Teaching To The Test

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I had planned on giving one of my classes a task every Friday. What’s that saying? Ah, yes. Even the best laid plans. . . My plan was running like a well-oiled machine until the final week of classes before the Christmas break. I’d scheduled a writing task on December 15, and the class did it. That was not the problem. Time was. I didn’t have enough of it to cover all the material, and so I decided to teach to the test, or task, as it were.

I dont like teaching to the test. It has its place in a class, but are we teaching students to pass exams or to acquire the knowledge and skills that are assessed on tests, quizzes, and exams?

I haven’t met one teacher who said they became a teacher so that students can pass tests. Don’t get me wrong, learning how to study for tests, take tests, manage time, and learn from mistakes on assessment tools is an important and necessary part of education, but it’s only one part. Often what gets overlooked in the zeal for marks—usually by “experts”—is learning itself, which is the whole point of education.

Educating or Test Results?

For me, the point of education isn’t marks, tests, marketable skills, or how many graduates find jobs. I’m not saying marks, tests, and employability aren’t important, not at all. However, it’s the essential soft skills that are lost with a results-oriented mindset that believes if something can’t be quantified on a graph, chart, or spreadsheet, it’s of no worth.

When I have taught to the test, I’ve found that my lessons become narrow, limited in pedagogical scope, solely focused on giving the students activities for them to practice only what will be on the test. Often, I end up giving them practice tests—a reasonable strategy. However, with the class I talked about at the beginning of this post, what the students missed out on were the soft skills, in this case, of writing.

For instance, I wanted to have the students correct each others’ writing, using a set checklist of criteria. While they would’ve checked for the nuts and bolts of paragraph writing—topic sentence, supporting examples, a concluding sentence—they would also have been implicitly learning about how writing should flow, about relevant vs. irrelevant information, and about reading critically, all the while learning how to evaluate a piece of writing. All those soft skills were lost in the practice tasks I gave them.

A Limitless Mindset or a Limited Mindset?

A former colleague of mine in Oman has an inspiring article about using some unorthodox methods for a literature class that focused on soft skills with no obvious relevance to possible exam questions. And yet he shows how salutary such an approach can be, and is. I highly recommend Ray’s article.

Part of moving beyond an approach that focuses mainly on quantifiable results at the expense of actual education is teacher mindset. Going forward, I want to focus on the benefits of what Jo Boaler, a professor of education at Stanford University, calls the limitless mind. It’s time to move beyond limited mind thinking.

Derek teaches at St. Louis Adult Learning and Continuing Education Centre in Kitchener, Ontario. He taught at colleges and universities in the Sultanate of Oman for eighteen years. He holds a B.A. in English Literature from Trent University, and a TESL Certificate from Conestoga College. Derek is also a playwright, fiction writer, an avid walker, jogger, and a Kitchener Rangers fan.


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