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The argument against exams

Are exams really a necessary evil? Fabio Cerpelloni speaks to teacher and YouTuber, Christian Saunders, to get his take.

Q: Christian, you have some strong views against language exams and tests. What’s the reason for that?

To start, it’s important to divide the people who are taking exams into two groups. One group take exams because they have to; they might need it, for example, to get a visa or a degree. As a teacher, I see this group completely differently from the way I see the second group, which includes the people I’m trying to reach with my ‘anti-exam’ content on YouTube. These are students who have been conditioned to believe that passing an exam will give them some useful measure of their language abilities. But I believe exams cannot do that. Exams don’t provide any useful measure, certainly not in the way that 99% of students believe they do.

Q: What makes you say so?

Language is an extremely complicated thing. And being proficient in a language is not only about being able to use the right words in the right order at the right time. That’s only part of it. Language learning mostly involves things that are either extremely difficult or impossible to teach. Some are also extremely difficult, time-consuming and, in some cases, impossible to measure.

So, if I want to produce an exam that can be administered in an automated way to millions of people at the same time, I am extremely limited in the kinds of things that I can measure with it. The fact that it’s a mass-produced product makes it a terrible product by its nature. That’s essentially the problem I have with exams. There’s plenty of empirical evidence that there’s not any good correlation between exam results and academic outcomes. I spoke to Professor Jennifer Jenkins about this issue; she’s a researcher who’s investigated problems related to the use of native-English-oriented tests to assess the English of users from diverse first languages. She’ll tell you this. It’s not just me.

Q: On your YouTube channel, which is currently followed by over 370,000 subscribers, you used to upload videos to help IELTS test takers. Now you’re against international exams. What happened in between?

When I started my YouTube channel, I was still the teacher who had a Union Jack hanging on my wall, if you know what I mean; I was doing all of the typical things that you do when you first start putting yourself out on social media. I know this is not related, but if you want to be successful on those platforms, some of what you have to do is follow the algorithm. That can lead you to talk about things you don’t really want to talk about. And that’s what I used to do. ‘If everyone’s doing exams,’ I thought, ‘I should make content about exams too!’ I wouldn’t recommend watching those videos I made. They’re terrible and probably give terrible advice as well.

Q: You claim to have created the most accurate English test, which people can take on your website. I took your test but discovered it was not a real one as it’s impossible to get any of the answers wrong; all of the answers to all of the twenty-five multiple-choice questions are correct. Why did you create a test that looks authentic on the surface but, in reality, it’s not?

I designed that test hoping that whoever takes it will have an opportunity to change their mind about exams and test scores. As of today, 16,158 people have done that test. And I hope that a good percentage of them thought, ‘Oh, okay. Maybe these online tests are a bit stupid.’ But my main motivation for creating it was to reinforce the idea that there’s not just one right way to produce language. This is, for me, a key part of my teaching philosophy.

Q: But there is a degree of correctness and incorrectness when it comes to language, isn’t there? We do need to agree on some language rules. So, for example, if a student says, ‘I have watched a great movie yesterday,’ which is grammatically incorrect, what would you say to that student?

Yes, absolutely. In your specific example, I would explain why that sentence is incorrect. But then I would say, ‘Look, I understood what you said. For me, there’s no confusion.’ I think this is another example of what you’re not able to capture in an exam, which is the hierarchy of mistakes. Not all mistakes are equally important and their importance may also depend on the level of proficiency of the student.

Q: In your opinion, how do exams and testing influence the broader educational system, including curriculum design, teaching methods, and students well well-being?

I don’t often tell anecdotes, but I like to tell this little story because I think that it represents the reality for many students:

So, I had this high school student I had been teaching privately for years. He came to class twice a week. We focused on conversation and building confidence, the things that I generally like to do with my learners. Everything was okay.

One day he asked me, ‘My mum wants me to take an English test because I’m going to have to do this when I go to university. So do you think in the next class we could do one?’ ‘Sure,’ I said. When he came back for the test, he was a completely different person. From the moment he walked in, he was nervous, he was sweating, he was literally shaking and couldn’t concentrate. I was so shocked because he had never been like that. Never.

We sometimes hear stories about kids in high school who want to kill themselves because of the stress of exams. They develop horrible anxiety all for some kind of imaginary result.

The day I saw my student in that emotional state, I thought, ‘This has to stop!’ Not just in English language teaching. Passing an exam or a test should not be the point of education in general.

For almost a decade Christian ran a small English school in Galicia in the north-west of Spain but is now best known for his online presence as Canguro English where his videos about language learning and interviews with language experts have been watched millions of times by hundreds of thousands of teachers and students from all over the world. Christian is an ambassador for equal access to education through his work with Pencils of Promise, and also fights to end discrimination against non-native speakers of English – canguroenglish.com.

Image courtesy of Library
Fabio Cerpelloni
Fabio Cerpelloni
Fabio Cerpelloni is an English language teacher, freelance writer, author, and podcaster from Italy. Learning English became such a great passion for him that he ended up teaching it professionally in New Zealand, Spain, Ireland, and Italy, his native country. You can find out more about Fabio and his work on his website – www.fabiocerpelloni.com
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