Failsafe: Five tips for test design

taking-an-examOne of the best feelings a student can have is the feeling that one’s hard work knowledge and/or ability is reflected in a great test score. Teachers feel pretty happy about those tests, too.  On the flip side, one of the worst moments for a student or teacher is that pit-of-the-stomach-ache that comes from realizing that a test has failed to capture learning.

Fortunately, bad test days can be avoided or at least mitigated when teachers incorporate a few principles into a testing cycle. Here are a few simple best practices for having more good test days and fewer bad ones.

5. Try not to borrow tests.

Teachers work in different ways, and test items that fit another teacher’s lessons may not fit yours. Your colleague may be very generous in sharing, but the test may include language and features that you have not covered, or it may be based on erroneous assumptions about what students know. Also, there may be mistakes that could cause you embarrassment when students point them out.

If you must borrow a test, look at it carefully before you get it copied. Make sure the test items match your lessons, and make adjustments.

4. Test as you teach.

Choose activities that you do in class for your test. If you do a lot of gap-fill, put gap-fills on the test. If you do a lot of sentence-writing, put sentence writing on the test. It is best not to make assumptions about students language development, as what they know and can do may not transfer from one type of task to another.

In addition, use daily class activities to see abundant examples of students’ work before the test. Have students write. Walk around the room and read their sentences for hard proof that they can use a piece of language. No matter how they answer the question, “Do you understand?” You can never be sure without solid evidence.

3. Spend some time on the directions.

As a general rule, directions are tricky and often benefit from revising just like any other type of writing. Try to keep your instructions concise but detail exactly what you expect. For example, if you want students to use the present continuous to describe a picture, be specific.

Vague:   Write about what you see in the picture.

Specific:   Describe the picture. Write five complete sentences. Use the present continuous with five different verbs. Underline the verbs. (10 points)

It is also a good idea to think through and set the number of points that an item is worth. This helps you think through the value of each item and how you will deal with elements not related to target language such as spelling mistakes.

2. Take the test before you make copies.

At one time or another, most of us have had to stop a test, call the students’ attention to the front and “fix” an error in the test, sometimes more than once. (Raise your hand if you have ever made the answer key while the students are taking the test and discovered a typo.) This is not an optimal situation. Taking the test before you send it to the print shop is a way to reframe your attention so that you can notice errors such as accidentally providing the answer in a gap-fill.

1. Give a practice test.

The single best way to avoid unpleasant surprises is to write two tests that have similar tasks. Give one two days before, and go over the answers in class. An even better way is to have pairs or small groups to take the practice test together. Circulate and clarify. Then elicit the answers to the board and answer any questions. Then you will know that students understand the instructions and what is expected of them.  It is up to them.

The pre-test process is especially useful in productive tests where students have to produce authentic target language. A side benefit is that it will also give you a sense of how long it will take students to complete, and hopefully you can also avoid yanking papers away when the bell rings.

– Alice

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