Maybe some of this is pretty obvious, especially to more seasoned teachers, but a recent request from a colleague sparked a personal reflection into how I approach my test design.
This is the first semester with a new book for the academic English class at my university. As a result, this semester all the professors are creating their exams to reflect the textbook change. Last week were midterms and I received a message from a my colleague. He is somewhat new to university, in the beginning of his second year, so just a little more green around the ears than myself. However, we both have completely different backgrounds and ask each other for perspectives to problems we’re experiencing in our classrooms from time to time. This week’s question was:
“Hey, I am looking at the grades of my students’ midterm exams and they aren’t what I was expecting. They looked especially troubled during the exam. Would you take a look at my exams or let me know what you do for your tests?”
This made me think about what my approach actually was. In general, I approach choices in the classroom from three fronts: 1) as a teacher, 2) as a linguist, and 3) as a language learner. With each of these these three areas I have theoretical knowledge on but also practical knowledge as a result of my years teaching and studying language and I try to blend these together in my class.
So, how do I approach exams? By asking myself a series of questions.
How is the Class Designed?
This refers to your daily lesson plan (DLP). What is the structure of your class? Does it look like “warm-up, lesson, practice, wrap-up” or “vocabulary, grammar, textbook reading, video lesson, etc.”? It could be a mix of these or they could be embedded in each other. For example, I break my class into two parts: textbook and skills. I use the textbook study as a way to reinforce the skills. So, when I am creating my exam, I break my test into similar parts to ensure that what I am teaching on a daily basis is reflected into my test questions.
What are the Objectives of Your Class (and How Does This Align With Those of Your Students and Department)?
The biggie here is, “What do I want my students to learn by the end of this class?” I ask this question before I start the class and work backwards when I am designing my DLP and my assessments as well as how to scaffold and present this information. I am not a fan of teaching vocabulary. As a student, I always forgot the vocabulary, what is preventing my students from the same fate? However, I do still remember the grammar and the skills my teachers taught me. To this day I can’t help but use the plot analysis that English teachers drove into my skull so much with everything I consume (i.e. movies, T.V. shows, stories from friends, etc.)! I took this into consideration as I asked myself this same question from two other perspectives.
What does your school want for the students in this course? For example, my academic English class has a TOEIC pre- and post- test required by the department. This is in addition to my midterm and final. My solution was to make the TOEIC and exams similar or at least to work together. The largest portion on my exam is on the practical skills that we study all semester long. Skills that are a balance of general testing skills and comprehension/critical thinking tasks. Ultimately, what they study for my midterm and final will bleed over into the TOEIC exams as well.
And finally, what are your students goals for the class? I think it’s safe to say that the answer to this is a good grade, but an easy class that isn’t engaging or offers up into knowledge the students care about is going to turn them off to the whole experience. My Korean students are accustomed to a testing format, basically multiple choice questions. In a previous semester, I added fill-in-the-blank and matching questions. Even my brightest students had bombed these portions. What had happened? I realized my students are used to a type of test and their brain is work in that way in regards to a test. They study for that type of test. Studying for to simply recognize a correct answer is very different from studying to produce a specific word (and spell it correctly). Had I wanted to put more fill-in-the-blank style questions, I should have given them pop-quizzes or practice tests (possibly ungraded or complete/incomplete) to let them start seeing a different style of test and give them a chance to adjust their study habits accordingly.
How Do You Prepare Students For the Test?
I do not believe in surprising my students. It only leaves them feeling discouraged and feeling bitter towards me, my class, and probably the content of my classes (e.g. the English language). That helps no one and does not align with my goals for the class. Sometimes in class, I will remind my students, “This will be on your test. Take notes!” or “This is the exact type of question that will come up on the test. If you do not understand this concept, I highly recommend that you study or ask me questions.” This is helpful, of course, but there is another way that some teachers my not think about to prepare their students.
Another thing I do is to prepare them by focusing their attention on what will be presented in the test, including the format of the test. South Korean students have grown up in a testing culture where the Korean SAT is the test you spend you whole life studying late into the night for and if you fail, your life is essentially over. As mentioned above, the way they study has been tailored for a type of test. I believe a part of preparing them for the test is familiarizing them with the format of the test. How many questions, what style of question, how many points each one is worth, and the overall time they will have to take this test.
Have you thought about taking your exam in your foreign language (if you even have one)?
This is probably the question that guides me most in my teaching. I also think that it is the most important one and I have saved it for last for a reason. My 10+ years of being a language student has greatly been influenced by the decisions of my teachers. I’ve had good teachers, bad teachers, and everything in between. All of them have taught me something about the language learning experience within a classroom. We’ve all known someone who made the mistake of thinking, “I was a student for 20 years, I could teach a class. How hard could it be?” Teachers know how hard it can be. We realize all the work that went into those great (and horrible) classrooms we spent so much time in. We focus on what we have to do to get the job done.
However, teachers can get lost in their side of the classroom exchange and forget what it was like on the other side of their decisions. Asking this question is probably one of the things that made my tests much better. Before, I designed my test as a native speaker and forgot to adjust things for my students level. Yes, they’re smart, but no matter how smart you are, you know the fear, apprehension, self-doubt, and overall struggle it is to show how smart you are in a foreign language. Our students are going through all that. The first three questions you will have answered with your current mindset, but your answer to this question will determine if you need to go back and reassess the others. This is because if you haven’t thought about this question yet, then your perspective from the beginning may not going to be as helpful and your results will be less preferable… for yourself and the students.
I hope that this can give some teacher some things to think about the next time they are churning out a test. I would love to hear what others do.