Language tests: a change in attitude for teachers and students

What words would you associate with the word ‘test’? Some that may come to mind are pass, fail, exam, study, cram or cheat. Tests tend to make students nervous or even anxious; they might feel they are being judged in a way. Other students, in order to avoid this stress, may take a more relaxed and “whatever” attitude towards exams. Can there be another way to think of exams? 

Some cultures have what is called a bulimic testing system. That means that students cram as much information into their heads only to vomit it onto a sheet of paper, and forget it all once the exam is over. There has been talk in Catalonia of changing to a competency testing system as secondary schools are incorporating more projects for students to use and apply the concepts that they learn. This, in turn, will change they way we test. 

Those who are studying because they need a qualification are taking their test to measure proficiency. This means that there are some established levels that they must achieve. This type of exam probably causes the most pressure because there are such importance consequences to whether students pass or fail. What these students should try to keep in mind is that language tests these days aren’t of the bulimic type. That is why language exams include not only comprehension skills (reading and listening) but also productive skills (speaking and writing) with only one part focusing on theoretic (grammar and vocabulary). 

At the Servei d’Idiomes in UManresa-FUB, we have different types of students. There are those who are studying at the university in one of the degree programmes and need their English qualification. Some language students may need the same qualification for a masters degree or to study abroad. On the other hand, we have other students who are studying a language for their own interests, personal reasons or professional purposes. 

So let’s take a different approach to these exams. Perhaps the most pressure goes to those students who need a specific language qualification for their degree. Tests for these students measure proficiency. In language learning, proficiency implies that one has the highest level. In testing, proficiency basically means that you have acquired the skills and knowledge required for a specific. For example, the test measures that a student’s abilities complies with the CEFR descriptions of the B2 level. 

What I like to point out to these students is that they should also consider the other advantages they will have when they’ve earned that qualification. With a certain level of language, not only do students have more opportunities to study abroad, it can also help them to widen the resources they have available or as they call it here, the bibliography. Depending on their studies, a great deal of research and studies are published in English, so whether you are studying medicine, business, engineering or education, English can help students learn even more.  

What about the other students? What should tests mean to them? Well, there’s another way of looking at tests and that is a measurement of growth. This is important for ALL students to consider as each student is an individual, with different strengths, weaknesses, time for studying, levels of interest, natural abilities, etc. Each student should look at the results of their exams as an indicator of how much they have learned. Imagine a student who tends to struggle with languages and scores 45% on their midterm exam and 55% on the final exam. Should they feel bad for not passing the exam? That is up to each individual. Should they feel proud of improving their mark? For those who are looking at growth on their personal scale, yes they should! 

Finally, tests are not only for students. Teachers ought to look at tests as a measure of their work. Test scores can reveal quite a lot of the classes, methodology or syllabus. If the majority of students, even the students who have had strong classroom performances, do poorly on a certain part of the midterm exam, the teacher can look for the reasons and make the necessary adjustments. Therefore, if students do poorly on speaking, the teacher can put more emphasis on speaking activities. 

I’m sure this article won’t change many people’s attitudes towards testing and stop their nervousness of whether they pass or fail, or dampen their desire to study, cram or cheat. I simply hope that everyone becomes more aware that tests are useful tool to measure students’ growth and to identify areas of improvement for teachers. 

Nancy Lee, responsable del Servei d’Idiomes d’UManresa

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