Teaching to the test: can it be a good thing?

Depending on your standpoint, ‘teaching to the test’ is either an effective way of ensuring that classroom teaching conforms to a standardized curriculum, or it is a restrictive pedagogical shortcut designed to ensure that students pass their exams.

But which is it? And how can we ensure that exam-focused courses are advantageous to language learners?

Criticisms of teaching to the test

Teaching to the test certainly gets a bad rap in the ELT community. In the worst case scenario, we imagine overworked educators drilling students on specific questions. Or we think of teachers focusing on test-related knowledge to the exclusion of the students’ own objectives and emerging learning opportunities.

Some argue that even when teaching to the test is well-intentioned, it is reductive in that it ignores the richness of the English language. This style of teaching sometimes promotes learning by rote (memorization) and this can be considered superficial because although this promotes recall, it does not necessarily involve understanding.

The argument goes that while students may come away with reams of memorized materials and certain academic skills, they are left without important listening, speaking and everyday communications skills – as this article in The Japan Times suggests.

However, while some of this criticism is certainly well placed, a considered and student-centered curriculum with exam-based assessments can be a highly effective framework for learning.

The target skills and communicative goals laid out in an exam course can help learners measure progress. They can also instill a sense of achievement and provide meaning and motivation in every class.

Nevertheless, the difficulty for teachers is two-fold: how can you design an exam-focused curriculum that tests useful skills and motivates students? And how can you select learning objectives that align with student level and ability?

A final word on teaching to the test

While teaching to the test can be limiting and demotivating if purely focused on memorization and question drills, it can also have positive outcomes for the students if done thoughtfully.

When classwork is focused on well-considered learning objectives – selected in accordance with the GSE and its resources – students will be well prepared for their official exams, and confident that their studies are at the level promised.  This will also help them develop level-appropriate and transferable communications skills and then benefit from these in the long-term.

by Richard Cleeve

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