Teaching exam classes
Getting students to participate in writing activities in class can be an arduous task. However, our best efforts as teachers to make the prospect of writing a fun and collaborative activity, it is often met with groans of reluctance. Often, students have had negative experiences of writing in the language classroom in the past, perhaps they see it as a waste of class-time, which could be better spent practicing their oral skills, or perhaps they simply find writing a difficult and laborious task even in their first language. Whatever the reason, getting adult students motivated to write in class can be tough.
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However, for teachers it can be very useful to monitor students writing in class. They are at hand to answer any language difficulties, give advice on how to structure sentences in a more natural way, provide vocabulary that students are lacking and generally be available to deal with individual needs as well as noting common problem areas. This is of great benefit to students too of course, much more so than receiving a marked piece of written homework covered in red pen.
Students who are studying for exams do tend to be slightly more motivated when it comes to writing in class but still often prefer to do the actual task for homework. The following activity ideas are ways in which we can teach the nuts and bolts of academic writing in an analytical way, illustrating a step-by-step approach that will hopefully show students the value of writing in the classroom without the pressure of simply being told to put pen to paper.
Each of the seven activities focuses on specific areas of writing, such as planning, layout, content, etc. However, the activities are fairly general and could be easily adapted to suit most task types that exam candidates are required to do, such as writing a formal letter or an article.
In this activity students get a good idea of what examiners are looking for and learn how to avoid making common mistakes while also picking up tips on good examples of language.
Students look at 2-4 model texts ranging in level from a fail to a strong pass. Real candidate answers are ideal if you get them.
Students note the good and bad points about each answer and write comments under headings such as layout, organization, content, style and accuracy. Students share their comments with each other before looking at the real examiner’s comments if you have them.
Here, students are made aware of differences in register and appropriacy of language, while building up a stock of suitable phrases they can use in formal letters.
Students receive a formal letter which has several phrases written in the wrong register, i.e. informal/slang.
Students identify which phrases they think are unsuitable for a formal letter and underline them.
Then, they try and rewrite the phrases using a more formal style of language.
Finally, students choose the correct answers from a list provided.
You can make this activity more communicative by dividing the class into two groups and giving each group a different letter to work on. When they have rewritten their phrases they pair up with a student from the other group who has the answers for their letter and compare answers.
How to teach an FCE class
The First Certificate in English (FCE), administered by UCLES, is a general English examination for upper intermediate learners. Teaching an exam class for the first time can be daunting but experienced teachers tend to agree on the following advice.
The first task will be getting to grips with the exam specifications. I need to be familiar with each of the five papers, which are Reading, Writing, Use of English, Listening and Speaking, ideally before student begin in first class. The Exams Officer in my school should have a copy of the FCE Handbook, which explains exactly what skills and language knowledge my students need to have before they take the exam, as well as providing a sample paper.
Be aware of issues like learner motivation and classroom morale. Learners in exam classes tend to be more goal oriented that those in a general English class. Remember that students will have to pay a fee to sit the FCE as well as for the preparation course, the advantage of which is that having invested in an exam course then the average FCE student tends to be highly motivated to succeed. However, motivation and high morale can be very fragile things.
If my students need to be familiar with the exam conditions and requirements, and regular timed practice under exam conditions will help them get used to exam rubrics, different question formats, time restraints, doing tasks efficiently and filling in the answer sheets correctly. Don’t be afraid to share information with your students by explaining, for example, the marking criteria for assessing their writing tasks.
Be explicit about the value of classroom activities. As well as having high expectations , I may find that my students have quite definite ideas about what an exam class should be like. A student may try to undermine by saying that discussion activities, for example, are a waste of time in an exam preparation class and that time should be spent doing grammar exercises or practice tests. However, this situation is less likely to happen if I explain at the outset that pair and group work activities are invaluable for the Speaking paper, in which candidates are examined in pairs and their ability to interact with a partner is assessed.
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Try to instill good study habits from the start. What my students do outside the exam classroom is just as vital in preparing for the exam. Use tutorial time to help individuals identify their strengths and weaknesses in each paper and to structure their homework/self-directed learning accordingly. Often, the most successful learners are those who keep good records of their learning. Encourage learners to keep a vocabulary notebook, organized in a way that is meaningful to them.
Types of exams and exam questions
There are many types of exam questions used at university and need to prepare for different types of questions in different ways. To prepare well for exams should enquire about the nature, length and value of each exam so that can allow adequate time and effort for preparation. Check assessment details in course materials and with teaching staff. May find it useful to record for each exam so that clear about what the exam will cover and when and where it will be held. This information will help guide preparation for the exam.
Some different types of exams questions, with a brief description, are listed below. For each type, use the link to additional suggestions relating to this type of question, how can best prepare for it and practical strategies for answering the question:
- Multiple choice questions offer a range of choices from which select the most appropriate response.
- Short answer questions require answers of up to a paragraph. The nature of the questions may vary. Some questions may test you recall of information, others may test ability to apply concepts to new situations.
- Essay question require you to write an essay type response to a topic. Essay questions may be arranged in sections in the exam paper which reflect different sections of the course.
- Open book questions allow to bring and use reference materials in the exam room.
- Take home questions are questions that are given to take away and complete and then return within a specified time e.g. 24 hours.
- Oral questions are used to test oral language skills. Typically they are taken individually.
- Practical questions test practical skills and techniquesusually in laboratory, clinical or field settings.
There are differences in the learning need to do for different types of questions. I previous experience of exams may mean that I have developed very good approaches for some types of questions but not for others.
If I tackling new types of questions, find out about my student lecturer’s expectations as well as the exam requirements. The timing and duration of my preparation will be determined by a number of factors. For example, if my exam is worth a high proportion of the overall grade, I would be wise to prepare throughout the semester. If it’s worth a small percentage of the grade I may decide to study intensely in last few weeks, but I’ll need to lay the groundwork for that study in the way I take notes and file my work throughout the semester.
- Responsible for what you leave outside the exam venue.
- There will be no bag drop at exam venue.
- Bags left outside the exam venue are left at the owner’s risk and are not the responsibility of the University.
- Responsible for what you bring into an exam.
- Bring only what you need for the exam, especially your student card.
- Cheating includes introducing into an exam venue any book, note, document, or instrument which is not authorized by the examiner or the examinations officer.
- The consequences are severe.
About on-line learning
We believe that distance learning works best when it captures, as far as possible, the dynamics of face to face learning, even when that means less flexibility (see below). A sense of isolation can cause people to drop out of distance learning courses. Our Distance/On-line Teaching Exam Classes Courses have the following key features, which ensure motivation remains high.
Variety of ways of learning
Through our virtual learning environment you will use the internet to communicate with tutors and fellow course members, access materials and complete learning tasks.
Our virtual learning environment (VLE) allows you to communicate individually and collectively with tutors and other course members, both for social and study purposes. You will be assigned individual, group and pair tasks, as in a “real” classroom with the difference that, instead of all working at the same time you can log on and off and contribute at times which are convenient to you. You may, on a few occasions, be required to log on at the same time as other course members for “lessons”, “conferences” or “chats” in the virtual classroom.
A real class of fellow students
In many distance courses, learners start and finish courses at any time of the year and join an infinite number of other distance learners at various stages of their course. Our courses have start and finish dates and a defined group of participants, just like our face-to-face courses. You will have tasks and deadlines to keep and be expected to maintain an appropriate rhythm. In other words, flexibility is limited in order to maintain motivation.
Learning how to learn on-line
As well as learning about teaching and language you will have the opportunity to experience and reflect on the nature of on-line learning itself.
Ease of use
You will find it easy to use the virtual learning environment, even if you are relatively unfamiliar with this kind of learning and there will be plenty of support and guidance from tutors to deal with any queries and make sure you are on track.
- upload and download course information and material
- access materials on and off-line
- participate in live and non-synchronised discussions
- send work to tutors and receive feedback
- communicate with tutors and other members of the class individually and as a group.
- interact in ways similar to a real classroom with the advantage of being able to access it at times convenient to you.
We use style/messenger or telephone for personal tutorials. You will need to have regular access to a computer with internet connection, but won’t need to spend huge amounts of time actually on line.
We recommend you install style if you don’t have it already to take advantage of cost free calls to tutors.
All of the activities are intended to facilitate each stage of the writing process, from planning a first draft to editing the final answer. By analysis both good and bad model texts, students are made aware of what examiners are looking for and can learn to avoid common errors.
Overall, this very guided approach to exam writing should make students feel more confident about attempting writing tasks.