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Screeching to the test

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Teacher Rhian Webb describes how she finally grew to see the benefits of regular unannounced ‘pop up’ tests in her ELT classroom

When I was first told that my students would have to sit frequent ‘pop quizzes’, I thought the university where I had just started working was being innovative and fun. After all, why wouldn’t students want to learn English through their knowledge of pop music? In reality, nothing could have been further from the truth.

When I asked my colleagues about what a pop quiz involved, I was told that students ‘would know what to do’.

Finally, the day arrived when the ‘pop up quiz’ arrived completely unannounced during my lesson, preceded by an authoritative knock at the door.

Pausing from my presentation on the past perfect tense, I opened the door to be silently given the quiz test papers by the programme coordinator.

Suddenly, my students – and those in all the classrooms around us – started to drag their chairs around from facing the whiteboard so that they faced the window.

The loud screeching of the chairs on the tiled floors was shocking.

After the test, I returned to my office, and tried to take in what I had experienced: Why on earth do the students have to reposition their chairs in this horribly noisy way?

And what was being tested on the quiz? I had no idea what was actually on the quiz paper and also I had no way of preparing my learners for it.

Also, rather disconcertingly, I had no idea beforehand when the quiz would arrive. The whole process from start to finish was bizarre.
I later learnt that all pop quizzes are administered at exactly the same time as the preparatory programme at the university’s main campus in Ankara, hundreds of kilometres away across the sea.

Pop quizzes make up around 2 per cent of the students’ grade point average for an academic year. They are therefore a very important way for students to ‘earn’ points to help them to qualify to take the university’s

English proficiency exam, held in June.

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I found the experience of pop quizzes really unsettling, My colleagues suggested it was a way for the university to check if teachers were closely following the preparatory programme or not.

My own reaction was that of general concern for my learners. Sometimes the class at the beginning of the corridor would receive the pop quiz papers first, and the learners in my class could hear their peers’ chairs screeching. The look of anticipation and even panic would flit across my learners’ eyes, as they prepared themselves for the inevitable knock on the door.

I was also troubled by the way tests could randomly interrupt well-planned lessons, as they could come at any moment and devour between 10 and 30 minutes of a 50-minute lesson.

There were about two quizzes per week over a 16-week semester.

Over my first semester, I grew progressively more concerned about the use of pop quizzes. My learners’ grades varied wildly from one quiz to another and the looks of disappointment and even shame on my students’ faces when they saw bad grades was very demotivating for everyone.

It was at the start of my second semester that I met a fellow colleague who was equally as perplexed by pop quizzes as I was. We were aware of the literature which suggests that testing skews learning so teachers ‘teach to the test’.

So, we set up a research study to explore more about our teachers and learners’ reactions to these pop quizzes. We ran a series of focus groups with learners from various English levels and asked them to tell us their opinions about pop quizzes. We also asked some teachers to participate in our study by taking some notes on how their learners behaved during their quizzes.

We wanted to see what our learners’ body language could tell us about their mindsets and attitudes towards the tests and then compare and contrast this data set with our learners’ perceptions. I was really surprised by the results.

The learners seemed to be mostly positive about the use of pop quizzes, with many finding them helpful in a variety of ways. (See below).

However, some mentioned that because they didn’t know when the quizzes would come, it actually increased their stress levels during the day particularly when they hadn’t had one for a few days.

When we compared the learners’ perceptions vis-a-vis their body language while actually doing the pop quiz, we saw that some students showed signs of being highly motivated, confident, and extremely focused on what they were doing.

However, teachers’ observations also captured information about students appearing to be bored, distracted, despondent and showing signs of anxiety.

These observations correspond with the learners’ comments about pop quizzes; some students are motivated by them, they appear to enjoy the challenge and the change in pace and focus during the lesson.

My own opinions and perceptions of the tests have now evolved. The exploratory research that we conducted means that I am more able to see things from my learners’ point of view and, as a result, I have developed a more balanced attitude towards using them during class time.

I do still have reservations about not knowing when the quiz is coming and how disruptive they can be particularly when you are in the middle of an activity in class.

On the other hand, I can see how frequent pop quizzes can keep students, and instructors, on their toes. For some, they can even come as a welcome relief from the monotony of the textbooks and course materials.

One thing I am still unclear about is why the students have to change the direction of their chairs…perhaps if they finish their quiz early, as many do, it’s nicer to stare vacantly out of the window at the cypress pine trees and dazzling azure of the Mediterranean Sea.


Student attitudes to frequent unannounced ‘pop up’ quizzes

Some students find frequent surprise tests reduce anxiety around exams but attitudes differ

Positive 

  • They helped them to revise key language points in the syllabus, and feedback from the teachers about where they went wrong prepared them for their midterm tests.
  • Frequent pop quizzes reduced their anxiety levels because they quickly adapted to the situation, which in turn helped them to get used to exam situations such as their midterm and proficiency exams.
  • Running the tests in morning classes forced students to attend more of their classes, and helped to motivate them to continue with their studies.
  • Students thought that the university was taking good care of them by testing them on a frequent basis, in that it showed the students that they cared about their progress in learning.

Negative 

  • Not knowing when the tests are coming increases stress and leaves students constantly on edge.
  • Test are boring for students who finish early or find it easy - they feel like they are wasting their time.
  • The tests interrupt lessons and carefully planned activities and teachers and students must catch up later or risk falling behind.
  • It is demoralizing to receive bad or widely varying marks.

 


Rhian Webb is an EFL Instructor and ICELT Teacher Trainer at Middle East Technical University, Northern Cyprus Campus.

Rhian Istanbul


Pic courtesy: John Perry