Should we test our students?

I hate tests. I never did well on them at school. In fact, I failed my UK university entrance exams in the 80s. Perhaps shaped by those experiences, I have always tried not to have ‘end of term’ exams for my English students, unless we are working towards external exams, such as the Cambridge First or Proficiency. Therefore, I test my students in a way that seeks to empower and support their learning. So rather than shy away from testing, let me share with you why we should test our students and how we can do it well. But first, let’s take a step back and find out why testing is important.

Formative and summative assessment

Let’s examine (if you’ll pardon the pun) why assessment is good for both our students and us as teachers. The end of term tests (that I failed so dramatically on) are examples of summative assessment. They evaluate learner progress up to a specific point and give a summary of what students can do with the subject or their level of passive understanding. These tests are formal, often written, and provide the teacher with evidence of what students have learned over a specific period. However, formative assessment, or ongoing testing throughout the term, can be really helpful too. This is a method of assessing students while they are learning. It is different from summative assessment because it takes place during the learning process itself. As teachers, we are constantly setting and refining learning goals for our students.

Formative testing helps us determine how far along the road they are, and if there are any areas we need to track back on. I really like it because it allows me to test my students in a way that’s innovative, fun and natural. It helps me understand how well they are achieving the learning goals that I have set them. Formative assessment takes place in a variety of ways.

Here are three examples:

• targeted questioning during the lesson

• questions at the end of the lesson

• recap warmer activities in the next session

Now let’s look at three reasons for doing ongoing assessments in our classes and the potential positive outcomes for our students.

Testing reason 1 – has our teaching been successful?

Students travel the learning journey at different speeds. This is for a range of reasons, but depending on their progress, we might decide to move faster or slower with our teaching aims for some learners. Here’s an example. Let’s say that you have been teaching lexis around the theme of work with your class of beginners. The aim has been to get them to speak about each other’s work or jobs. However, on a quick stop and check test at the end of the lesson, you notice that a couple of your students have made basic mistakes with the grammar, such as:

“I office worker.” “He shopkeeper”.

Firstly, great, your students appear to have learned the lexis you have been teaching. So this quick test shows you have been successful on one level. However…

Testing reason 2 – shows us where there are knowledge gaps

While the lexis teaching appears to be successfully embedded on one level, clearly there is another issue here. Some of the students appear to have a problem with verb omission. So a revision for these particular students on the use of the verb “to be” would be crucial before proceeding much further. Additionally, you may also have noted that in the examples above, there was no indefinite article (a/an). So this would also require some work as well. Just doing a stop and check test, perhaps through informal targeted questioning like this, could show you a knowledge gap that is crucial to close. If all of our students have made this mistake, it indicates that there is a problem with how the grammar has been taught. Therefore, we would want to review this and potentially reformulate our approach, and possibly our objectives, before proceeding further.

Alternatively, if only a couple of students had made this mistake, it might indicate an L1 interference, where students are thinking about how they would answer the question in their own language, and then translating that into English. In this case, more specific targeting of the structure for these students (perhaps a separate worksheet to practise at home) might be the way forward, so that you don’t slow down the whole class or group. You may decide, based on your quick test, that these learners need to focus on the grammar structure alongside the vocabulary as you go forward.

Either way, this is why formative testing is good. You don’t wait until the end of terms exam to discover learning gaps and it allows you to see if there is an issue with the teaching itself. Knowing this will enable you to make accurate decisions about future planning and teaching, possibly tailoring it for individual learners

Testing reason 3 – students feel a sense of accomplishment

If our students do well on a stop and check quiz or test, they feel a sense of accomplishment. They have learned something and demonstrated to you that they know it, to the extent that they got a question about it right or reproduced it correctly. So, short pop-quiz tests or simple Q and A sessions can be motivating and give our learners a sense of their own progress. Regular tests can also have a positive effect to get students into the habit of reviewing material on a regular basis.

So those are three reasons for conducting formative tests with our students. They shouldn’t replace summative testing in totality but be used alongside it. Try to incorporate this into your next lesson.

So those are three reasons for conducting formative tests with our students. They shouldn’t replace summative testing in totality but be used alongside it. Try to incorporate this into your next lesson.

Key learning takeaway

Formative or ongoing assessment allows us to assess whether our teaching has been effective, enabling us to see who needs more help, and who can advance and move forward faster. It shapes our plan for the next lesson and beyond, so we can tailor our approach for individual learners.






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