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Still hanging in there

Test management versus test wiseness in repeated IELTS takers.

Test management, but not test wiseness, improves IELTS scores, providing some support for the validity of the exam, according to a study by Masoomeh Estaji and Zahra Banitalebi, at Allame Tabataba’I University, Tehran, Iran.

Increasingly, students are taking exams such as IELTS more than once. This study assessed whether students’ preparation strategies changed with repeated attempts and how this impacted their scores.

Strategies for taking tests are generally of three kinds: aside from actual language learning strategies, there are also test-management and test wiseness strategies. Students are not just learning a language; they are learning how to pass a specific exam.

Test-management strategies increase the student’s ability to handle the test content in expected ways, such as multiple choice versus cloze questions, as applied to different language skills such as writing versus speaking. An example of two possible writing strategies might be to begin with either a list of key words or an overall outline. Crucially, test management strategies are not independent of the content being tested.

Test wiseness, on the other hand, is essentially a collection of strategies to enable a student to gain marks irrespective of whether they know the correct answer, for example by looking for predictable patterns in answer options or producing rote-learned passages in response to rote-learned cues. A well-constructed, valid test should minimise the success of test wiseness, otherwise repeating the test will lead to higher scores without any real improvement in language proficiency.

The 178 Iranian students taking part in this study took the mock or actual IELTS test three times and participants answered the 49-item Test-Taking Strategy Questionnaire between attempts. Students also answered a set of open-ended questions asking about possible changes in learning strategy and the reasons for such changes. Structural equation modelling on this longitudinal data was able to show how strategies related to test-management and test wiseness changed over time and impacted test scores.

Adopting more test-management strategies led to higher listening and speaking scores and a decrease in use of test wiseness led to improved reading scores. Moreover, higher scoring students tended to favour test management over test wiseness from the start.

Most students changed their strategies in preparing to repeat the test. The main influence on strategy choice was personal experience of previous tests: ‘5, 6, [and] 6.5 are my scores [in listening] because I changed my strategies. [I realized that] Finding exact words in choices are mistake, we should not choose them. I understand questions themselves now in L.’

The Internet, tutors, books and friends also influenced strategy changes: ‘There is a website they interview good candidates. They mentioned these strategies. But not all of them are good.’

Students also gave examples of changes in test wiseness: ‘I made a huge improvement in Listening because I changed my bad habits of looking for mandatory patterns in options.’ Although not everyone changed their bad habits, such as this student trying to impress with their over-use of the passive voice: ‘Unfortunately, did not help. I used as many passive structures [as I] could. The more I used, the worse it got.’

The positive impact of test management strategies and especially decreasing test wiseness supports the validity of the IELTS exam at least for reading, listening and speaking. Although the results are not a resounding endorsement at least the use of test wiseness did not improve scores on any of the skills. Also, although no changes in strategy significantly impacted writing, this could be due to the outcome measure, IELTS bands, being rather broad to register smaller changes and although test scores generally improved with repeated attempts – the improvements were modest and ‘not more than a half-band score in all four skills’ – perhaps some actual language learning strategies would help.


Estaji, M. & Banitalebi, Z. (2023) A study of test-taking strategies of Iranian IELTS repeaters: and change in the strategy use? International Journal of Testing, 23: 3, 205-230. DOI: 10.1080/15305058.2023.2195662

Image courtesy of Library
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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