Wednesday, May 25, 2011

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Does Testing Help You Learn?

What do you think about exams and tests?  Please post your ideas and opinions below.

Many of you who follow this blog probably took IELTS or FCE or one of the other Cambridge exams.  Or perhaps you did the North American testing; TOEFL or TOEIC.

A lot of people learn English because it is the international language and if they want to work for the big companies (and even some of the smaller ones) they need to have English.   And how do we measure this English?... with the tests.

As a teacher, I have a love/hate relationship with these tests (yes, another love/hate relationship, just like with tenses).  The good thing for the teacher is that students preparing for a test are generally, generally well-motivated (not always).  The bad thing for a teacher is that it is sometimes difficult to keep learning fun when an important exam is ahead.

If I think as a learner (of Spanish), I feel that I need exams to motivate and guide me.  I am not taking a language course at the moment so if I really want to improve my Spanish I will need to have an exam to prepare for.  The exam will have specific points about language that it will test (think IELTS Writing Part 1: Graphs and Tables) and that means I know what I need to focus on.

But a big problem is that testing is generally stressful, can be expensive, and the English it tests can sometimes be very inauthentic, in other words, not like the English you will hear on TV or find in a native-speaking conversation.

Another problem is that we are not all good at taking tests or exams.  I will admit that I am not good at standardized tests.  I hated them at university and I actually failed some of them (there, my big secret is out in the open!).  I was also really bad at predicting if I did well in a university exam or not.  I remember there were a few times when I finished an exam and I thought that I had done very well (I hadn’t) but there were also a couple of exams that I thought I had completely failed (I passed very well, in fact).

So when I come out of an exam and then I am told that I failed it, does that mean I didn’t learn anything?  Did I learn anything from those courses?  Apparently, not enough.

What do you think about exams and tests?  I look forward to your opinions so don’t be shy. :-)


  1. Gordon,
    Interesting post. I don't think we learn anything from tests themselves. At least I never walked away from a test feeling like I knew more than I did before. What they do however is give us a gage of what we have learned. The problem with the tests we give our students though is that they do little to inform the learning process. I got a B or a C but it doesn't tell me anything about how I can go about improving. It's like telling the Heat they lost the NBA finals but not looking for the reasons why or thinking about what they need to work on as a team to return to the finals and actually win it all next year. The problem with testing as we know it is that it does not reflect real life. In many ways it creates the bad habit of just doing enough, of cramming at the last minute and then forgetting. Anyway, those are just a few thoughts. Great questions though and ones I think more educators need to press in on if we are to improve the systems in which we work.

    take care,


  2. I completely agree - there is no learning during the actual tests. We should be relaxed when learning new things and tests usually aren't relaxing.

    P.S. I'll take your word about Heat and the NBA... I'm guessing you are talking about basketball? :-)


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