Multiple choice examination form with yellow pencil

To Test or not to Test?

by Neil Millington

In my younger years as a teacher, I enjoyed the end of the semester for several reasons. First, I studied under the amazing Charles Alderson when doing my MA and I thought it was always a good chance to create a valid and reliable test that would show which of my students had worked the hardest and were most deserving of the top grades. I’m a little embarrassed to admit it but the final week when the test was administered was also the chance to chill out! I used to see it as a reward for the graft I had put in over the semester! A kind of, “it’s over to you now”!

I worked hard on developing good tests for all my classes. I would carefully construct rubrics and tests based on sound theory, my experience and guidance from eminent professors. Please be aware, I’m not in any way endorsing Dr. Alderson and his colleagues, but I really do recommend his book Language Test Construction and Evaluation. I had to buy the book as part of my course, but in no way do I regret it! He is rigorous in his approach to designing and evaluating tests and I often found myself referring back to his book after I graduated.

Questioning the Need to Test

However, in recent years I have found myself questioning whether I actually really need to test all my students quite so rigorously. I teach quite a few non-English major university classes. I wonder if I need to test the non-English majors who take my speaking classes. In these classes, there is usually a very wide range of levels and abilities. At one extreme, I have some classes where some of the students have only had three years of English instruction in middle school. At the other extreme, some students display high levels of fluency and have spent time abroad. The remainder of the students fall somewhere in between. I found it very challenging to design a speaking test that worked for everyone. In addition to this, administering the test to large classes was also very difficult. For the students, these tests often created a great deal of stress. The less proficient learners tended to prepare a script, often with the help of an online translator, and simply read the script for the test. Those that didn’t put in this much effort would struggle to string together a few sentences and the rest of the time could be taken up with awkward silences.

Changing it Up: A Different Kind of Test

Last semester, with one of my classes of non-English majors, I decided to replace the final speaking test with a much less informal assessment. I decided to replace the pair discussion I had planned to do with something that felt was lower stakes. I therefore proposed the idea of having a kind of final party. The students would be allowed to bring snacks and drinks to share with their friends, but they would still be expected to talk and interact in English. The students would chat with their friends and I would then evaluate this and it would be their final test. I did this as an experiment and announced it to the class the week prior to the final test. The reaction was incredible. I had students fist pumping and cheering. Just to add some context, many of my non-English majors are studying for a specific occupation and the there is a great deal of pressure, so perhaps that should be taken into consideration.

On the day of the ‘final test’ I didn’t know what to expect. Everyone turned up, and they all brought snacks and drinks. Also, they all looked relaxed and smiled. We put some tables together and they shared their snacks. Everyone took some and returned to their desk. Now my initial plan for a ‘final test’ was to have each student to talk with a partner for two minutes on a topic we had covered in class. This would be repeated several times each with a different partner. I would observe and then grade. The mood in the class seemed good, so I thought why not stick with this original plan but let them eat their snacks whilst doing this.

The result was very pleasantly surprising. I actually administered the speaking test which I had intended to, but the class thought they weren’t having a test! I put them in two rows and only asked them to chat about something we had covered in the previous weeks. It was incredible! They chatted and I observed. With hindsight, I don’t think linguistically they performed better than classes in previous years, but the major difference was they were having fun! It was simply a chance to reflect on what they had learned and a chance to do this in a pressure free context.

What do you think? Would this work with your learners? I don’t know if this was a one off. I’d certainly like to try it again!


  • Daniel

    I don’t know about all proficiency tests….but in my 11 years of helping students prepare for IELTS, TOEFL, and CAE i have found that 50% or more is practicing test-taking strategy.