Teaching Exam Classes: Some issues to keep in mind

This article is written by Marie-Anne Gillis, and based on work she did when researching Teaching Exam Classes as her specialist subject for Delta Module Three.

I am based in Italy where initiatives to improve language learning in schools and universities, together with poor employment prospects, have brought about an increased uptake in high-stakes language examinations in recent years. As a result, I spend a good deal of time preparing my students for formal examinations.

However, my experience of teaching exam classes has not always been a positive one. In fact, like Resmuves (2013), I have often found these classes to be “pretty bland” and struggled with the teaching-testing balance. After a few years as an exam-class teacher, I started to become frustrated with the lack of variety and excessive testing in these classes and realised that if I wanted to boost my own and my students’ motivation levels, and become a more effective exam-class teacher, I would have to gain a deeper understanding of exam-class issues.

So what exactly is it that makes exam classes different from general-purpose English courses? Burgess and Head (2005) highlight a number of similarities and suggest using similar activity types and teaching techniques in both. In an attempt to provide learners with real-life language skills, many examination boards have adopted an increasingly communicative approach to language testing. This has no doubt led to more realistic exam tasks and situations which, in turn, should make it easier to implement general teaching techniques in exam classes.
On the other hand, my teaching experience has also highlighted some key differences. Firstly, preparing learners for an exam “makes special demands on the teacher” (Ibid, 2005:IV). Secondly, as learners have the shared aim of passing the exam (May, 1996) it should be easier to persuade them of “the importance of homework and practising their weakest skills” (Burgess & Head, 2005:2).

So let’s take a closer look at some of the key issues to consider when teaching exam classes.
In my experience, one of the most difficult things to do is strike a teaching-testing balance. In fact, I have often felt that I was doing too much testing and not enough teaching. Factors such as course length and the learners' current language competence will play an important part in this balance.

Course Length
Learner Level
Main Course Focus
Level required for exam
Mostly exam practice and strategy
Slightly below exam level
Improving general language competence, exam practice and strategy

Whichever type of exam class you teach, time constraints will almost inevitably influence the teaching-testing balance.

Another issue which strongly influences exam classes is the backwash effect. Hughes defines this as the harmful or beneficial “effect of testing on teaching and learning” (1989:1). Although, in theory, high-stakes exams which strive “to encourage positive learning experiences and achieve a positive impact on teaching” (UCLES, 2015:2) should foster beneficial backwash, in practice, I don’t feel this always happens in exam classes. In fact, like Tsagari (2009), I have often found that exam-class teaching leads to boredom and demotivation in learners, and anxiety and stress in both teachers and learners.

Although I believe teachers should always do everything in their power to maintain motivation levels high throughout a course, this is even more important when the stakes are high. As "a multifaceted construct” (Dörnyei, 1998:118), defining L2 motivation is notoriously difficult. However, it generally concerns “the choice of a particular action, the persistence with it and the effort expended on it” (Dörnyei, 2001:8).

In exam classes, the first important choice to consider is why learners are attending:

1.    Are they attending of their own accord?
2.    Do they need to pass the exam? Why?:
·         to attend an English-medium university course
·         to improve career prospects, etc
3.    Do they want to pass the exam simply for personal satisfaction?

Learners are often described as being intrinsically or extrinsically motivated (Deci & Ryan, 2000), or even (and preferably) a combination of the two. In exam classes, extrinsic motivation tends to prevails with most learners attending because they need to pass the exam. Independently of motivation type, it goes without saying that when learners choose to attend, starting motivation levels are generally high.

I feel that the teacher’s main challenge, especially in longer exam courses, is to find ways of stopping motivation levels from faltering during the course. The difficulty here is that if learners begin to lose interest, this often leads to problems with persistence and effort (Dörnyei, 2001).

In my experience, this happens for a number of reasons. Firstly, I find that if every lesson is limited to exam-style tasks, boredom soon sets in. I also feel that while learners need to do exam simulation, practice tests should not be overused. In fact, while stronger learners may find the lack of challenge demotivating, weaker learners often become frustrated with repeatedly low marks. As is true for any course, it is also important to cater to the learners’ needs and interests. Personally, I feel this is unlikely to happen by simply using practice tests and published exam preparation materials.

So what else is available? In my opinion, this is one of the major challenges for exam-class teachers. While for general English courses there are lots of fun supplementary activities in teachers’ resource books and tools, these are seriously lacking in teachers’ resources for published exam courses (Case, 2008). This means that the teacher often has to develop his/her own materials. While I feel a good teacher should do this to meet learners’ needs, it is often too time-consuming to do this for all classes.

Learners attending exam preparation courses also need to assume more responsibility for their own learning. While I feel this is important for all classes, it is even more so for exam classes. This is because many high-stakes EFL/ESL exams are proficiency tests and, as such, test specifications are generally vaster than those of general English end-of-course achievement tests. What’s more, very few exam classes include enough contact hours to cover everything that might come up in the exam. Like Burgess and Head, I feel that if we encourage learners to develop autonomous learning skills they can “learn more and have a better understanding of their abilities than students who rely solely on what they are taught in class” (2005:5).

Although the “degree of choice” (Reinders, in Benson & Reinders, 2011:179) associated with learner autonomy may not initially seem compatible with exam classes where test specifications dictate course focus, I feel that careful design and interpretation of needs analysis and diagnostic testing tools can help meet learners’ needs and wants (Petrie, 2015).

The degree of autonomy your learners feel comfortable with will depend on the teaching context they are familiar with. Where learners are used to the teacher making all the decisions, this will probably mean dedicating a good part of the course to developing autonomy and highlighting its usefulness.

As well as learner autonomy, exam-class learners also benefit from specific training to help raise awareness of and develop exam strategies and relevant subskills. In a writing exam, these might range from the obvious need to practise reading and interpreting instruction rubrics (Harmer, 2004), to process skills development (e.g., planning) and a focus on genre-specific discourse features.

In my experience, familiarising learners with exam content/format, equipping them with strategies and providing exam-task simulation with constructive feedback all help boost confidence, optimise performance and minimise exam-day stress.

From what we have discussed so far, it seems apparent that exam classes really do place special demands on teachers. So what exactly are these demands and which teacher roles should we adopt? Although I believe you should always adapt to your teaching context, exam-class teachers generally have to “get to grips with exam specifications” (Joseph, n.d.), prepare lessons with “specific and well-defined aims “(Hughes & Naunton, 2010), strike a teaching-testing balance, motivate students and encourage learner autonomy. When I teach exam classes, I find it useful to adopt a number of different roles such as: the learner coach, the planner, the assessor, the time manager and the counsellor.

To sum up, I feel that all the above-mentioned issues are well worth bearing in mind when teaching exam classes. By teaching, not just testing, we can help our students both prepare for the exam and improve their language competence. We can help keep motivation levels high by using stimulating and varied course materials which meet our learners’ needs and interests. By familiarising learners with exam content and format, equipping them with useful subskills and strategies, promoting learner autonomy and providing effective constructive feedback, we can help boost their confidence and exam-day performance, and hopefully also stand them in good stead for taking charge of their own future learning. And last but by no means least, although being an effective exam-class teacher means assuming considerable responsibility and being able to adopt multiple teacher roles, I wouldn’t change it for the world as I find it both satisfying and a privilege to help my students achieve such an important life goal.

  • Photo from eltpics by @yearinthelifeof and provided under Creative Commons License.