(this is a version a post which was published on the British Council Teaching English blog)
Last month was mid-term exam and reports time. At the meeting where we discussed the logistics and practicalities of exam-setting and report-writing, I must admit that my heart sank at the idea of having to set an exam for my A1.1 class. Test items have never been my favourite writing genre and I baulked a little at the thought. My students’ reaction was similar. They’re all older students and it’s been a long time since any of them has been tested on anything. Their faces fell, they groaned, they made half-jokes about finding excuses not to be there on the day of the exam.
Going back to the meeting, we discussed why mid-term exams were held. These were our conclusions: that they helped students see the progress they were making, that it helped them feel proud of what they’d achieved, that it gave us, the teachers, a chance to take time out to talk about individual strengths and weaknesses. So, flash forward to my class once the news had been broken. I told my class that the point of the exam was for them to show off what they knew – not to find out what they didn’t know. There was lots of nodding and agreeing. They’ve all been through an assessment culture that counts the mistakes not the successes.
We looked back over the things we’d done together in class in the last two and a half months and I asked the class what kind of exam they’d like. One of the students, the one who drives some of our more interesting conversations and profitable tangents, wanted to write a dialogue including all the areas we’d covered. Another liked the idea of preparing a short presentation. I suggested we blend the two. I showed them the areas I had to grade them on in my report: speaking, listening, reading, writing, vocabulary and grammar. And we looked at how each one would be catered for.
This is what we eventually came up with, negotiated but also, I must admit, led.
Part 1: mini presentations to last at least one minute and no more than five (to curb a certain talkative member of the class – the times came from the students not me!) to be prepared beforehand but delivered without notes. This would constitute the first speaking part of the exam (but would also allow me to assess grammar and vocabulary).
There was to be a listening task for the non- presenters who had to write two questions about the presentation to either a) test their classmates understanding of the presentation or b) clarify any doubts raised by the presentation. This would constitute the listening part of the exam. I was hoping that I would be able to gauge their success in following each others’ presentations from the questions they wrote.
Follow-up conversations after each presentation. I would take the time to talk a little more about the topics with each student while the others compared and discussed the questions they had written. This would constitute the second speaking task in the exam and also the second listening task as they would need to understand my questions to take part in the interaction (it would also be testing the fifth skill, not on the report, of interaction).
Part 2: a short vocabulary quiz with the students being asked to write short lists of different vocabulary areas we’d covered during the course e.g. five summer fruits, three days of the week, five members of your immediate family.
Part 3: sentences. Students were to write complete sentences in response to questions. The questions were written to enable the students to use vocabulary items from part 2 in context e.g. What’s your favourite fruit? What’s your favourite day of the week? Why?. The questions progressed in difficulty, the initial questions requiring a very simple response (e.g. I love watermelon) and later questions needing a longer sentence ( I like Sundays because …. ) . This would be my main gauge of how well the students had mastered the main structures and sentence frames we’d looked at so far.
Part 4: writing. This part would require the students to write a short text on one of the topics covered so far; a job, a family member, a favourite pastime. The idea being here to let them expand on one of the answers in part 3 and show off as much as they wanted to.
And that was what we did.
And the results? Well, some students had prepared more than others for the presentation, and it showed. The listening task and following group discussion need quite a lot of mediation but the question writing task was a good gauge of comprehension. The vocabulary quiz and sentences were zipped through and the students had the feeling that they were easy (though not too easy). These last two parts allowed me to liberally apply big ticks all over the page. We finished about ten minutes before the end of the class and everybody seemed happy with the experience – though I think we would all have preferred a normal, conversation-driven lesson! We spent the last ten minutes revisiting the initial presentations and that led us along a fruitful conversation tangent until the end of the lesson.
I think it worked OK but I also think we can improve on it next time.