The unconventional guide to testing your students’ English
Do you have students who think English tests are a simple stamp of approval at the end of a course? We thought so. On the other hand, you’ve probably heard that research shows tests are one of the most effective learning tools out there, or touted the benefits of testing as a study tool. But there’s a catch: only the right kinds of tests used at the right time in a student’s learning process are effective in boosting memory. So how should we be testing students’ English?
1. Test early
Even before your students enter your class, they will usually have completed a placement test. If you can, allow them to see their results alongside the answer key. While students may not have understood all that was tested, with the answer key in hand they’ll get to preview what’s ahead in their studies. Importantly, encourage your students to be the masters of their own education by noting their strengths and weaknesses, and pointing them to English learning resources that they can use for self-study.
In addition, encourage your students to take a good English test before switching classes, moving up a level, or making any changes to their studies. The results can be used to pinpoint their strengths and weaknesses and prepare a study plan. Teach them to take control and be more specific in their planning. For example, rather than simply “practice reading comprehension”, show learners how to notice and make a note of what they are struggling with (such as long sentences, phrasal verbs, or conditional constructions). All of this valuable information should inform their learning plan, allowing them to focus on acquiring skills they can apply immediately, as well as helping you to train those same skills during class time.
2. Test often
During active study – whether in class or at home – regularly language testing serves three purposes. First, it shows them how much they’ve learned since the previous test, which is highly motivational. Never underestimate the power of motivation where education is concerned. To exploit this motivation even further, consider having students complete the same test two or three times in the academic year – or another test graded on the same scale – so they can see their scores improving in real time. This could be a class activity or given as homework. (Of course, this technique only works with dynamic tests, not tests with a fixed set of questions.)
The second purpose of using English tests as a study tool is to reveal new gaps in their knowledge. As students encounter more complicated sentence structures and try to express more complex thoughts, new challenges are raised. At the same time, principles that had previously seemed clear may become confused as more subtlety is introduced. Regular English testing helps students – and you as their teacher – to locate these issues and add them to study and teaching plans. Targeted short English tests around particular grammatical rules, vocabulary, or sentence structures can also be particularly useful. Again, provide the answer key to increase student responsibility.
The third reason for testing at least every six months is that research shows students learn while taking tests. On multiple choice tests, seeing correct and incorrect answers side by side makes learners think carefully and confidently about what they know and what they think think know. The act of retrieving knowledge from memory actually reinforces the memory itself.
There’s no need for students to stress out about using English tests as a study tool any more than they should be scared of working with flashcards, reading a complicated article with the help of a dictionary, or playing a podcast from the BBC. Taking regular English tests helps them approach the concept of testing calmly and confidently, which in turn improves test results in general – even when faced with a high-stakes English test. If that’s not a good reason for students to test their English right now, I don’t know what is.