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Wise teaching for testwiseness

Japan is a country in which people hold meetings about holding meetings, rehearse for rehearsals, and conduct tests to help prepare test-takers for other tests — such is the degree of fastidiousness and meticulous preparation that makes so much of this country both hyper-efficient and exasperating. Indeed, if you have children who’ve gone through the system, you will be more than aware of the degree to which the testing culture permeates education. But whatever one may think of that, one upshot is that teachers often are required to spend an inordinate amount of their teaching time helping prepare students for yet another test…

 

Any juku (cram school) worth its shoyu in Japan will teach students how to manage a test first and foremost. NOT how to get correct answers or make a positive impression (although they do this too) but we are talking here about the skills required to maximize a test result regardless of ones knowledge or skills. In short: testwiseness.

 

 The problem is, though, that many English students are taught testwiseness techniques that might actually be hurting their grades. As someone who has seen countless thousands of such test results, here are a few that stand out:

 

  1. Counting the words and writing the total number

 

Test time is limited, right? So let’s use it… wisely. If a task requires a student to write something in 40-60 words in English, students should realize that approximation is key here — they should simply maintain a general idea as to what 40-60 words looks like. Wasting time counting the actual number of words and then writing it (‘57 words’) — as is the style that many Japanese students are taught — is time that could be spent elsewhere on the test.

 

2. Beating around the short essay bush

 

Sample test task: A reading passage is presented. Then… Give two reasons why you support or do not support the passage’s claim that Swedish should be made the official language of Japan. 

 

Sample BAD response:

The writer of the article argued that Swedish should be made the official language of Japan. The official language of a country is an important issue that we should think about more and more. There are both merits and demerits to making Swedish the official language of Japan. I have two reasons why I think that Swedish should not be made the official language of Japan. Here are my two reasons. First…

 

All this preliminary ‘framing’ is mindless verbiage and, trust me here, any grader will immediately sense that the test-taker is avoiding addressing the task and is thus, effectively, wasting the grader’s time. Which will not exactly endear yourself to him/her/it. And the ‘I have two reasons for thinking so… first… second…‘ formula is so thoroughly overdone that if Gordon Ramsay were marking, he would scream obscenities at it and make the writer return their pencil.

 

3. That false friend lurking around the keyword

 

Many of you are aware of this hack. The notion is that scanning for information in a text saves time, so if you look for the referenced keyword you should be able to answer the question without digging too deeply. This is particularly common with tasks that require the test-taker to explain why something occurred or to connect, sequence, or to indicate cause-effect. Like this:

 

Task question: Why did Monty disrespect the vicar’s wheelbarrow? 

 

So, the student duly scans for the text for ‘vicar’, ‘disrespect’ and ‘wheelbarrow’ and soon comes across the following: …the vicar’s wheelbarrow, which Monty couldn’t bring himself to face without feeling scorn.

 

The student then thinks, Aha! and jots down the answer as:

‘Because Monty couldn’t bring himself to face it without feeling scorn’…

 

…except of course he/she hasn’t answered the question regarding why Monty disrespected the wheelbarrow at all. The student above has simply quoted verbatim something that sounds like it might be a reason, largely because it is placed in the position in which one might typically expect to find one. But test-makers are very wise to this tactic and will set up such ‘false friends’ precisely to entrap or penalize those who haven’t read the whole text or given it any deeper thought.

 

Skimming and scanning are valuable reading skills — for quick data, yes. But not for finding those deeper connections.

 

4. ‘That can’t be right!‘ answer patterns

 

Most test-takers will have been taught that a series of answers in a multiple-choice task will never be A-A-A-A-A or A-B-C-D-E. So, if the student is running out of time, or simply wants to play the odds, they are taught to answer a random string that seems likely, perhaps B-E-A-C-D, and they may subsequently hit on one or two items without having even read the question. But test-makers are on to this and now may just as likely make the answers all ‘E’ or some such thing. This can really throw off the earnest student who is dutifully answering each item but simply cannot believe that each one appears to be ‘E’, so she/he decides to choose less agreeable answers simply because it appears to look more like a typical answer grid. This is a case where the focus upon testwiseness actually interferes with skill. 

 

The lesson to be learned? Trust your best answer for each item rather than the ‘shape’ of the answer sequence.

 

Some of the testwiseness techniques regularly honed in Japanese schools do help and should be maintained.

If you’re not familiar with these they include:

 

a. If you don’t have any idea about an item move on to the next one. Particularly, if it involves a matching exercise — the correct answer can often be deduced from the leftover pile.

 

b. Skim the entire test at the outset and do those item(s) that seem easiest or suit your skills first.

 

c. If there is any time at the end, use this to double-check so-called ‘kigou’ items: those items that are answered using only letters or numbers.

 

d. If the task requires giving an opinion or comments of any sort, try to say something original; add a personal touch. Do not stick to a safe, formulaic answer as the marker will see dozens or hundreds of these. You need something to elevate your response above the others even — especially — if your grammar and vocabulary are no better than average.

 

e. Be especially vigilant regarding task instructions. Students often fail to see an essential ‘not‘ or ‘any three of‘ or ‘in English‘ in the instructions, ultimately spending 20 minutes of precious time earning a bit fat zero for their efforts.

 

If you are in the business of helping junior high school and high school students prepare for next-level entrance exams adhering to these do’s and don’ts may add a few points to your student’s scores (which will win you kudos in Japan). And often, the difference between passing and failing is only a matter of those few points.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mike Guest
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