This is the third part of our exam preparation series: 6 steps to exam success.
In this article, Philip Warwick will look at building exam strategies and identifying progress points. This allows teachers to offer valid guidance and supervision whilst differentiating between the skills and parts of the exam so that they can review key concepts and track students’ progress.
At the end, you’ll also find a link to watch a recording of his webinar which took place on March 6th.
Step 3: Monitor progress
A good teacher offers support and supervision in every aspect of their teaching, playing many roles in the course of a lesson, from instructor to timekeeper and even sometimes disciplinarian.
But when it comes to teaching exam courses, one of our most important roles is that of the monitor and mentor.
Having an understanding of where the students are and where they need to get to in order to pass their exams is key. Even more important is the ability to communicate this to the students. They need to be clear on what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how it will help them with their exam performance.
So what does effective monitoring involve?
Back to the basics
When students are on-task, the teacher needs to monitor effectively, recording student output, facilitating and being available to the students as a learning resource. Good monitoring means unobtrusive classroom management combined with the subtle art of plate-spinning.
The teacher should have a clear idea of what target language the students need to use to complete the task and should have a clear understanding of how to monitor and introduce this in class.
Being able to extend or reduce activities, establish and maintaining control and having a clear system of whiteboard management are also important skills.
Feedback needs to be given and a further practice stage included which will allow students a chance to use the feedback in a similar task.
Focus on outcomes
A good starting point is to decide on Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) and work out a Learning Progression Framework (an LPF). This will help you improve classroom practices and identify progress points.
Firstly, we need to establish where the student is in terms of proficiency and then consider what the target level is to work out the training gap.
We could use an international framework like the Global Scale of English (GSE) to do this, or we might use a more personalized set of criteria. The important thing is that this framework is easy for the students to understand and is tied to the exam that they are going to take.
It’s necessary to split a student’s proficiency into the separate skill sets that are being tested. This will help us determine their strengths and weaknesses (i.e. one student might be strong at writing transactional writing tasks but weaker at creative writing tasks). This will help us find a starting point for the LPF.
Next, we should identify SLOs along this framework to check and inform on progress being made. We can do this through a variety of assessment devices—though most of them will be designed to inform the teacher and learners of how to adjust the course content to make it more useful for the students.
This assessment for learning approach will help students to be aware of their route along the training plan, see for themselves areas of improvement, and highlight areas where they need extra support.
Once we’ve highlighted areas for improvement, we can build up strategies to help our students progress and achieve higher marks in these parts of the test.
Skill building strategies
We can improve the students’ reading scores in multiple-choice tasks by giving them an understanding of distractors and enabling them to make educated guesses. We can help with matching exercises by focusing on lexical range and substitution, and by highlighting referents and other ‘pointing’ language we can get learners performing better at gapped text exercises.
Use of English
Use of English scores can be improved by focusing on the co-text in multiple-choice tasks, concentrating on collocations and increasing word knowledge. With cloze texts, a better understanding of what type of word will be omitted can also be useful. Plenty of extra activities focusing on affixation such as working with a suffix grid or doing a word race will improve word formation scores and focusing more on reciprocal pairs rather than individual context will lead to higher scores in sentence transformation exercises.
Giving students control of the listening text and exposing them to intense bursts of listening both inside and outside the class has benefits for improving listening skills. Getting the students to highlight the keywords in the rubrics will help with multiple choice questions and a better understanding of functional language and intonation will reap benefits with matching tasks. Finally, work with spelling and having the students listen for specific information will improve production tasks.
Separating speaking production tasks from interaction ones and concentrating on time awareness and participation are key to doing well in speaking tests. Highlighting functional language using activities like ‘describing nothing’ or a word grab can give further practice in this.
Providing students with a skeleton text and written prompts is useful for in-class writing tasks. The importance of a mixed approach (both product and process) added with peer correction can help students attain higher scores on written texts.
Develop an understanding of the exam itself
Whatever strategies you use, students need to have a good understanding of the skills that are tested by each task type in the exam. Through monitoring and tracking, they should have an awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses, and this should be mapped to a clear LPF.
Both teachers and students should use this to create a plan for refined practice, so SLOs are created that have a clear impact on exam performance. Time needs to be taken into consideration, not just how long to spend on each exam item but also in how much time is available for study before the exam. Refined homework should be customized to the needs of the individual rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach.
The conditions in which the students practise exam tasks should also be reviewed, as it’s important to make sure that students have been exposed to pressurised exam conditions before they take the test.
Remember teaching students to pass an exam is not quite the same as teaching them English. Certainly, their English will improve, but the strategies are slightly different and a fundamental part of exam teaching is to be able to monitor students’ progress and lead them in the right direction.
Want to learn more? Watch a recording of Philip’s webinar now.
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