Six ways to subvert tests

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!

Published in: on September 25, 2010 at 6:51 pm  Comments (14)  
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  1. I love every single one of these ideas, not least because they’re subversive.
    But more importantly, they accept that testing is a given for many (most?) teachers, like large classes and having to use a textbook, and that this shouldn’t get in the way of creative and communicative teaching.
    Great! Thank you!

  2. Referencing the Kalingo discussion, these ideas are great. Really, they integrate the testing most schools require with wonderful ways to subvert it. I’ve done many of the above in various contexts.

    I would add:

    1) Altering the terribly written tests to make it more realistic or useful (and then save it to the main folder 🙂 🙂 :)).

    2) Explaining the format of the test before it’s given (which you basically mentioned)

    3) Open book tests, (similar to 1 and 6 above). Here emphasizing a time limit is important, especially for exam prep.

    Great post 🙂 🙂

    • Hi and thanks both of you Nick and Simon for the great comments. Nick, you’re suggestion 1 is very good: the test can be made more personal too in the same way (Meddings wrote about this in Teaching Unplugged). And number 2… so important!
      Simon, I agree that the real challenge is doing creative teaching within the constraints that many teachers operate under.

    • Have to agree there, Nick 😀

      I’d add to your #2 that, certainly in contexts where learners are expected to take and pass an exam (such as publicly funded institutions), that authentic exam practice is vital. By that, I mean that you have a practice test session in conditions as similar to the actual testing day. Not really subverting the test, granted (sorry, Lindsay – I’m going off topic!), but gets the learner best prepared for when they go into that exam room for real.

  3. Awesome list of ideas here, Lindsay – some of which I have used but a couple I am seeing for the first time, so thanks for that!

    The really superb thing about these procedures is not that they make the tests easier or potentially result in better grades/results… it is that they focus on making tests an effective learning and reviewing activity. Tests applied in this manner result in much better outcomes for actual language learning (and some of your ideas here also make the most of self-assessment, peer assistance and negotiated learning).

    Excellent stuff, Lindsay – I would go so far as to say this is a MUST read for language teachers wherever they are and whomever they teach.

    – Jason

    • Hi Jason, thanks very much for the nice comment. Think you’re right too about these becoming an effective learning activity: this is like washback but the other way around perhaps? (I always hated that term washback btw, it always sounds so gross)

  4. I’ve done something similar to number five, which is to take in the test and tell them they will have a chance to improve their answers tomorrow. They then hopefully go home and furiously revise one more time before being given another ten minutes with the same test the next day. We then mark it.

    With a low level IELTS reading class (yes, I just taught then reading!) who seemed to most of all be lacking motivation and vocabulary, I gave them the text that I’d test them on but without the questions. They had the chance to use their dictionaries etc overnight, then I gave them a fresh copy of the text with the questions the next day.

  5. I’ve also been experimenting with questions that give them credit for what they do know rather than trying to catch them out on what they don’t. With vocabulary, I just ask open-ended questions like “Write six uncountable foods in the box below”. If that won’t be challenging enough, you can give a list of ones they are expected to already know and they have to add to it.

    • Great discussion Lindsay and because I agree with you was thinking that I’d have nothing to add 😦 Still, I love this obvious but so very obvious that I hadn’t thought of it, Alex!


      • Thanks Alex and Karenne for dropping by. Alex, nice idea there about testing with open ended questions. The give them credit for what they know idea is a good one, I remember getting trained as an FCE examiner and being told that for the speaking exam.
        And Karenne, this post was motivated by our discussion on motivation on your blog, so thanks for that! The joy of the blogging meme leading to another slightly related post and so on…

  6. As a language learner I have personal experience with “1. Open book/web test” and wouldn’t ya know I remember more from that test than any other language test I’ve ever taken? Granted, that test was a tough one, a full three hours, and covered the entire semester. Lots of flipping coursebook pages back and forth. But that repetitive, physical action and reaction to the content on the page solidified my memory – I’m convinced.

    This type of test also reinforces the importance of note taking during the classes, thus aiding memory.

    That’s it. I’m sold. I’m going to try it next time in my English class. Great post Lindsay!

  7. I agree that tests are necessary when used as a feedback and assigned in a low anxiety environment where focus is on learning rather than punishing. But I think there is another factor which makes tests (sometimes) an unfair tool for evaluting students: OBJECTIVITY or rather subjectivity.
    I have a personal experience of a teacher who assigned tests and never read them thoroughly. He graded students not according to the answers they provided, but according to his whim. The students he liked got THE BEST GRADES. I know this is an exception. But the issue of objectivity must be taken into consideration…!

  8. Hi Lindsay, I think idea number 2 is a great idea. If you were to develop this idea, would you help them in any way in the lessons leading up to the test, like using key words or mind mapping? I know this is a few weeks old now, so has there been any more feedback from the children? It sounds like it could be something to be used often.

    • Hi David, sorry it took me awhile to get back to you. I used method 2 a few years ago now (I don’t teach young learners anymore). We did it during a year, around 4 tests I think all together. And yes, it did have good feedback!

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