Dealing with uncooperative exam candidates

By M.A.Sachpazian

 The last article of 2020, a year as unexpected as no other before, is going to be a rather unusual one which touches on issues related with both teaching and management. In the history of every Foreign Language School there must be at least one case (usually more) of uncooperative exam candidates. This particular subgroup of demanding clients consists of students who for one reason or another (age, level of studies) do not fit in with the rest of the candidates. They usually come to us for a short spell (one school year) and find it hard to become integrated in the group. Despite the fact that initially they seem perfectly organised and truly interested in registering for and passing exams, the reality of their time in the FLS might be rather different.   

Behaviours exhibited

Usually uncooperative candidates start off by asking for exceptions to be made for them personally (because they have already established that they are special cases) and if these are granted, more demands will follow. They are often absent, but when they come back they seem to take offence at the fact that the class has moved on and they are now left behind and cannot figure out where we are and what we are doing. This can well lead to more absences or continuous disruptions during which they persist on material covered in previous lessons to be discussed again right there and then, to the dismay of the rest of the group. 

Another telltale mark of this species of candidates is their tendency to generalise and reject all exams. They all aim to make money at the expense of the candidates and they try to pull one over us (but not over them, ‘’because they have them figured out’’). They usually cannot make a secret of their lack of belief in the exam tasks themsleves, which are characterised as ‘’impossible,’’ and towards established exam practices, such as having oral exams in pairs. This last one can be the topic of discussions for weeks, during which the teacher and the DoS try as they might they will not manage to convince the candidate that both examinees are assessed against the speaking criteria of the examination board, and not against each other. Cases like these are bound to bring about more doubt and more rejection. Frustrastion might even rub off on the lesson itself with the candidate trying to bully the teacher with questions regarding the point of each task and even direct accusations about time being wasted when the teacher engages Ls in pairwork or groupwork.

Last but not least, when the time comes to make a decision regarding the exam to register for the candidate finds it extremely difficult to make up his/her mind about that and days before the money is due decides that s/he needs to take the exam in the following period. Sometimes, this ‘’next exam session’’ never comes.

What makes the situation so challenging?

It would be quite easy to say that since such candidates are not fully convinced about the efficacy of the courses provided by this particular FLS, they should be advised to consider alternative options. This is a strategy that might be worth exploring since those candidates tend to drain both our energy and our time resources. Still, it is worth looking into what makes this situation slightly more sensitive.  If the uncooperative exam candidate is related to a family that has long been sending children to our FLS, it is really hard to alienate them by politely showing the door to the candidate.

To borrow a term from psychology, what these clients experience can be likened to  what in councelling is described as ‘’resistance’’. Despite the fact that an experienced educator gives them keys to success and tools to achieve their goals, they insist on rejecting these and going back to their ‘’old and tried’’ methods of learning (translating, memorising, speaking in L1 all the time) because simply they do not know how to feel about this exam. As EFL specialists we know that success in language exams does not depend on a set of pages to be memorised and specific tasks to be covered. Any self-respecting exam course consists of tasks which will focus on language learning and the ability of the Ls to develop their communicative and pragmatic competency. The question remains, though, if on the exam day (much or all of) this competency will shine or whether it will be obscured due to factors beyond the candidate’s control. Though our usual test-takers have to deal with this fear and they do so successfully, it is enough to scare thos candidates who have not taken exams in years, young adults who feel too old to be less capable than their younger classmates and high-level executives, who despite their professional success, still feel inadequate because they cannot wrap their heads around how language works. 

Resistance is not our problem, though. How to treat resistance in each individual case is. The behaviours described above are exasparating enough to predispose the teacher negatively towards the student and this means that his/her resistance is seen as part of a general toxic attitude, when all along it is been the deepest root of this behaviour. If we stand any chance to deal with resistance is to treat it with respect and avoid taking it personally. 

 

Steps towards a solution

If we see schools as systems of interaction, it becomes clear that we cannot expect to change others. We can only change our actions and the way we manage things. This is not a debilitating but rather an empowering attitude. Instead of feeling at the mercy of the uncooperative candidate, we can now take the wheel and try to do something about this situation.

Our first step is to get to know the learner. This might be easier said than done, especially if the learner keeps missing classes or failing to turn up for tutorials. If we manage to surpass those first obstacles and get the learner to speak to us, we will get to know who this person is, what scares him/her and why s/he is behaving in this erratic way. If we want to keep an open mind in dealing with this situation, we need to avoid putting a label on the candidate and let him/her explain to us what lies behind his/her behaviour. Quite often such discussions end up with the student unfolding the full range of his/her self-pity. At this point not falling for the learners’ ‘’self-pity act’’ is very essential. Additionally, as educators we need to stand by our chosen methods and the exams we trust and work with. This does not mean ingoring the strengths or the weaknesses of the candidate. All FLS feature a range of exams and as experineced managers and educators we all know which exams are better depending on the learners’ strengths. We need to bear in mind, though, that our role is to advise, not push the student toward a particular exam. What we need most is a mutually defined goal in the form of a resolution (I will take the XXXB2 Exam next December) so that the exam-candidate can set up his / her own personal preparation program. Involving the candidate in these decisions and even getting him/her to join a small group or a private lesson within the school might be conducive to better communication and collaboration between the school and the candidate.

Conclusion

Among the sea of demanding clients, uncooperative exam candidates might be the haderst to deal with as they challenge our authority and wreak havoc in the way our class works. For these reasons, it is always good to remember that taylor-made courses might be the suggested course of action. Getting to know the learner and moving away from the first impression might also be beneficial in the process of collaboration between teacher and learner. Finally, teachers need to be consistent in their chosen methodology and not sacrifise it to please the candidate. 

Webliography

Shallcross, L. (2010). Managing Resistant Clients. Counselling Today  [online]. [Viewed on 12th November 2020]. Available from https://ct.counseling.org/2010/02/managing-resistant-clients/#