Some teachers are lucky enough to be able to dispense with grades and tests all together. I’m currently teaching a course where this is the case. But for the majority of teachers and learners around the world the test is an unfortunate fact of life. I was involved in a lively discussion on whether or not marks can ever be motivating to learners on Kalinago English (I argued they could be… but that’s another discussion!). However, I do feel that tests – many tests at least – are torture. And when I think about all the things we do in class: encouraging pairwork, comparing answers, using dictionaries etc it all can come apart when test time comes. What can the teacher do to counter this?
You may have to wait a bit until the education revolution arrives and sweeps away all tests in its wake but in the meantime here are six ideas I’ve tried on how to make tests a bit more bearable for students – by subverting the traditional test itself.
1. Open book/web test
Assign your test, but allow students to have access to books or internet for part or all of it. This could mean tweaking the test slightly to make it more challenging but it’s good real-life practice. This is not the most original idea, but it makes the test less stressful.
2. Institutionalize cheating (1)
Set the test and tell students what units/material will be covered. Tell them the day of the test they can bring one sheet of paper to the test. On that paper they can have as much written as they want (you know, like cheat notes). Have the test the normal way. I did this with a group of 11 year olds. At the end I asked them how much they referred to their notes. Not a lot, they said. That’s right, because making the cheat notes was a good way of studying. I know this from times when I made cheat notes and never had to look at them because I could remember what I had written down!
3. Collaborative marking
Give a writing test in a normal way. Then give the students the marking criteria for the writing. They mark their own writing using the criteria. Then you mark the same piece of work with the same criteria. Take an average of the two marks. That is the student’s mark.
4. Institutionalize cheating (2)
Before the test, give each student a ticket (a coloured slip of paper will do). Tell them this is good for one free answer from you on the test. If they don’t use it, they can accumulate it with another one for the next test. When a student asks you a question in the test (this happens all the time to me) tell them you can give them the right answer but it will cost them the ticket. Giving away ONE answer doesn’t affect the overall mark that much, but it does make students feel better. Interestingly enough when I did this with a group of kids they became more interested in collecting as many tickets as possible!
5 Repeat the test
Give a test in the normal way, and then correct it all together in class. When you’ve finished tell students that the test was in fact revision for the real test, which will be exactly the same and will occur the following week. Then give the same test the next week.
6. Test buddies
In a mixed ability class situation, set up groups of three or four students of different abilities. Tell them the general areas of the test and ask them to review these areas together. Explain that all the students in the group will get the same mark on the test. This mark will be the average of the group’s individual members’ marks (if I’m making this clear). This means the group has to work together to make sure they all do as well as possible. During the test the group will have ONE chance to consult with each other for a period of one or two minutes (to help clear up any doubts). This hopefully means that stronger students will be motivated to help weaker students both in the revision and test situation.
There are some other ways of course (e.g. I didn’t mention take-home tests and variants) and I should mention here that a whole bunch of these and other ideas are included in a book I wrote some years ago with a champion subversive teacher Luke Prodromou (you can see the book here).
Are you stuck with tests? Do you have control over how they are run? Obviously the above ideas won’t work for huge state-run school leaving tests but how do you help stressed out students cope? Post a comment here!