in real time or after they have completed it. Some of the more popular goals set by my students include:
    • be able to identify beginner level questions on the first section of the TOEIC writing section and answer 50% of those questions correctly.
    • answer 50% of the TOEIC listening questions correctly and identify one unknown phrase in each incorrect question upon repeated listenings.
    • get a passing grade (60% or above) on the EIKEN level test at my current level for three tests in a row without looking at the answers (more on this later)
    • get an 80% or higher score on the listening section of the TOEIC Bridge test and identify 15 unknown words or phrases while in the act of taking the test.

 

So that’s it for my first 3 principles on how I use standardised tests and test-prep to help my students become more independent/autonomous learners.  I don’t think any of these ideas are particularly novel.  They’ve been influenced by my own experiences in class and through the writings of Rebecca Oxford, Paul Nation, and John Fanselow amongst others.  But I do feel that squeezing them into blog form has helped me clarify a few things.  Hopefully readers might be kind enough to post a few questions or comments to help me refine my thinking further.

The next post will be focused on (4) the importance of teaching skills over content, (5) the use of student developed vocabulary notebooks, and, perhaps, (6) the role of guessing from context.  Hope you’ll come back for it.

 

 

 

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8 thoughts on “Standardised tests are shite, but might also have their uses

  1. Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for sharing! I was wondering what your views are on discussing the answers on tests. I ask because recently started doing a very simple, common, and old-fashioned activity I had not done before: asking Ss to take the test again (in groups) before giving them back their corrected tests. Someone recommended this for review, and I have found Ss are engaged. I don’t know, however, if it is truly effective in helping them learn more.

    Is there a role or a place to go over test answers in a TOEIC class?

    Laura.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Laura,

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I think that having the students discuss answers to their tests is extremely useful. It gives students a chance to hear language/form focused explanations from their peers as well as providing an oportunity to articulate aspects of their own developing iner-language system. This is actually one of the principles I’ll be touching on in a later post, but in general I think that independent or autonomous learning is sometimes confused with solitary learning. But for students to be independent learners, they have to know how to utilise the resources around them, and that includes the other students in their class, which means having a handle on what other students in the class might and might not know. As an added bonus, a lot of times these kinds of discussions (especially in an EFL context) lead to serious contrastive analysis, which I happen to think is an integral part of both raising students language awareness and preparing students for standardised tests.

      Thanks again for the comment and an excellent TOEIC classroom activity.

      Kevin

      Like

  2. Really interesting. Can I ask what kind of context you are teaching in? The emphasis on TOEIC scores sounds like junior college, but if so you’re getting a lot more freedom than I did when I worked at one…

    Like

    • Hi Alex,

      Sorry it took so long to get back to you. I actually work in a high school with an intensive International Program. So my students are taking about 17 hours of English a week. And I am lucky to have a whole lot of freedom to do what I want in class.

      Kevin

      Like

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