David Petrie: Exam classes - keeping the balance

As many classes are now sitting down to begin a year of study that will take them off to exam success in June next year, it is worth thinking about what it is that they need in order to achieve that success.

The answer to that question will obviously differ depending on the students, their previous learning experience, what they do in their free time and what their strengths and weaknesses are in English, but the one thing that none of them will need or benefit from is exam practice.
This might be a slightly controversial thing to claim as exam practice does form the mainstay of many exam preparation courses, teachers often see it as having value and students seem to want it.  A 2010 study (Perrone) found that exam practice in FCE classes rose from 28% of class time in November, to 76% in March and 87% in May (with the exam in June).  While the study is limited in scope, this does seem to be generally representative of exam class teaching and many students feel woefully underprepared if they haven’t been through a test book or two before the big day.
What is interesting is that in all of the literature that looks at English language exam classes, none of the washback studies have shown that exam practice yields a significant benefit to students.  They don’t do any better on their exams because of it.  In fact the Perrone study, which contrasted performance between an exam group and a general EFL class, found that the general EFL class did slightly better. 
This is not to say that there is no value in letting students see the exam or in teaching test taking strategies, but that simple exam practice where students do a practice paper and then go through the answers, is of little value.
This corresponds with my own experience teaching exam class students:  the students who go into an exam with sufficient grammar and vocabulary to cope with the content, are the ones who will be successful and no amount of practice is going to make up the shortfall if they do not.  The students who struggle with the exam do so because they have difficulties accessing the content of the paper, let alone answering the questions.
To their credit, learners often know this, even if they take comfort from exam practice and from confronting the beast head on.  A small scale study I did with one of my groups contrasted the results from a needs analysis questionnaire with the results from a practice exam and it showed that Vocabulary and Use of English were among their priorities for class time.
It is this needs analysis tool, coupled with diagnostic testing from a past paper, that can help provide the balance in the course design for an exam group.  Learners will often have a relatively good idea of their strengths and weaknesses and often have been having English lessons for some years before they get to the exam class; as such they have their own experience and the test results and report cards from previous years to guide their thinking. 
A needs analysis tool that I often use with my exam classes asks questions like:
  • What do you want to do more of / less of in lessons?
  • Which specific language areas (e.g. noun phrases / present continuous) do you want to work on before the exam?
  • Please complete this bar chart showing how strong you think your skills and language are:
  • Please divide up this pie chart showing how much time you want to devote to the following areas:
The idea is to try and get a sense of where learner priorities lie, as well as where learner needs are, and because these are not always the same thing it is important to also conduct a diagnostic test with a past paper. 
The past paper as a diagnostic test is a useful tool for a number of reasons.  It gives the learners their first full experience of the target exam and brings home to them exactly what they are aiming for.  It gives a very clear idea of which areas of the exam individual students need to work on and allows the teacher the opportunity to collate areas of group concern.  If done before the needs analysis questionnaire, it can also help learners identify their own areas of concern.  More importantly perhaps, it provides the starting point for the conversation about what learner needs really are. 
The conversation is perhaps the key part of the needs analysis process as it allows both you and the students to look beneath the test score data.  What does it mean, for example, if a student gets 3/8 in part one of the Reading and Use of English paper?  What problems did they have?  Was it partly poor test technique? Was it nerves?  Was it a lack of collocational awareness? 
Identifying these issues is the key to providing the learners with a successful and meaningful exam preparation course as it allows you to look at the coursebook, which are often quite “bitty” and full up with as many exam preparation tasks as they can squeeze in, and say that your class doesn’t need to do this activity, this page or possibly even this module.  It allows you to look at something and say – actually, I’m going to extend this activity out into a whole lesson and bring in a bunch of additional skills work here.  In essence, it allows you to plan your course based on learner needs, but always with the exam in mind.  Which, hopefully, keeps everybody happy.
Perrone, M.J. (2010). The impact of the First Certificate in English (FCE) examination on the EFL classroom: A washback study. Unpublished doctoral thesis. Columbia University, New York.


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