Thursday, 24 December 2015

Exam conditions

I wrote a little bit recently about getting students to do more homework. As my students have to do examinations, they specifically requested exam practice that they could do at home. So I have slightly amended the work that I give them. I still send them articles to read, questions to research and audio to listen to (all around a certain theme), but I also send them an exam style reading/listening/writing text which we follow up on in class.

The reading exam texts that they do are very like IELTS ones. A longish text with various question types. To make this a bit more interesting in the follow up class, I take the text and I underline the sentence/paragraph that relates to each question (and then write the number for the question it relates to). I then give out a copy of this to each pair. They then have to work together to figure out if their original answer was correct. Doing it this way feels a little less teacher-centred and gives them repeated exposure to the language of the text; hopefully, it also encourages them to be a bit more reflective about their reasons for choosing certain answers.

After a few weeks of doing this I noticed a couple of trends:

1. Many students did not know really key vocabulary that either featured in the text or the article. It didn't seem to me that they had forgotten it - rather that it was completely unknown to them.

2. Many students were getting the same number of questions correct. There didn't seem to be any improvement over the course of a few weeks. The number of correct answers was approximately the same as they would get in formative tests.

3. Written essays that were completed as homework were littered with spelling errors and problems that even a very cursory check over would pick up.

4. There were some students who displayed none of these patterns: their work was improving, they had better scores than in the test and they had eliminated more basic errors from their writing (gosh, eliminated sounds quite militaristic!)

So, as you do, I had a chat with the classes and tried to dig into it a little bit. It didn't take very long for a pattern to emerge. Some students were doing their homework very carefully - they were using dictionaries, they were looking stuff up, they were reviewing notes, they were double checking, they were asking classmates for feedback on their writing. In short, they were giving it a good bit of their time. Other students were doing none of this.

Horrible cynic that I am, I immediately thought this was symptomatic of laziness, lack of focus, blah blah, blah...but as we continued to chat, it became clear that these students were not being blasé about their homework. As it was homework specifically related to their exams, they were imposing exam conditions upon themselves when they did it. They gave themselves specific times to complete each exercise and when that time was up, that was it. In the exams they would only have 40 minutes so at home they should only have 40 minutes. Hard to fault the logic, really.

If this blogpost were a TV show, the image would start to blur and wobble about now as I slip into a five year old memory of when I was teaching IELTS. Back then I used to spout an awful lot of guff:
  • "You've only 20 minutes in the exam for each reading. So you need to get your speed up."
  • "You won't have a dictionary in the exam so you need to start guessing from context."
  • "Hmmm, you didn't do so well in that section. Tell me about your exam technique."
  • "You used subtitles!?! Are you mad? You won't have subtitles in the exam!"
I had one student, CW, who steadfastly ignored all of my advice. Every day, when we checked our homework, she would get every answer correct. Embarrassingly, I remember feeling dismay when she told me that she had spent hours on it and warned her that in the exam, she would not have dictionaries or the luxury of so much time. Thankfully, she continued with her approach and in her IELTS exam, scored an 8.5 in reading (I think 7.5 overall, but am not sure - it was the reading score that really burned itself onto my consciousness). What I missed in all my focus on exam strategies was what she was doing - learning the language. 

Now, five years later, the roles are reversed. I'm pleading with my students to spend more time on their homework. Yes, they won't have a dictionary in the exam but they have one now so why not use it to learn words that might help them when the exam does come around. Yes, they will only have a certain amount of time, but why not focus on getting it right first and then speeding up rather than the other way around. And of course, in a writing exam, they may not have time to proofread their work. But if they do it now, they are perhaps less likely to make those mistakes in the exam.  

I am sure this must sound blindingly obvious but considering how blinkered I was by an "exam training" approach to teaching and also, how many of my students were adopting this "exam conditions", I think it is perhaps worthwhile asking students how they go about doing their homework. 

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