Tuesday, 25 October 2016

The pitfalls of exam preparation

What’s your main goal in teaching English? You’ll probably say something along the lines of „enabling students to communicate well in English” and perhaps also „developing students to be better people”. But have you ever had a group of students preparing for an examination? Then you know that your success or failure will be measured by not by how well they can express themselves in real life, and not even by how well they fit into society. Where there is an important exam at the end of the process, you can only succeed if your students pass the exam. It’s that simple.

What many of your students (and their parents) will expect you to do is to get them through the exam – which for them may also well mean the end of learning. Which, of course, should not be the end of the process. Learning is for life.

But what does this mean in terms of classroom practice?


1. You will have to cover the exam syllabus (the topics, the grammar and vocabulary, the skills and sub-skills), and make sure you don’t miss out anything.

2. You will have to familiarise your students with all the exam task types, and provide them with strategies to complete each type of task with maximum efficiency.

3. You will have to familiarise your students with the assessment criteria – so they know how to maximise their point scores, and how to avoid losing valuable points.

4. You will have to provide students with practice and rehearsal opportunities, so when they get to the real exam, it’s not their first time completing it.

The above is just a rough shortlist of priorities.

To continue with the same train of thought, what does this mean in terms of what you’re NOT going to do in the classroom?


1. You are not going to cover language points that aren’t required in the exam. Students probably won’t mind. But don’t forget that often we only teach language points because we know they’re going to be tested. Throughout my career as a learner, there has always been a massive emphasis on irregular verbs. They are certainly useful, but the reason we spent so much time memorising long lists of them was merely that they were going to feature in our exams. Think about this – is there any language you’d skip or spend less time on if it wasn’t in the exam?

2. You are going to prioritise the task types that do occur in the exam over those that don’t – which means you’re probably going to reduce task type variety. You feel responsible for your students’ success, so you make sure their exposure to exam expectations is maximised. When it comes down to a choice between, say, an open personalised speaking task and another multiple-choice gap fill, perhaps you’re going to go for the gap fill... again.

3. In order to prepare your students well and to make sure you’re not leaving even your weakest student behind, you’re going to spend a lot of time focusing on what’s needed for the exam. When pressed for time, you are not going to do too many activities which have no connection to the exam. This includes games, drama, discussion of controversial / intriguing (depending on your viewpoint) subjects, jokes and humour in general... can you continue this list? Exams are neutral, non-controversial, and let’s face it, pretty bland. Which is fine because tests are measurement tools, and it’s important to reduce unwanted extra factors, like emotional responses. But bear in mind that „pretty bland” is exactly the opposite of what language classes should be! How are you going to motivate students if you’re spending so much time doing stuff that isn’t motivating?


The difficult solution is to prepare students in a way that teaches them all the real-life communication skills rather than focuses on mechanical test task preparation. For example, instead of aiming to practise a format like four-option multiple choice cloze, your aim could be on the communicative goal of the text you use, but using the mcq format to highlight some of the cohesive devices of that type of text. Or instead of comparing and contrasting two arbitrarily chosen coursebook photos, your aim could be sharing personal experiences of special occasions – through comparing and contrasting family photos of, say, weddings or graduation ceremonies. The trick would be to always aim to do both: exams as well as real life.

What I’m saying is that our general aims in language teaching and the aims of exam preparation are linked, but sometimes their priorities clash, and it will be up to you to strike the right balance and to blend learning for real life and exam preparation.

This article was originally published on the OUP ELT Global Blog on 7 April 2013 as a preview of my workshop at the 2013 IATEFL conference in Liverpool, and appears here in an updated form.

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