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I hate exams. Both taking and preparing students for them.

I wish there were a better and more accurate way of judging learners. Part of the reason for my being “out of the loop” recently is that I’ve been trying to race against the clock, preparing three groups for the Cambridge PET and FCE. The CAE group simply disintegrated in the end. Each had their own reason for dropping out, and I can only hope that none had done so because of my teaching. You can imagine the thoughts that had gone around my head these past weeks…

Now, why do I hate exams?

For me, they are not really an accurate measure of the level of the candidate. Let’s face it. How many native speakers will pass these exams? So, what does this prove? I’ve even known native EFL teachers to fail local Official School of Languages examinations, which are based on the format of Cambridge’s. Amazing but true.

Ideally, exam questions ought to be like concept questions, right? To check understanding. But, don’t you get the impression that some of the questions are sort of “tricky”? Like they’re meant to “catch you out”?

Some of the listening questions bother on the absurd. Listening, as it is, is a difficult enough skill for the majority of learners; yet, some listening tasks require candidates to not only understand the bulk of what they’re listening to, but also to interpret and analyse it “accurately” enough to answer the question. Not to mention the time factor.

Of course, I don’t let my students know that I feel this way. I keep encouraging them. I try to motivate them. I try to help them improve their skills, but often, I think to myself, how can I help them improve short of just telling them that the only sure way is lots of exposure to the language? Plus lots of practice.

With receptive skills tests, I try to improve their gist-reading skill by, for example, coming up with an alternative title to a text, or summarising a listening extract. I help their guessing-meaning-from-context skill by guided discovery activities. Sometimes, we converse about the topic.

And yet, even after this, they struggle to get their answers to the comprehension questions right.

Take this extract from FCE Practice Tests, Mark Harrison, OUP.

Analysing FCE reading text Analysinf FCE reading text

What’s your answer?

C and D are plainly incorrect. But, between A & B? You read the text, you understand it. But, how do you interpret her father’s thought when he said only rich people can afford to be thrifty? What does he really mean by that?

My personal interpretation is that he considers himself not rich enough to buy in bigger quantities. This, as you can see, is not among the choices of answers. In its absence, I’d opt for B as the lesser of two evils.

The book’s answer is A.

Never mind. I plough on. Onward I march. Pushing and motivating my lot. And hope for the best.

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