Exams: Bridging the Gaps Between Learner and Teacher

Exams: Bridging the Gaps Between Learner and Teacher

by Fernanda Felix Binati

Many of us will have taught exam preparation classes. How memorable would you say such classes generally are? Do you feel that they all merge into one for your students, with none standing out or having a particularly lasting effect? As we ask ourselves these questions, we would do well to remember our own school experiences of preparing for examinations. Do we clearly remember the lessons leading up to the exam, or do they pale in comparison to ‘regular’ classes?

As Luke Prodromou (1995) states, “Many teachers, trapped in an examination preparation cycle, feel that communicative and humanistic methodologies are luxuries they cannot afford […]. It goes without saying that tests and examinations—at the right time, in the right proportions—have a valuable contribution to make in assessing learners' proficiency, progress, and achievement.” The question is, where should we draw the line? How far away from the regular should we travel in search of good exam preparation classes?

Whether your experiences have been delightful or dreadful, you may well have thought that there is so much about our individual and collective learning experiences that has yet to be integrated into our teaching practices, especially due to the perception that teaching is good and grading is bad. We need to bring to light our experiences and beliefs of the exam classroom, especially if your past and present exam lessons have not encompassed real life learning - which might be at odds with good teaching practice.

Many educational environments treat learning as a system of acquisition rather than inquisition, or what Freire termed ‘the banking concept,’ with students acting as accounts waiting to receive knowledge deposits irrespective of how much they understand of their input. “The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world” (Freire, 1968).

I have heard it said that preparing learners for exams can never be like teaching a normal lesson. I interpret this to mean that exam classes serve a specific, short-term cause and as a result the lessons are akin to the classic ‘crammers’ that would prepare students to face a test but with the understanding that those students would subsequently clear their minds of the material before moving on to prepare for the next test. While this is arguably less true in EFL than in many secondary education establishments (think back to your own experiences if you need a good example of this), there is definitely something very academically-minded about the kinds of tasks that many exams require of their candidates. Few students will need to describe a graph, unless they are preparing for the IELTS; few will need to write a report on traffic problems in their city, unless they are preparing for the Cambridge B2 First; few will need to read four short texts and match differing opinions, unless they are preparing for the Cambridge C1 Advanced.

Exams beget the skills needed to take further exams. Real-life learning is subservient to classroom-life learning.

Freire (Freire 2008:4.) suggests “a subject (a student or a teacher) is someone who has the capacity to adapt oneself to reality plus [emphasis added] the critical capacity to make choices and transform that reality”. This would require the replacement of the ‘banking approach’ with that of ‘problem-posing’, which enables students to recognise their relationship with the world and become conscious beings. However, this will require a paradigm shift which is transitioning from an overly authoritative figure to that of a facilitator.

Few would disagree with the idea that teachers must offer a good example, but this is a far more complex task than it might at first appear - not all teachers are completely aware of their learners’ attitude towards their teaching and their own practices, and so the example that we think we are offering to our students might not be the one that they observe. To become facilitators, we need to understand our own place in the classroom - in other words, we need to become more self-aware, and learn to see ourselves through the eyes of our students.

Sensitivity to our learners is of paramount importance, particularly in the somewhat artificial world of exam preparation classes. There is research affirming that “test anxiety is the most widely recognized cognitive issue affecting students' academic achievement scores. It can influence students’ sense of pride, companion connections and social practices” (Costello et al., 2003). Reconsidering the role of the teacher, and transitioning from the ‘banker’ model to that of ‘problem-solving’, would likely ameliorate these issues.

Let’s consider some typical issues that our learners face - and for each one, we’ll place the issue in its context and consider what the teacher might want to do to help.

I have to speak a lot better than this!
Focus on what your learner was able to achieve rather than where they fell short.

I made so many mistakes. I need to get X points if I want to pass.

Remind your learner that overthinking about results may give rise to more anxiety. Focusing on mediating their disquietude of how to overcome adversities rather than what they could be losing encourages intrinsic motivation. Turning the focus from the personal level and taking the issue to the community also helps. Thus, another idea is to let learners discuss the task and discover the competences they have and those they lack with their peers instead of through the limited (and limiting!) medium of grades.

I will never get full marks on this reading task because I am too slow.

Perhaps your learners might not be used to extensive reading. Perhaps they have the skills but lack the confidence. Initially, focus on short and attainable tasks, then gradually extend the length and degree of challenge.

Considering that lessons are a mixture of ‘testing’ and ‘teaching’ (Prodromou, 1995) elements, the scale of motivation should not tilt in testing’s favour too much, hence while some aspects are still allowed (i.e., fragments of text; competition; isolated forms), they should be weighed in order not to inhibit the social and emotional components which contribute to one’s well being, progress, and community, like teacher support, healthy engagement with the content, and teamwork.

If we want to make exam lessons more engaging and less merchandised, there are other relevant factors which require our attention:

- Although ‘competition’ (Prodromou, 1995) is an element which might increase learners’ extrinsic motivation, it is vital that competitive elements are not only acknowledged as generative, but as having a clear communicative aim in which learners do not disregard cooperation, since the centre of your learners’ disposition lies in “learning from error” (ibid) and being given enough support to overcome such errors.

- “Sectarianism” (Freire, 1968), which might be theoretical, religious, political, cultural, etc, becomes a hurdle to the expansion of one’s knowledge, which means, becoming more “culture-sensitive” rather than “culture-bound” (Prodromou, 1995); providing “follow-ups” (ibid) rather than blindly following exam tasks and criteria and then moving onto the next task; creating ‘rapport’ and actively listening rather than cutting learners short, support a more functional teaching practice. Therefore, not only should an exam lesson focus on the academic, but it should also be designed to fit into the social and emotional dimensions of two-way communication.

- Listening to your learners’ responses and observing their behaviour is better than prescribing quick solutions to their problems. Advising while taking no notice of the role of the learner in the classroom can only lead to more confusion since “every prescription [emphasis added] represents the imposition of one individual's choice upon another, transforming the consciousness of the person prescribed to into one that conforms with the preserver’s consciousness. Thus, the behavior of the oppressed is a prescribed behavior, following as it does the guidelines of the oppressor” (Freire, 1968.). Ergo, it comes with the need to align our exam teaching practice with our learners’ interests and their place in society.

- Finally, “this solution cannot be achieved in idealistic terms” (Freire, 1968). Teachers and learners should constantly rethink their beliefs about the exam classroom and enable themselves to transcend previously habitual forms of oppression (such as dealing with exams without careful consideration), and not simply repeat those by fate.

Even though learners’ negative self-talk and educational hindrances have become an unavoidable part of our lives, teachers cannot take what they hear at face value. Instead, they should strive to put a stop to the divorce of social, emotional, and linguistic competences that can otherwise establish a balanced relationship with learners, which nurtures the English classroom community and yields long-term results.

No matter how big or small our classroom ideals are, the path which gets us there always begins with a single step. While we all want to make a mark on exam lessons, it may be a mistake to assume our decisions would all be fruitful, especially without the consideration for our learners’ role and their place in society.

Now, how are we going to consciously take advantage of our current teaching beyond the idea of simply passing an exam?

References and Suggest Reading

Freire, P. (1968), Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York/London: Continuum, 30th Anniversary Edition.

Freire, P. (2008) Education for critical consciousness, London: Continuum, 3rd edition.
Prodromu, L. (1993), The backwash effect: from testing to teaching, ELT Journal, Oxford University Press.

Rehman, S. , Javed, E., Abiodullah M. (2021), Effects of Test Anxiety on Academic Achievement at Secondary School Level in Lahore, Bulletin of Education and Research December 2021, Vol. 43, No.3 pp. 67-80.

Maylor U. (2012), Key Pedagogic Thinkers: Paulo Freire, University of Bedfordshire, Journal Of Pedagogic Development.

Author Biography

Fernanda holds the CELTA, IH CAM, and other ELT certifications. She studies Pedagogy and is currently taking the IH course ‘How to Teach IELTS’ . She is from São Paulo, but currently resides in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, where she works online for IH Kazakhstan.