Posted by: Alastair Grant | December 6, 2011

Testing times…

Yes kids, it’s that time of the year when we start to see furrowed brows, even more Blackberry activity than normal, pained facial expressions and we try to think of new and ingenious ways to avoid answering questions.

Nope, not Christmas with the family – it’s the end of year exams.

Last week in my Dogme-style class, I decided that it might be a good idea to throw the whole testing system wide open and let my students decide on the form of testing they would like for their reading, writing, listening and grammar exams.

Initially I felt like my students we a bit spooked by being asked for their input and after some uncomfortable paper shuffling and shoe-gazing, we decided on the following:

Grammar and vocab: an oral-style exam where each student would prepare a 1-minute topic to talk about and try to use as many of the language points covered that year as possible.

Reading and listening: many options discussed and all eventually rejected… we ended up going back to the IELTS-style tests they’d had for the mid-years.

Writing: topics of their choice, and again, trying to use as much of the language we have seen this year as they can.

Ok. So far so good. Then we got onto the scoring… one student suggested that we have the marks based on a class average, i.e. that the students all got the same mark based on their overall performance. Cue twenty minutes of debate.

Some students thought this was fair in a liberal, quasi-Marxist way, while others felt they wanted their own marks based on their own performance, or how were they going to know how much they had (hadn’t) improved over the year?

We let this hang.

Right, so far, so good (ish). Next class – all change. They decided that the abovementioned system for writing and grammar would be too complicated and they wanted the classic FCE-style writing choices and the good ol’ grammar gapfills.

In yesterday’s class I made a joke about the mood-change, only to be told that it was my fault for not just telling them what to do in the first place. And you know what? I think they had a point…

We hear a lot about the “ideal” teacher’s role being that of “facilitator” and about making the class student centred, but for us, this just didn’t work on this occasion.

I feel that if I’d stuck to my guns and justified the original testing system from the outset, none of this would have happened (wooo – third conditional). But then, at least it was them who made the choice, right?

But, as teachers, are we STILL in the default position of classroom manager, no matter what current methodology suggests?

Are students ready for control to be handed over to them? Perhaps we’ve some way to go yet…


  1. Thanks for the visit to my “Classroom.” I left you a response. You blog is magnificent! Something every teacher should be doing as they teach. You seem to be an excellent teacher. Teaching, as learning, is an adventure that rarely follows the same path. It either keeps you young or ages you rapidly.

    • Thank you! I really appreciate the fact that your blog is such a good resource and thank you for your comment!

      I suppose my question about all of this is… if we are supposed to be entering a new teaching paradigm where the students and the teachers are on the same level, how much longer will we be managers for? Actually, for a long time, I think…

      Right now, I think we are seen as managers and the students find it hard to get out of the role of people who need instructions. I cannot see this changing anytime soon!

      Does it need to change at all?

  2. That is really interesting !! I’m sure most students would do the same !! It’s just that they want to feel they had the choice, but when it’s done, CHANGE is really frightening and risky!!! That’s why they all went back to the classical system !!!
    However, I believe teachers should never do the same !!! Change is always important and old ways will never work even if they seem to !!!
    Thanks Alastair Grant for all ur posts !! I enjoy reading them all as I feel they are simple , spontaneous and to the point !!!

    • Thanks Ayat! I’m glad I experimented with this and I know the students appreciated it too, even if we did go back to the classical system.

      Well, I think next year, I’ll make sure we talk about this kind of this right from the beginning of the year so they know what to expect. I’ll report back!

      Thnaks for your comments about the blog too!

  3. Great post and ‘social experiment’, Alastair. Nice 2 see u back blogging 😉

    How old is this group? That might help explain to what extent they were a bit reserved about launching into unchartered territory, especially this changing of power/control.

    I think it is inevitable they’ll be a bit ‘timid’ the first time this new freedom to explore roles comes up. I have a gut feeling that if it were continued over a longer period of time then they’d be much more willing to tell you exactly what they wanted, just as they seemed to warm up and debate the right way to grade. Interesting process on many levels for them. Nice !

    • Thanks Brad and yes, it had been a while since the past post! (must try harder…)

      The group range in age from 19-50 something years old – I think the learning background in Argentina has a lot to do with it – they’re just not used to being asked to say what THEY would like to do. Few students are anywhere, I guess…

      As per my commet to Ayat, I think next year this is exatly what I’ll do… so stay tuned…

      Sometimes I wonder if it’s just too soon for this paradigm shift though….

  4. Hi! I’ve just read your experience about letting your SS decide on the exams. It sounds very interesting and a great choice to let them decide but what happens to the testing office? And how about the cirriculum and the things they have to cover? I’m a bit confused and i’ll be glad if you help me out. Cheers!

    • Hi Sally and thanks for your comment.

      The syllabus was based on the FCE syllabus – i.e. we looked at the grammar points they had to study to get them to the next level of the course. As the students bring in their own laterial, we simply tick things off as we see them. It’s worked very well.

      Re. the testing – once they have decided what vocabulary they want to remember from the year, I make sure that’s in the exam.

      With the grammar, they are now getting the classic gapfill exercises as most other courses would. I’d really like to try the way they come up with re. the speaking next year though.

      Does that help? Feel free to ask anything you want!

  5. I love your idea of truly empowering the students. Would make a wonderful YouTube to hear them discuss what they want and why. What is a “fair test” anyway? Does it exist? Etc.
    I’m particularly interested in know how the students decided which vocabulary words were worth knowing.

    • Hi Annabelle – I like the idea of making a YouTube video and may well do that.

      Although I suspect it may be less about “fair” and more about “less intimidating” – but the decision they made has something to do with what Andy Baxter describes as “Face Validity” for a test.

      But maybe what they would see as fair would be less intimidating anyway.

      The vocabulary…

      We lookd through their folders since August and they chose some words they had studied:

      4 phrasal verbs (e.g. sort out)
      4 expressions (’s all downhill from here)
      4 other words (e.g. stray)

      We talked about how frequent they were and how useful they might be (my part in the decision making process, as manager (?)) and then we agree that we’d put these in the exam.

      Is this better than getting the vocab from a coursebook…?

  6. Nice post and well done for giving it a go. As Brad says above, they probably need more practice at this kind of thing.Maybe if you have them design some informal class progress quizzes, homework grading criteria, or other informal assessment tools first, they would have been more comfortable with the process.

    Just for the record, on Trinity Joint CertTESOL course that I was delivering here in Mexico, the teachers designed their own classroom observation instrument that I then used for to observe and assess their classes. The teachers responded well, took and very seriously and came up with a pretty comprehensive list of criteria. On in-service TT courses, I’ll definitely do that again!

    • Hi Mark and thanks very much for the feedback!

      I think they key here is, as you say, making them more involved from the outset with tests. The idea of having them design or simply choose what to include in them, wouldn’t be so daunting then.

      What I’d like to know is, how much were the students involved in the design of the observations you mention?

  7. Everything – their task was to design the instrument. After some discussion and brainstorming on what observations might cover, the session was run like a pyramid discussion. The teachers worked in pairs first, and came up with observation criteria . Then, 2 pairs were put together to compare / discuss ideas. Finally, as a group, we put together the final observation instrument.

    • This sounds great – so presumably this worked for all the observation classes in the course?

      I find this fascinating – I guess an authority like Cambridge have to have their own criteria and use that as a benchmark – but how much more fruitful to have the students involved in the whole procoss so that it meets their needs as opposed to needs specified by a disembodied group who have never met the students involved…

      Post-modern teaching, here we come!

      I wonder if this could be arranged for more classes and schools and the criteria that the SS and Ts come up with simply emailed to whichever authority it giving the award, thus making the school itself more independent and the whole process more useful for the students?

      Or is this unfeasible?

  8. Hi Alistair,

    Have had a similar experience myself anf thought that other teachers could also learn from it so have Have just add a link to your post on the TeachingEnglish facebook page if you’d like to check there for comments.

    Please feel free to post on the page whenever you have anything you’d like to share.



  9. Hi Alastair, interesting post, and I’m looking forward to watching your IH presentation from the DoS conference (assuming it gets put up).

    This seems like the promotion of learner autonomy taken to the extreme… and I like it! Even if they end up choosing the exact same style of exam, at least they chose it. And since it seems like there was lively debate leading up to the decision, surely that conversation can be mined for all kinds of useful language and teaching moments.

    The only thing I might consider if I was to do this would be to have this conversation towards the beginning of the course so that it could positively influence the everything going forwards.

    Good teaching risk-taking!

    • Hi Ben,

      Thanks for the comment! I was asked for my presentation by IH World the other day so I’m sure they’ll either report it to the ELT police or put it up on their website.

      You’re right Ben, what I should have done at the outset was to have discussed the exam format at the beginning with the students and then they would have not been landed with this for just the final exam of the year.

      One of the reasons I decided to give them this option at the end of year was because some of the students expressed dissatisfaction at some of the papers for the mid year exam – next year this will be flagged up from the word go.

      I guess part of my nervousness of running a course like this meant that I wanted to maintain what I saw as a more traditional approach in some aspects of the student’s course. I’ll gauge my students reaction to this at the start of the coming academic year and see what happens!

      Rest assured, there’ll be a blog post…

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