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The Dangers of the Diagnostic Test in Exam Classes

The Dangers of the Diagnostic Test in Exam Classes

Having recently completed the Extended Assignment for DELTA Module 3 with a focus on teaching exam classes I felt empowered. What had particularly stood out to me was how doing detailed needs analysis and diagnostic testing had allowed me to concentrate on what students actually required, and I felt that this shift in focus had definitely contributed to them all passing their Cambridge Advanced exam (CAE) at the end of the course.

Needs Analysis with my new class: great

On the course I’d read a range of literature and learnt a hatful of things about needs analysis and diagnostic testing and was determined to put all of it into practice with my new Cambridge First Certificate (FCE) adult group in a new job. For a start, as Graves (1996:16) asserts, involving students in course-planning makes them feel more in control of their learning and can increase motivation levels.

To this end, it was all going great. In our first class we’d done the customary introductions, and I had the students do a few speaking tasks designed to discover more about their learning preferences and perceived strengths and weaknesses. They’d responded well, and I’d gained some interesting insights into their expectations of the course that I’d be able to put into practice when course-planning. Subsequent questionnaires given for homework would also come in handy when preparing lessons.

Diagnostic Testing: a disaster

As I’d learned from my DELTA, the next step was to carry out diagnostic ‘tests […] that measure proficiency […] because they help determine what students already know and what they are lacking’ (Graves, 1996:15). That considered, over the following two classes we did complete Use of English and Listening sample tests under exam conditions, and I was careful to emphasise that getting to know their level as soon as possible was in their best interests.

Now, Colin Mitchell writes about how tests can kill students’ motivation, referring to the end-of-course exam and its impending effect of doom, but I’d only gone and thrown one in the students’ faces in just their second lesson!

And the only way I can describe the effect of this diagnostic testing is as soul-destroying. Their reaction upon flicking through the Use of English exam was one of horror and they were completely overwhelmed by the Listening. Thinking about it from their perspective, it most likely made them feel like they didn’t know any English and such were the murmurs of discontent, I thought only half the class would return for the following week’s class (as it happened only one dropped out). As we went over the correct answers for the Listening, I heard myself constantly repeating ‘Don’t worry, it’s the first time you’ve done this type of exam’ and ‘We’ve got lots of time to prepare’. How much my words consoled them I don’t know. I didn’t even dare write the mark on their Use of English papers when I handed them back in the next class.

I also felt as though the students harboured some kind of resentment towards me,
for so ruthlessly highlighting their inadequacies so soon into the course and it crossed my mind that consequently they might not trust me as their teacher. This experience has therefore led to me to consider what went wrong and how to avoid it in the future.

Why did diagnostic testing go wrong?

I figured the best way to answer this question was to compare the situation to when I had carried out the needs analysis whilst doing my DELTA assignment in my previous job. For starters, that group wasn’t at the beginning of an exam course, but midway through it, and had thus been exposed to the exam format on several previous occasions and already worked on exam strategies. Compare that to my new group, most of whom were unfamiliar with Cambridge exams, and there’s already a strikingly obvious reason for their struggles.

In addition, the group at the mid-point of the course had been accurately grouped according to their level, having moved up through the levels in the language school and therefore had sufficient language knowledge to take on the exam. On the other hand, my new group was an external course and I can now imagine how there was probably no kind of placement test done or interview carried out to determine whether prospective students had sufficient English for the level.

What I’ve learned

This episode has taught me that rather than commit to diagnostic testing before an exam course has begun, it’s advisable to get to know the students first and deem whether it would be appropriate for them to be so quickly exposed to the exam format. If you can see that they aren’t ready, diagnostic testing should be delayed until you’ve had time to properly look at the exam components and to provide the students with basic skills that they will need to prosper under exam conditions.

Going about things in this way will help bed them into the course, and given the likelihood that their scores will be higher after having done exam practice in non-exam conditions, the results of the diagnostic testing will probably act as motivation rather than deflating them.

But there’s a but

Of course, the way things transpired has made me hesitant to do immediate diagnostic testing in future classes. Yet the principles behind diagnostic testing still loom and make me think twice. Although poor results can be disheartening, it does allow teachers to get an idea of what students are lacking and what areas to work on. The abovementioned group are indeed on an ‘intensive’ FCE course and intend to sit the exam after 40 hours of instruction, so arguably getting them accustomed to the complete exam format is of paramount importance.


Indeed could it be argued that getting a reality check will give the students extra motivation to work even harder? Not only that, but what if the group had been a strong one? If the teacher decides not to do immediate testing and later realises that their level is reasonably appropriate for the level, has time not been wasted in softly introducing the students to the exam?

In summary, to test or not to test?

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