Wednesday, May 29, 2024


The crystal ball method of IELTS preparation.

Students preparing for the high-stakes IELTS exam, by focussing on accessing and preparing predicted answers, increase exam proficiency at the expense of language proficiency, according to a study by Hui Ma and Sin Wang Chong at Southeast University, Nanjing, China and Queen’s University Belfast, UK.

Students all around the world take the IELTS (International Language Testing System) exam as part of their requirements for higher education and a broader range of employers. This study recruited 101 Chinese third and fourth year undergraduate students at a Chinese University to take an online survey and 53 students also took part in small group interviews to investigate how students prepared for the exam and whether their methods were effective.

Results from the online survey showed that students’ use of preparatory materials was associated with higher IELTS scores. These IELTS-specific materials often used past papers and as well as the official textbooks, and students also practised using test items that had been memorised and shared online: Jijing. ‘Predicted’ test answers were also bought online.

Students also attended test-training classes at their own college or privately elsewhere (in-person or online) with the aim of improving scores by ‘achieving test-wiseness’. Of the students that used such training courses, 52% achieved higher IELTS scores. Private teachers were deemed especially astute in monitoring the IELTS test item bank that changes every four months. From an interview: ‘My teachers from the private IELTS training agency told us that in August the writing topics will be education and government, [so] we only need to focus on these two.’

The reputation of private courses rests on the accuracy of their predictions leading to some dubious practices: ‘Some private agencies – maybe due to the purpose of attracting students – will send someone to wait outside each examination site, asking information from students who just finished the test and telling other students which topics have been tested, so you don’t need to prepare such topics anymore today.’

Familiarisation with the exam format and preparing rote learned answers featured strongly in accounts of exam preparation. This tended to be done working alone rather than via interacting with teachers or fellow students – even for speaking practice. ‘’The speaking score can be easily and quickly improved. The person only needs to rote-learn the predicted speaking materials well enough and perform it in front of the examiners for around ten minutes.’ Analysis of the results confirmed students’ general impression finding no relationship between interactive behaviours and IELTS scores.

On a positive note, students comment that becoming thoroughly familiar with the exam format frees them to focus on answering the questions (test management). Clearly, however, there had been a lot of ‘teaching to the test’ in response to student demand and consequently 36% of students agreed that the ‘IELTS test has limited my English learning scope’. Apart from the use of practice materials, students also gained firsthand experience:
33% had already taken the IELTS exam more than four times.

The problem of exam versus subject proficiency is not particular to English language exams, but the breadth of the potential ‘curriculum’ does pose particular challenges. Many students apparently see repetitive exam practice and memorising banks of rote answers as a reliable and relatively fast way to exam success, a gamble that may pay off for some but not others and increases the distance between IELTS scores and general language proficiency.


Ma, H. & Chong, S. W. (2022) Predictability of IELTS in a high-stakes context: a mixed methods study of Chinese students’ perspectives on test preparation. Language testing in Asia 12, 2

Image courtesy of Monique Pongan
Gill Ragsdale
Gill Ragsdale
Gill has a PhD in Evolutionary Psychology from Cambridge, and teaches Psychology with the Open University, but also holds an RSA-Cert TEFL. Gill has taught EFL in the UK, Turkey, Egypt and to the refugees in the Calais 'Jungle' in France. She currently teaches English to refugees in the UK.
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