Richard Frost, British Council, Turkey
I will always remember the horror of receiving my chemistry result when I was thirteen years old. I knew it wasn’t going to be high, but to come bottom of the class was very upsetting. It was all made worse by the fact that the chemistry teacher read the results to the whole class, from first to last place. My humiliation was complete. Students can have very negative reactions towards tests and it’s no surprise when they too may have had experiences like this.
* Why testing doesn’t work
* Reasons for testing
* Making testing more productive
* Learning from tests
* Alternatives to testing
Why testing doesn’t work
There are many arguments against using tests as a form of assessment:
* Some students become so nervous that they can’t perform and don’t give a true account of their knowledge or ability
* Other students can do well with last minute cramming despite not having worked throughout the course
* Once the test has finished, students can just forget all that they had learned
* Students become focused on passing tests rather than learning to improve their language skills.
Reasons for testing
Testing is certainly not the only way to assess students, but there are many good reasons for including a test in your language course.
* A test can give the teacher valuable information about where the students are in their learning and can affect what the teacher will cover next. They will help a teacher to decide if her teaching has been effective and help to highlight what needs to be reviewed. Testing can be as much an assessment of the teaching as the learning
* Tests can give students a sense of accomplishment as well as information about what they know and what they need to review.
o In the 1970’s students in an intensive EFL program were taught in an unstructured conversation course. They complained that even though they had a lot of time to practise communicating, they felt as if they hadn’t learned anything. Not long afterwards a testing system was introduced and helped to give them a sense of satisfaction that they were accomplishing things. Tests can be extremely motivating and give students a sense of progress. They can highlight areas for students to work on and tell them what has and hasn’t been effective in their learning.
* Tests can also have a positive effect in that they encourage students to review material covered on the course.
o At university I experienced this first hand, I always learned the most before an exam. Tests can encourage students to consolidate and extend their knowledge.
* Tests are also a learning opportunity after they have been taken. The feedback after a test can be invaluable in helping a student to understand something she couldn’t do during the test. Thus the test is a review in itself.
Making testing more productive
Despite all of these strong arguments for testing, it is very important to bear in mind the negative aspects we looked at first and to try and minimise the effects.
* Try to make the test a less intimidating experience by explaining to the students the purpose for the test and stress the positive effects it will have. Many may have very negative feelings left over from previous bad experiences.
* Give the students plenty of notice and teach some revision classes beforehand.
* Tell the students that you will take into account their work on the course as well as the test result.
* Be sensitive when you hand out the results. I usually go through the answers fairly quickly, highlight any specific areas of difficulty and give the students their results on slips of paper.
* Emphasise that an individual should compare their results with their own previous scores not with others in the class.
Learning from tests
Finally, it is very important to remember that tests also give teachers valuable information on how to improve the process of evaluation. Questions such as:
o “Were the instructions clear?”
o “Are the test results consistent with the work that the students have done on the course. Why/why not?”
o “Did I manage to create a non-threatening atmosphere?”
All of this will help the teacher to improve the evaluative process for next time.
Alternatives to testing
Using only tests as a basis for assessment has obvious drawbacks. They are ‘one-off’ events that do not necessarily give an entirely fair account of a student’s proficiency. As we have already mentioned, some people are more suited to them than others. There are other alternatives that can be used instead of or alongside tests.
* Continuous assessment
Teachers give grades for a number of assignments over a period of time. A final grade is decided on a combination of assignments.
A student collects a number of assignments and projects and presents them in a file. The file is then used as a basis for evaluation.
The students evaluate themselves. The criteria must be carefully decided upon beforehand.
* Teacher’s assessment
The teacher gives an assessment of the learner for work done throughout the course including classroom contributions.
Overall, I think that all the above methods have strengths and limitations and that tests have an important function for both students and teachers. By trying to limit the negative effects of tests we can try to ensure that they are as effective as possible. I don’t think that tests should be the only criteria for assessment, but that they are one of many tools that we can use. I feel that choosing a combination of methods of assessment is the fairest and most logical approach.
Test question types
Richard Frost, British Council, Turkey
In my previous article Test writing I looked at some of the difficulties of writing good tests and how to make tests more reliable and useful. I will now go on to look at testing and elicitation and in particular some different question types and their functions, advantages and disadvantages.
* Types of test
* Types of task
o Multiple choice
o True / False
o Open questions
o Error correction
* Other techniques
Types of test
Before writing a test it is vital to think about what it is you want to test and what its purpose is. We must make a distinction here between proficiency tests, achievement tests, diagnostic tests and prognostic tests.
* A proficiency test is one that measures a candidates overall ability in a language, it isn’t related to a specific course.
* An achievement test on the other hand tests the students’ knowledge of the material that has been taught on a course.
* A diagnostic test highlights the strong and weak points that a learner may have in a particular area.
* A prognostic test attempts to predict how a student will perform on a course.
There are of course many other types of tests. It is important to choose elicitation techniques carefully when you prepare one of the aforementioned tests.
Types of task
There are many elicitation techniques that can be used when writing a test. Below are some widely-used types with some guidance on their strengths and weaknesses. Using the right kind of question at the right time can be enormously important in giving us a clear understanding of our students’ abilities, but we must also be aware of the limitations of each of these task or question types so that we use each on appropriately.
Choose the correct word to complete the sentence.
Cook is ________________today for being one of Britain’s most famous explorers.
a) recommended b) reminded c) recognized d) remembered
In this question type there is a stem and various options to choose from. The advantages of this question type are that it is easy to mark and minimises guess work by having multiple distracters. The disadvantage is that it can be very time-consuming to create, effective multiple choice items are surprisingly difficult to write. Also it takes time for the candidate to process the information which leads to problems with the validity of the exam. If a low level candidate has to read through lots of complicated information before they can answer the question, you may find you are testing their reading skills more than their lexical knowledge.
* Multiple choice can be used to test most things such as grammar, vocabulary, reading, listening etc. but you must remember that it is still possible for students to just ‘guess’ without knowing the correct answer.
Complete the second sentence so that it has the same meaning as the first.
‘Do you know what the time is, John?’ asked Dave.
Dave asked John __________ (what) _______________ it was.
This time a candidate has to rewrite a sentence based on an instruction or a key word given. This type of task is fairly easy to mark, but the problem is that it doesn’t test understanding. A candidate may simply be able to rewrite sentences to a formula. The fact that a candidate has to paraphrase the whole meaning of the sentence in the example above however minimises this drawback.
* Transformations are particularly effective for testing grammar and understanding of form. This wouldn’t be an appropriate question type if you wanted to test skills such as reading or listening.
Complete the sentence.
Check the exchange ______________ to see how much your money is worth.
The candidate fills the gap to complete the sentence. A hint may sometimes be included such as a root verb that needs to be changed, or the first letter of the word etc. This usually tests grammar or vocabulary. Again this type of task is easy to mark and relatively easy to write. The teacher must bear in mind though that in some cases there may be many possible correct answers.
* Gap-fills can be used to test a variety of areas such as vocabulary, grammar and are very effective at testing listening for specific words.
Match the word on the left to the word with the opposite meaning.
With this question type, the candidate must link items from the first column to items in the second. This could be individual words, words and definitions, parts of sentences, pictures to words etc. Whilst it is easy to mark, candidates can get the right answers without knowing the words, if she has most of the answers correct she knows the last one left must be right. To avoid this, have more words than is necessary.
* Matching exercises are most often used to test vocabulary.
Complete the text by adding a word to each gap.
This is the kind _____ test where a word _____ omitted from a passage every so often. The candidate must _____ the gaps, usually the first two lines are without gaps.
This kind of task type is much more integrative as candidates have to process the components of the language simultaneously. It has also been proved to be a good indicator of overall language proficiency. The teacher must be careful about multiple correct answers and students may need some practice of this type of task.
* Cloze tests can be very effective for testing grammar, vocabulary and intensive reading.
True / False
Decide if the statement is true or false.
England won the world cup in 1966.
Here the candidate must decide if a statement is true or false. Again this type is easy to mark but guessing can result in many correct answers. The best way to counteract this effect is to have a lot of items.
* This question type is mostly used to test listening and reading comprehension.
Answer the questions.
Why did John steal the money?
Here the candidate must answer a simple questions after a reading or listening or as part of an oral interview. It can be used to test anything. If the answer is open-ended it will be more difficult and time consuming to mark and there may also be a an element of subjectivity involved in judging how ‘complete’ the answer is, but it may also be a more accurate test.
* These question types are very useful for testing any of the four skills, but less useful for testing grammar or vocabulary.
Find the mistakes in the sentence and correct them.
Ipswich Town was the more better team on the night.
Errors must be found and corrected in a sentence or passage. It could be an extra word, mistakes with verb forms, words missed etc. One problem with this question type is that some errors can be corrected in more than one way.
* Error correction is useful for testing grammar and vocabulary as well as readings and listening.
There are of course many other elicitation techniques such as translation, essays, dictations, ordering words/phrases into a sequence and sentence construction (He/go/school/yesterday).
It is important to ask yourself what exactly you are trying to test, which techniques suit this purpose best and to bear in mind the drawbacks of each technique. Awareness of this will help you to minimise the problems and produce a more effective test.