Using Tests and Teaching Exam Classes

I’ve been teaching learners preparing them to take different kinds of external exams for a long time. I cannot say that I’m keen on teaching exam classes but I’m aware of the effect of tests on teaching and learning, which is called backwash. Whatever the type of course you have to deliver, I think it’s important to consider your learners’ needs and make the lessons inspiring, enjoyable and beneficial for them. Read more about motivating your learners and using a variety of activities to meet their needs.

Let me remind you of some types of tests and their characteristics. We have to assess our learners at different stages of the course, even if it is a General English course so it seems important to know the test types.

At the beginning of the course learners are often asked to do a placement or diagnostic test. These are used to find the right group for the candidates and find out their particular needs respectively. To continue collecting information about the learners’ progress and their achievements we use progress (or formative) and summative tests, the latter term is used to talk about the test the end of the course.

The tests can be objective and reliable if they are well-designed and based on certain assessment criteria, or subjective if there is no standardization.

We can promote self-assessment to help learners get into a habit and decide for themselves how good they think their progress or language use is. We may involve the learners into giving feedback on each other’s language, work, learning strategies, performance etc, which means they’ll be involved in peer assessment.

If you are keen on learning the terminology related to assessment, follow this link to my set on Quizlet.

I carried out a survey by asking teachers to answer only one question.

The Survey on Instagram

It’s actually interesting that the number of teachers who like working with exam classes is higher than those who prefer teaching General English.

Some possible benefits of working with students who are planning to take an external exam might be the following:

  • ⠀ The course objectives are clear for learners as they know what they want to achieve.
  • ⠀ It’s easy for teachers to identify the aims of the course and meet the learners’ needs.
  • ⠀ Such students are likely to be more successful and, therefore, of a relatively high level.
  • ⠀ They must be motivated and well-organised.
  • ⠀ They understand the value of exam practice.
  • ⠀ They may see their achievements and evidence of progress.
  • ⠀ It’s accuracy-based learning, which many learners find appealing.
  • ⠀ They are ready to work hard outside the classroom.

I recently had to run a two-day training on teaching for the Russian State Exam, which was fun, as usual. The participants were aware of the key features of the exam, which is of great importance, and they agreed that our students need to know the task types too. We brainstormed a lot and discussed the key principles of working with exam classes.

Don’t test them, teach them

Although giving tests is unavoidable, we need to work on language awareness, exam strategies and upgrading our learners’ level of English, which will help them pass the exam successfully.

Prepare them for tasks

It might seem obvious that students need to be aware of the exam format and task types so eliciting the task type should become an essential component of task setting.

We need to help learners develop and apply appropriate strategies such as reading tasks carefully, following the instructions, predicting, ignoring unknown words or deducing meaning from context etc.

Provide sufficient exam practice

It’s important to give our learners samples of exam tasks with the focus on following instructions, dealing with the time limit, applying the strategies, working out how to complete the answer sheet etc.

Show your learners the assessment criteria, ask them to apply them and evaluate their performance. It is extremely important to allocate some time for proofreading and making amendments.

Analyse the results

Give feedback on tasks by eliciting possible answers and helping the learners confirm and justify the correct ones. By doing this you help them build up a set of habits that they’ll be able to use in the real exam.

Involve your learners into evaluating the results and help them set relevant short-term and long-term goals so that they become responsible for their development and exam success.

Unfortunately, exam classes may become tedious if a teacher focuses on only testing their students, which is typical. Having said that, I’m sure there are many educators who understand the key principles of lesson planning and apply them to their exam classes too. So what are they like?

Lesson Planning

  • Start with some kind of warm-up activity.
  • Find out what the learners already know by asking the learners to brainstorm ideas and useful language related to the topic.
  • The learners are usually at their peak in the first 10 to 20 minutes of  a lesson, or just after a break so make use of that time and introduce new material or tasks instead of leaving that for some time near the end of the lesson.
  • Sequence the activities in a way that is logical, with an increasing level of challenge, and ensure that this logic is obvious to the learners.
  • Ensure maximum learner participation in the lesson by using interactive activities, asking them to work with different partners, varying the pace and intensity of the lesson.
  • Allow time at the end of the lesson for consolidation and a quick recap to reinforce learning.


Find out more about lesson planning and types of useful activities by following the links.

Can you think of some other tips for teachers who want to start teaching exam classes?