Make exam preparation a more useful experience for learners’ language development

For many teachers, language assessment is seen as a necessary evil. Testing, evaluation and feedback are the core of what many of us do, but the mechanics of assessment often seem to be the domain of academics and researchers, not the humble classroom teacher. Far from shrinking from a better understanding of assessment, we should embrace it and work with it; getting to grips with assessment design actually helps us to get inside the testing process and give our test-takers the edge over the exam they are taking. I will define some concepts in assessment design and show why these are an important part of our job as language educators.

Text by: Helen Papadopoulou

Formative and summative assessment
A common distinction in types of assessment is between the evaluation of language development over time versus testing of what has been learnt at the end of a course of study. The former, designed to be part of the learning process, is known as formative assessment - the results of this kind of test can be used as a learning tool to help students progress towards their final assessment, which gives them a grade, mark or score which they can use as proof of their progress at the time of testing. This final assessment is known as summative - it sums up the test-taker’s knowledge, skills or proficiency as a ‘snapshot’ of where they stand at a specific point in their study.

A main contrast between formative and summative assessment is the amount of feedback that a test-taker is given. After a formative test (as it is designed to help the learners along their path to improvement), significant amounts of developmental feedback should be given. Feedback should include not just a review which questions the learners got right or wrong; learners should also focus on why they got the scores they did in different sections, and upgrade their language and exam skills along the way. By contrast, summative assessment is not followed by feedback other than the results that each learner achieves. Without further information about the test, all a learner can think after a summative test is ‘wow, I did really well’, or ‘oh, I did really badly’. Without detailed feedback into the ways in which they achieved (or didn’t achieve) this result, a test cannot help them to develop their language skills.

Even for stronger test performers, the value of a test is much reduced unless they understand why they got the high score that they did.

Formative test feedback – ideas for the classroom

Focus on exam questions
Pick an exam section where students underperformed, and prepare a similar section from another example paper. Remove the questions and rubric from the paper, leaving only the reading text/visual examples or sentence examples. In pairs or groups, ask students to become test writers, and to design questions and other test items for the exam content, based on what they know about that exam section.

Once everyone has answered their peers’ exam sections, lead a feedback session where students assess whether the sections are effective models for the real thing. If not, the new group must change the question to reflect the language skills being tested in the real exam.


Focus on language use (extended written response/essay sections)
After marking your students’ papers, pick out some example sentences or paragraphs in student responses which demonstrate specific errors or other shortcomings in terms of the language being assessed. Organise them into groups according to the language points you want to focus on (use of tenses, prepositions, verb forms, sentence structure etc.) and display them for the class to analyse.

Ask students to rewrite the whole example sentence/paragraph to keep the intended meaning of the original, but with greater accuracy or appropriacy for the exam question being answered. Score the resulting student ideas for accuracy, style and complexity (or even better, by scoring according to the exam’s grading criteria).  


Focus on speaking
Find some example speaking prompts from the exam you are working with, and have students roleplay the speaking exam situation, with one student as the examiner, one student as the candidate and a third student as a listener. Having students play the examiner will get them into the role and help them to understand the expectations of the examiner in the real exam. The candidate will be performing as you have taught them in class, and the listener will be keeping an ear out for errors in language from the candidate (a stronger student makes for a more effective listener who can then guide the candidate in their performance after the roleplay). Helping students to take a more objective view of the exam situation can help them to develop a deeper understanding of how both the examiner and the candidate should build the communication in the exam setting.


Once the first roleplay has ended, students can reflect on their performance in their roles and change places to take on the other roles in the activity until everyone has been an examiner, a candidate and a listener. Ideally, performance should improve as they become more familiar with the interaction from both sides of the speaking assessment.


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