How I Would Test


“Good morning everyone and welcome to your English test. Please take a seat. 

Remember, cheating is absolutely forbidden. However, discussion with your peers, using Google on your smartphone and leaving early if you finish is absolutely fine and encouraged.

Let’s begin. Here are your exam papers. Now, in silence, you must flick through the pages and have a look at all the questions before we start. Make sure you read them all carefully. You have 5 minutes to complete this.

Okay, time up everyone. Now get together in groups of three or four and discuss how you feel about the test. Talk about which questions you are happy to see, which one you dislike the most and any ideas you have on how you will answer the questions.

I’m now going to give you two minutes to tear one of the pages out of the test. Remember, the harder questions get more points, so choose carefully.

In yesterday’s class, I asked you to write possible questions for the test. If your question has been chosen, then well done, you will receive 10 extra points on your final score.

You now have time to complete the test. You will notice that there are no multiple choice questions and no right or wrong answers. Instead I want you share your opinions on the questions asked. Remember, your grade depends on how you answer, not what you answer. If you don’t have strong feelings on the subject, then you need to explain why, or lie.


Some time later…

Time’s up. Now get back into your group. I want you to ask each other for advice. If there’s a question that you are not happy about or think could be better, ask your colleagues for help. If you don’t feel comfortable showing them what you wrote, either when asking for advice or giving it, that’s fine, you can decide how much you want to share.

Okay, go back to your desk. You now have ten minutes to make changes and improvements to your test in whatever way you wish.

So now we’re nearly done. The last thing I want you to do is write the score you think you’ll get, then write the score you think you deserve based on the course so far, and finally I want you to mark this test on how good you think it was.

Your grades will be available in the next few days. To collect them, come and see me in my office or after class. I can also explain why I gave you the score I did, and what your strengths and weaknesses were if you’d like to know. And I’ll be asking you to explain your predictions and the score you gave the test too. Thanks for coming.”

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10 thoughts on “How I Would Test

  1. Wonderful post, James. When you put it like this it seems so obvious that this is the way we should go about testing, so why does it leave me thinking 'if only it were that simple'?
    How can we humble teachers persuade the powers that be, our school bosses that set tests and decide what the testing method should be, to change?
    Also, given the title is 'How I Would Test', does this mean you don't test at all or you do so but differently?
    Thanks for such an inspiring post.

  2. Thanks for your comments everyone. Steven, why does it seem so ambitious to think that we “humble teachers” should be able to persuade administrators and politicians that our ideas should be listened to? Isn't that ridiculous when you think about it? The real question is why aren't they basing their decisions on what we think. Unfortunately, for now that seems to be another dream.

    And as for your second question, no I don't test like that at the moment, but that's because I don't do any testing at all, although I am an occasional invigilator a well known international English exam, which is why this was on my mind. If I was, I'd certainly try some of these ideas, although maybe not all at once!

    And thank you Ratna, I hope you get the chance one day. 'Wholesome' – I love that description!

  3. Very interesting and I like the idea. But if it took over? Just imagine the first day for our students at work.

    Boss: “Ok, I want you to file all these papers.”

    Student: “No, I don't like this idea. You don't respect my opinions.”

    Boss: “You're fired.”

    Or is that me being cynical?! :)

  4. I could swear I commented on this the other day (it seems the 'disappearing comment' issue that always seems to affect my students when it comes to class blogs has hit me as well :p) so forgive me if I'm repeating myself…

    I did actually persuade one of the exam writers at my school last year to include a few quesitons that had been written by students based on a class reader we had done. The students loved the idea of potentially having their quesitons on the test and they got a lot out of the quesiton writing aspect of it too. Alas, this year, ther ehas been no repeat but I have got my students to create their own in-class mini-tests and quizzes.

    Assessment is something that really needs to be overhauled where I work but alas it seems that most of my colleagues are happy to stick with the safety of what's always been done rather than try something different.

  5. ICALTEFL, I'm struggling to see the connection between the insubordination you describe and the test as I've designed it. Throughout the test, the students are asked to collaborate, discuss and assist each other. They are required to canvass opinions and offer advice. That to me seems counter to the very direct rejection of a task in your example.

    Perhaps you were referring to the bit about tearing out a page. I guess it could be seen as a rejection of authority, but in this case the teacher and the test are not authority figures to rebel against. If anything, I can imagine the students would be quite shocked and some may even be a bit uncomfortable at first with the idea of an act so brutal as tearing out a page. But it's a very valuable exercise I think, as it makes the student critically analyse the questions, decide what their weaknesses and strengths are and make the best value judgement they can.

    All pretty useful skills for employees to have, I'd say.

  6. If you allow me, this is a very formative, rational way of testing, and it teaches (while testing) the student to have some autonomy in the learning process.
    As a head of primary once, with a group of weak students in their sixth grade of English as a foreign language learning, the teacher and I instrumented a test by which the students in groups had to write an exercise to test vocabulary, or grammar, or comprehension. The teacher then chose the questions from the students' contributions and composed 75 % of the test with the selected items. She reserved 25 % of the test to herself. That way every student knew the answer to some of the questions but didn't know the answers to the whole test – they only knew the answers to the questions their group had written. And the good thing about the result of the experience was that while devising their respective exercises, the students had revised most of the language they had learned that term. There was practically no need to test, because everyone learned so much from the process of deciding what they should be tested on! And even more so, when deciding what the distractors or problem spots were, they also considered why each answer was the best choice.
    Just my two cents.

  7. Hmm, interesting perspectives. I understand where this comes from (I am not a fan of the standardized issues http://eslcarissa.blogspot.com/2012/08/more-on-why-i-dont-like-standardized.html and http://eslcarissa.blogspot.com/2011/02/song-about-standardized-tests.html)

    However, I am not sure I like the complete approach. It puts a lot of faith on the fact that students are already putting effort forth in the class and would allow students to slack off and then just pay attention to the discussions during the test (rather than all of them prior). Perhaps as a pretest or a group quiz.

    I like the taking out of a page, and I like that the questions aren't multiple choice and I like the concept of handing them back. I enjoy and implement the predictions (I use those for a lot of things in class.

    This reminds me of one webinar I attended on dynamic assessment (http://eslcarissa.blogspot.com/2011/02/dynamic-assessment.html) which promoted testing throughout the class rather than on one day.

    My students tend to request multiple choice, and I give part of the test to them that way (on proper use of appositives for examples) but they don't tend to do as well there as they do on the questions where I would just ask that they combine two sentences using appositives.

  8. Thanks for commenting everyone, and apologies for taking so long to reply.

    Dave – If we start from the position that a test should assess what has already been taught (and we should or else it’s not a test, but a trap), then there seems no reason to me that the students cannot write their own questions. They might need a bit of training and guidance, but in principle, why not? In fact, it becomes part of the test itself.

    It seems that, as your experience suggests, testing is one of the most conservative areas in a teacher’s thinking. They can play around with other areas by trying new techniques and activities, but testing seems sacrosanct. And I don’t know why…

    Graciela – Thank you, rational is a word I’m very keen on, so I’m happy to see you use it! I love that example you describe, and I think 75% of the test designed by the students is highly ambitious and impressive. As you describe, the process of creating a test is the actual test itself, and invokes far greater cognitive and linguistic skills than a traditional multiple choice exam.

    Carissa – Thanks for those examples, both very witty ways of looking at this particular problem. Regarding the attitude of the students, my students have always been very motivated (adult, mainly in teacher training and business), so naturally this is how I tend to perceive learners, but I’m aware that that isn’t everyone’s reality. However, I’d like to think that this approach would be very motivating for students, as they are given ownership of the exam. It’s no longer a top down task, in which they have no flexibility and might struggle to find relevance but it belongs to them, which is surely stimulating. Graciela's comment above is a great example of that.

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