This post closes my series about exam preparation. I have discussed some typical exam exercises in every paper (Reading, Use of English, Writing, Listening and Speaking) and tried to provide guidelines how to prepare for these. In this last post, I would like to give you some final tips for your exam preparation course.
- Simulate the exam: It won’t be enough to talk about exams, you need to set up the exam situation and throw your students in deep water. They need to feel the anxiety, formulate their answers for real, this is the way they can prepare to face the real exam without making a big deal of it.
- Don’t overpractise: Practice makes perfect, but not in exam situations. You must give 2-3 opportunities to your students to simulate an exam and some exercise types need thorough practice. But you need to know when to stop. Students usually score higher in exam situations, because they are more concentrated. You will understand, when they know how to work with an exercise, but make silly mistakes due to lack of concentration or lack of interest. If you have the chance, insert some fun activities into your lesson plan and help your students stress less over the exam. You can find some useful tips in this BusyTeacher article.
- Don’t let your students study in the last minute. Sitting a language test is about skills and not facts. Students often exaggerate and try to memorize words even the day before the exam. They run the risk to learn these lexical items only superficially, missing out articles or exchanging prepositions in case of idioms or misunderstanding connotations. In an exam, students need to show what they know, so it’s more practical to make good use of what they have already learnt. In emergency situations, teach them 10 useful phrasal verbs and 5 generally used idioms and ask them to insert these in their speaking and/or writing if possible. These might earn some extra points for them.
- Always correct the exercise together with the class and then collect results. You might just want to put the correct answers onto the whiteboard (specially if it’s a multiple-choice exercise) and ask your students to quickly check their answers or if you have time, you might go through each question and correct the answers with the whole class. It’s important that they have the correct answers clear. This way students can also clarify why the other answers were incorrect. Once finished with the feedback session, ask your students how many questions they got correct. It makes your students take the tasks more seriously, gives you an idea at what point the class is in the preparation and makes it clear if they are over or under the required minimum, finally, it shows students in the long run if (and hopefully that) they are improving.
- Make suggestions: Pieces of advice like ‘you must learn the vocabulary’ or ‘you should do better’ are empty words. Students need concrete suggestions what to do and how to do it. So make sure that you have some ideas what to say. If there is a workbook, that students might have neglected, assign some extra homework from this. If listening is a problem, direct your students onto sites that provide them with some extra practice. If the irregular verb forms were not properly memorized, show your students where to find a good list and assign the first 20 items for the following lesson, then the next 20 for the lesson after and so on. In a couple of weeks they will have memorized the complete list. Know your tools (course book, workbook, CD-Rom, online materials, learning platforms, readers, newspapers, apps, etc.) and make your students use them.
- Repeat exercises: Especially if an exercise went very badly the first time, give it a second try a bit later. Tell your students what they can do to improve (see point 5), let them sleep on it and give the same exercise to them one or two lessons later. Hopefully, it will go much better (which will be really motivating). Take for example a gap-fil task: if your students work themselves through a test, they can good practice of collocations, verb + preposition pairs, etc. They learn vocabulary in context which guarantees a higher chance that students use these lexical items accurately in productive tasks. So ask your students to re-read the exercises done in class once in a while.
- Train vocabulary: Always less and less, but we still live in the era where grammar is considered very important and also very difficult. But a language is not grammar. Knowing a language means, knowing its vocabulary, but not only in their primary meaning (denotation). The higher the students’ level, the more they need to know about a word. In addition to its denotation, spelling and pronunciation, its use, its connotation, its collocations, etc. are essential to be able to use it accurately and correctly. So take grammar teaching easier (at least in exam preparation) and concentrate on vocabulary. Select what is important to your students (they don’t need 5 synonyms at A2 level, but must know a lot at C2) and teach useful vocabulary to them.
- Teach them to guess: In Italy, (especially university) students are afraid of being penalized if they give an incorrect answer, since this is what they are used to at Italian schools. But in an exam, they should never leave a question unanswered. If they make a mistake, they won’t be rewarded any points, but won’t lose any points either. So ask your students to guess the correct answer if they are not sure about it and give an answer to each question. If it is a multiple-choice question, they can simply pick a, b or c (see that they always have 33% chance to get it right), but even in a gap-filling exercise they need to try. If they don’t know an answer, their instinct might help. Our memory if full of expressions we heard unconsciously, so this so-called instinct is often a vague memory of an expression we perceived at some point in our life. If we are lucky, it’s a correct utterance. So teach your students to listen to their inner ears and look for an answer in any case.
- Clarify what is the minimum overall score to pass the exam. Some exams require a minimum total of 60% to be rewarded with a pass, others even 70%. There are exams, that set a minimum in every skill (none of the parts can be under 40%, even if the total score is over the minimum).
Consider also what universities and employers might ask for. Very often they don’t only ask for a certificate, but also for a grade or score (eg. TOEFL iBT minimum 86 or FCE Grade A or B). Remember that this means, your student might not achieve their goal even if they pass the exam. They should be able to get the score they need.
- Finally, make some research when the candidates get the exam results and the certificate. In the era of computer-based exams, the results are usually accessible after 10-15 days (mostly on a platform where students can see their results by using their personal username and password). But certificates often take months (even 3-4 months) to arrive. So spend some time finding out if your students need only the result (and can prove it with a simple statement of results) or need the final and official certificate. Explain this time issue to your students.
Well, this is what I had to say about exam preparation.
Mind that everything in these posts is based on my teaching experience: these are examples of what I would tell my students before I send them to the real exam. The list is not complete and considers only the types of exams we in Italy usually prepare for. If you have any ideas or comments, I’ll be very happy to read them.