IH Journal of Education and Development

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Does Practice Make Perfect? - by David Petrie

20170615 IH Journal_42 v2 52As the exam date starts to loom larger in our students’ lives, their thoughts inevitably turn to making a final push towards success. In the final weeks before the exam, the coursebook is relegated to the shelf over the desk and the practice test book is dusted down and given a starring role in proceedings. Lesson planning becomes a process of working out how to use the reduction and double-sided functions of the photocopier. Students troop into class, do their practice test and troop out again. Sound familiar?

What students want

There is a clear sense among many teachers that I have talked to, that this is normal and to be expected when the exam nears. It is what students want and what they expect. This is true after a fashion. It is possibly an exaggeration to say that this is what all students want, but in the research I have done with my classes it is generally borne out. As part of a final term needs analysis process I asked my Cambridge English: Advanced students what they would like to do more of in classes and 50% of the class said “exam practice”. In the interests of full disclosure, I should also say that 30% said “games”, 10% said “discussion” and the final 10% said “grammar”. Interestingly, I also asked them to say what proportion of the class they wanted to devote to different aspects of preparation (e.g. writing skills, vocabulary development, etc.) and while one person said 49%, the average for the class was about 20%. Most of the responses showed a fairly even balance between the aspects and this suggests that in my class at least, there is an awareness that simply doing a practice exam does not automatically lead to improvement.

What the research says

This desire on the part of students has clear influences on the choices that teachers make. In one research study, 90% of teachers agreed that the IELTS test influenced the content of their lessons and 63% stated that it influenced their methodology (Hawkey, 2004). This suggests that teachers feel very constrained by the exam and that the general assumption that exams affect content but not delivery – is not true. Many researchers find that exam classes include heavier use of exam preparation tasks, practice tasks, homework tasks and test-taking strategies and that the amount of test practice increases significantly as the exam gets closer and closer (Spratt, 2005). One study showed that at the beginning of a course, 27.9% of class time was spent on exam practice and this had jumped to 87.3% of class time with a month to go before the exam (Perrone, 2010).

There is, however, little evidence that test practice has any positive effect on performance.

Contrastive studies that have compared the performance of classes preparing for an exam with classes not preparing for an exam have uniformly found no significant gains in test scores: Cheng (1998), Andrews et al. (2002), Read & Hayes (2003), Hayes (2005), Green (2007) and Perrone (2010) all find that while students improve their test scores over time, test preparation does not give any advantage.

This suggests that the majority of time spent in the classroom should be focused developmentally and that when exam practice tasks are used, there should be a developmental aim behind them. It is not always clear from the research, however, exactly what “test preparation” entails in these studies. It seems sensible to suggest that students go through a process of task familiarisation and orientation so that they know what to do when faced by the real thing. Extensive and exclusive exam practice, on the other hand, is largely a waste of everyone’s time. Simply giving the learners an exam task, asking them to complete it and then checking the answers with them is not a helpful process for either the learners or the teacher; there needs to be a degree of analysis and insight into why the answers are correct or why the learners have chosen incorrect answers for the process to be valuable.

Reconciling the different perspectives

The problem for the teacher is then how to manage these differing viewpoints. With my class I talked to them about the research and what the evidence showed and they quite bluntly told me that this didn’t make any difference. To them, exam practice was an important component of their preparation. This then led to a useful conversation about the role of exam practice and how and why it was important. The conclusion we came to was that practice without reflection is wasteful practice and that in order to improve we need to review what we do and look for ways to make incremental changes.

One way of including this kind of reflection in class is by giving students a “hot feedback questionnaire” – before they find out the answers to the task. This can include questions like:

  • Which questions did you find easy?
  • Which questions did you find difficult?
  • Why did you find these questions difficult?
  • What was your process or approach to answering the questions?
  • What would you do differently next time?

By asking them to complete this before they get task feedback, it will hopefully focus the students on process rather than product. The learners can then compare the correct answers to their reflection to see whether the questions they found difficult were indeed the ones they got wrong and more specifically where their process might improve. Students can also return to these reflections and any additional notes they may have made before they attempt the task again during any future lessons.

Many coursebooks and some practice test books also offer task strategies as a way to help students complete the tasks successfully, but very often there is little analysis or reflection on these processes either and they are presented as a checklist or step-by-step process. Some coursebooks do offer audio models of people performing the speaking components for analysis and critique and these can be useful as a way of focusing your students on what they need to do in more of a task-based approach. There is not that much out there for teachers who want to follow a task-based approach with other aspects of the exam, however, and so as a proxy for this, and as an opportunity for peer teaching, the more successful students can compare and share their process or strategies with the less successful students to see what differences there are and to help each other improve.

Making it meaningful

It is clear that students generally know what they want (if not always what they need) and that they want to get better at doing the exam. It may be that the desire for exam practice does in fact arise from an internal auditing and reflection process – certainly that would be an interesting line of enquiry for future research – and is one of the reasons why some students are more successful than others. To make exam practice more meaningful for all the students though, this process of reflection needs to be more explicit and the teacher needs to take on the role of guiding the students through and helping them to their own understandings of what better exam performance looks like. Then perhaps, the 87.3% of class time spent doing practice tasks would be time well spent.

Andrews, S., Fullilove, J. and Wong, Y. (2002). Targeting washback – a case study. System, 30(2), 207-223. In: Spratt, M., (2005). Washback and the classroom: the implications for teaching and learning of studies of washback from exams. Language Teaching Research, 9(1), 5-29.
Cheng, L., (1998) Impact of a public English examination change on students’ perceptions and attitudes toward their English learning. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 24(3), 279-300. In: Spratt, M., (2005). Washback and the classroom: the implications for teaching and learning of studies of washback from exams. Language Teaching Research, 9(1), 5-29.
Green, A., (2007). Washback to learning outcomes: a comparative study of IELTS preparation and university pre-sessional language courses. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 14(1), 75-97.
Hawkey, R. (2004). An IELTS Impact Study: implementation and some early findings. Research Notes, 15, 12-16.
Hayes, B. (2003). IELTS preparation in New Zealand: an investigation into the nature of the courses and evidence of washback. Unpublished doctoral thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington.
Perrone, M.J. (2010). The impact of the First Certificate in English (FCE) examination on the EFL classroom: A washback study. Unpublished doctoral thesis. Columbia University, New York.
Spratt, M., (2005). Washback and the classroom: the implications for teaching and learning of studies of washback from exams. Language Teaching Research, 9(1), 5-29.
Read, J. & Hayes, B., (2003). The impact of IELTS on preparation for academic study in New Zealand. (IELTS International English Language Testing System Research Reports 4, 153-206). In: Spratt, M., (2005). Washback and the classroom: the implications for teaching and learning of studies of washback from exams. Language Teaching Research, 9(1), 5-29.
Author’s Bio:
David Petrie is Director of Studies at IH Santa Clara and a teacher trainer with IH OTTI. He is DELTA qualified and has a MA Applied Linguistics & TESOL. Professionally, his interests lie in the area of teaching exam classes and ways of using technology in teaching. He blogs about this and everything else ELT related at www.teflgeek.net.

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