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1.1 Purpose of the Study
1.2 Relevance of Study
1.3 Research Setting
1.4 The Standard Exam
1.6 Thesis Structure
2.1 Communicative Language teaching
2.2 Valid Tests
2.3 Reliable Tests
2.4 Why using Standard Examinations
2.5 The Impact of Tests
2.6 Backwash, Defining the Concept
3.1 Research Questions
3.2 Research Framework
3.3 Types of Interviews
3.6 The Instrument
Analyzing the Data
4.1 Classroom Instruction
4.2 Teaching and the Standard Exam
4.3 The Standard Exam and its Backwash
4.4 Teachers and the Standard Exam
5.1 Classroom Instruction
5.2 Teaching and the Standard Exam
5.3 The Standard Exam and its Backwash
5.4 Teachers and the Standard Exam
There is now a general consensus on the need of having standardised testing in the language field in order to have accurate information of the students learning process. One common assumption is that teachers will be influenced by the knowledge that their students are planning to take a certain test and will adapt their teaching methodology and lesson content to reflect the test’s demands; this is what is known as backwash effect. This paper looks at the impact of the Standard Examination at the English BA on teachers and the way they approach classroom instruction. To address this phenomenon, I used a qualitative research method which allowed me investigate this situation. By interviewing teachers as well as having informal talks I was able to present the current situation in classrooms in this institution so as to have a general view of how a test may impact teaching as well as learning; and this may lead to a better testing approach.
During the last years, language teaching has been in constant change due to the so many approaches and methods that have emerged as the result of the studies that have been carried out and that have provided interesting insights in the area of teaching- learning a language. However, very little has been done in terms of how this process should be evaluated in order to have a positive impact of this evaluation process in the language classroom. It is known that test impact is a major influence in the educational process as well as on the individuals involved in this examination. It is my intention in this paper to present what some teachers’ practice at the English BA as the result of what they call the English Standard Exam. I consider that the actions teachers take in this particular context is relevant to what they are supposed to do with their students and their commitment to the institution.
1.1 Purpose of the Study
The intention of this paper is to present the effect that the standard exam has in the classroom from the teachers’ experience. I believe that letting teachers express their realities in the class is the best way to improve a situation that might be affecting the learning outcomes of an institution which seeks to prepare proficient language speakers. It is, then, my objective to provide the insights of what I learnt from these teachers because I consider them to be important for the improvement of the situation we face every day in our classrooms.
1.2 Relevance of the Study
The washback effect is a common problem in education; however there has been very little research in this field. For this reason, I believe that knowing about this phenomenon is essential in order to understand to what extent an exam might influence teachers’ decision in the classroom. With this paper, I try to highlight the importance of the evaluation system in this institutions and how it affects teaching practices and actions because I present teachers’ perceptions and expectations within this context. It is safe to say that this study will be useful for the institution since the information it provides can help to develop a better evaluation process in order to avoid mismatches between what is done in the language classroom and what comes in the standard exam.
It is necessary, then, to develop a more positive attitude towards the standard exam which allows teachers and learners see and use the English class as a way of improving their language skills and not as a way of getting prepared to take an exam.
1.3 The research setting
This research took place at the English BA of the University of Veracruz. This BA aims at graduating learners with a high command of the English language, at least a First Certificate level. For this reason, students take English classes six levels along the degree together with other co-related subjects that enrich their knowledge of the language and culture of the English speaking peoples. Regarding the English class, it is based on the communicative approach which attempts to create the most appropriate conditions for learning the language in a natural way emphasizing fluency over accuracy. In order to do so, teachers seek to integrate the four skills of the target language -speaking, listening, reading and writing, as well as grammar and vocabulary. It is necessary to highlight the fact that the English programmes are based on the contents of the coursebook, its teaching methodology and learning activities.
1.4 The standard exam
The English courses in the English BA use a standard exam to evaluate students. There are three examinations during the school term: two partial exams and a final exam; neither of these exams is designed by the teacher but by a committee which is in charge of designing exams, teachers only mark them. This process is carried out in order to obtain the most objective grades as possible and most important of all: standardise students’ level of achievement. It is important to mention that there is an oral exam only in final exam.
This exam is designed as follows: The partial exams:
-One language in use section that contains: an open cloze test, a multiple choice cloze test, a key word sentence transformation section, and an error correction section.
-One vocabulary section which usually has multiple choice items, a spelling correction section, word formation items as well as fill in the blanks section.
The final exam has:
-A language in use section with a cloze text, transformation sentences and error correction sentences of both, grammar and vocabulary.
-One reading section usually with two readings which vary from true-false items to gapped texts. Multiple matching readings and true false readings.
-One listening section containing two listening tasks as well; they can be note taking, multiple choice, sentence completion, true-false statements, multiple matching, matching speakers to statements.
-A writing section where students are required to write a number of words depending on the level they are taking. They usually write letters requesting information, of application, articles, narratives, etc.
This paper is based on the qualitative methodology in order to understand how teachers perceive their teaching experience in every day life. I try to portray teachers’ perceptions of the phenomenon under study as an attempt to contribute to the improvement of the way students are evaluated in this institution. What I did was to listen to teachers’ opinions about their experiences with the students, the exams and exam results. However, it was not easy to talk to many teachers due to time constraints and schedule differences so it is not easy to generalize with the sample I obtained. Nevertheless, what I try to do is to provide an insight of the phenomenon under study so as to understand and make sense of the issue here discussed.
1.6 Thesis structure
This paper is organized in the following way:
Chapter 2 discusses major issues regarding evaluation. I describe what communicative testing is like; then I outline some important concepts related to testing; then I will provide an overview of the way English is evaluated at the English BA and the impact it might have in both teachers and learners. Finally, I define the term backwash and some of its implications in language education.
Chapter 3 discusses the methodology lying behind this study. First of all, I present the research questions which led this study; then I discuss the methods I used to collect data for this study and I present the instruments adopted for the research. I also describe the context where it took place as well as the subjects who participated and enabled me explore this phenomenon.
Chapter 4 presents the analysis and discussion of the actual data generated for this study. I divided up the discussion of data in four main topics:
-Teaching and the Standard Exam
-The Standard Exam and its backwash
-Teachers and the Standard Exam
However the division, the topics overlap somehow, but it helped me show the evidence of how teachers feel and express their points of view regarding the use of a standard exam in this BA.
Chapter 5 presents the general conclusions I have reached with this study. In other words, I discuss what the findings suggest about the way backwash effect interferes with the teaching practice at the English BA.
Nowadays, because of the importance of English as a worldwide language the necessity of having Formal English language education has increased. The University of Veracruz, preoccupied with providing qualified English teachers, offers a BA degree in English. The English BA at the Language Department plays an important role in forming English teaching professionals. This can be inferred from official documents that state that one of its aims is to prepare learners to reach a proficient level; in other words, learners are expected not only to reach a high grammatical and discourse competence but also strategic competence at the end of this major. For this reason, improving the learners’ English proficiency and communicative skills has become an important educational aim for this institution.
This paper deals mainly with the role of English language instruction, especially with the issue of how evaluation may affect the learning process; that is to say, the role of standard examinations and how they might interfere with the teaching- learning process. According to the ‘Plan de Estudios de la Licenciatura en Lengua Inglesa,’ students at the English BA are expected to reach a proficiency level equivalent to that of Cambridge’s First Certificate Examination (FCE). However, this goal has not totally been fulfilled. This aim is not true for most of our students, since it can easily be seen that they have a poor command of the target language. It is necessary then to focus our attention on the reasons why this phenomenon is happening in the classrooms. It seems that the evaluation system might be influencing the way English is approached along the BA. In other words, standard examinations seem to be affecting the way English should be approached inside the classroom. For this reason, I decided to find out what is happening inside the classroom, in order to see if teachers look at English as a means of communication or as a process of allocating marks to students’ performance and with this, labeling students themselves as passes or failures. What is more, I want to know how teachers and learners view the English class either as a way of enriching their communicative abilities or as a way of getting prepared for the standard exam, particularly for the grammar section.
Hence, the main concern of my paper is to see how the evaluation process influences the learning process, as some researchers suggest. Following this viewpoint, what I intend to do is to examine the influence of the backwash effect at the English BA and to what extent it interferes with both the teaching practice and the learning process. Said it in other words, to what extent examinations affect classroom instruction. For example, whether classroom activities are affected as a result of the standard exam or whether the backwash effect is positive or negative. Finally, it is important to become aware of teachers’ attitudes towards the exams and exam results because they might not be as positive as they should.
Taylor (2005: 1) supports this belief by arguing that tests directly influence educational processes in various ways. One common assumption is that teachers will be influenced by the knowledge that their students are planning to take a certain test and will adapt their teaching methodology and lesson content to reflect the test’s demands. For this reason, I believe that it is necessary to become aware of what happens in the English BA so as to be able to take informed action. It is therefore one of the aims of this study to provide a picture of how teachers perceive the testing system at the research site. Since efforts have been made to improve English teaching in the English BA, there should accordingly be some efficient ways to enhance and assess the effectiveness of examinations. That is to say, if communicative teaching exists, there have to be communicative ways of testing. For this reason, I believe that it is necessary to focus our attention on how teachers react to the standard examination, and especially to the exam results.
In this section I will discuss the theory I used to support this research. To begin with, it is important to be aware of the fact that not many studies have been done concerning this topic, (Cheng, 2005: 61). Therefore, most of the sources I have used were taken from the Internet. In this section I will discuss the theoretical foundations lying behind this study. Firstly, I will describe some important concepts related to testing as well as communicative testing; then I will provide an overview of the way English is evaluated at the English BA and the impact it might have in both teachers and learners. Thirdly, I will define the term backwash and some of its implications in language education.
2.1 Communicative Language Testing
The way in which languages are taught has been of general discussion in the sense that the teaching-learning process has better results among second language students. That is to say, teachers have tried to find the best way of teaching a second language according to their context and their students’ needs and abilities. This search has brought different ways of approaching the language, especially how this is presented to the students, for example, the communicative approach. However, as with all the other methods and approaches, with the communicative approach “there is more than merely a vague sense of futility and falsehood in a ‘practical’ language lesson where explicitly ‘useful’ structures and vocabulary are presented by the teacher, then practiced and reproduced by accommodating students” Chapman (2006: 1). He insists that “more than a vague sense of falsehood, we may immediately recognise the synthetic nature of the lesson: the immediate context (a classroom instead of a shop or street), the prescribed (and limited) language, the lack of ‘real-life’ hurdles (strong accents, unexpected vocabulary or non-standard usage).”
According to Chapman (2000: 1) there are some effective ways of empowering learners to cope with some real life situations, however, they may not be so effective in helping them learn, or even appreciate, ‘language’. He continues saying that the way the communicative approach has been interpreted so far may be failing in giving our students crucial issues of meaning, understanding, and mastery of what we might consider real life skills. As it is known, the communicative approach is based on the belief that language is a tool for communication; however, the classroom might not be the context to reach these objectives. On the contrary, it has become a limiting context where language is presented virtually empty of personal significance, thus becoming instantly forgettable. Despite this, since the advent of the Communicative Language Teaching approach in Britain in the late 1960's (Richards and Rodgers, 1986, in Moritoshi, 2002: 9), there has been an increasing requirement for practical test instruments that can validly and reliably measure examinees' oral 'communicative competence'. Thus, “tests designed to assess students’ proficiency need to be tailored to include items which possibly measure the students’ ability to communicate in all levels of language, (Moritoshi, 2002: 9). In other words, test items should measure the students’ competence to engage them in meaningful, purposeful, and authentic communicative tasks.
However, as students must have a good performance linguistically and communicatively, the exams involved in this communicative era should measure more than isolated language skills. For this reason, Moritoshi (2002: 2) states that the increasingly common use of more communicative language teaching styles has brought with it a concomitant requirement for more communicative, interactive tests that can accurately measure students' foreign language conversation proficiency. According to Brown (1987:230, in Moritoshi, 2002: 9) a communicative test has to meet some rather stringent criteria. In other words, it has to test for grammatical, discourse, sociolinguistic, and illocutionary competence as well as strategic competence. In addition to this, such a test has to be pragmatic as it requires the learner to use language naturally for genuine communication and to relate thoughts and feelings; in short, to put authentic language to use within a context. It should be direct (as opposed to indirect tests which may lose validity as they lose content validity). And finally, it should test the learner in a variety of language functions.
As can be seen, communicative language testing is not as simple as it might appear, Hughes (2003:2) says that “language abilities are not easy to measure”, especially if students have not been presented with effective real-life situations which somehow empower them to show their communicative competence in meaningful and authentic communicative tasks.
2.2 Valid Tests
According to Hughes (2003: 8) there is no the best testing technique as each institution requires specific kinds of tests; and such a test, then, should be one that measures accurately the abilities one is interested in, has a beneficial effect on teaching, and is economical in terms of time and money. Hughes (idem) also discusses that testing will depend on the purpose they are designed for, that is to say, whether we want to measure language proficiency, or diagnose students’ levels etc. And, Chapelle (1999, in Alderson, 2002: 79) suggests that we first have to know what we want to measure with tests and/or if our tests measure what they are supposed to measure. As Hughes (2003: 2) suggests that a reason for mistrusting tests is that they very often fail to measure accurately whatever it is that they are intended to measure. What is more, tests scores that students obtain do not always reflect their true abilities in the language, as such abilities are not easy to measure. Byron (2007: 4) then states that without a reliable and valid evaluation criterion, it is almost impossible for both educational policy makers and professionals to obtain correct information for making decisions and improving language teaching.
As Bachman (1990:54, in Alderson, 2002:79) has pointed out: “The two major uses of language tests are: (1) as sources of information for making decisions within the context of educational programmes; and (2) as indicators of abilities or attributes that are of interest in research on language, language acquisition, and language teaching.” Here, lies the importance of accurate test techniques which makes language testing not limited to a knowledge of how to write test items that will discriminate between the ‘strong’ and the ‘weak’, but as an ongoing process of monitoring students’ achievements (Alderson, 2002: 80).
As it has been mentioned before, a test is said to be valid when it measures accurately what it is intended to measure, (Hughes, 2003: 26). According to Messick (1989:20, in Alderson, 2002: 79) the language testing on validity has been a development on changing views, and “language testers have come to accept that there is no single answer to the question: “What does our test measure? Or “does it measure what it is supposed to measure?” He argues that the question should be rephrased along the lines of: ‘What is the evidence that supports particular interpretations and uses of scores on this test?” Validity is not a characteristic of a test, but a feature of the inferences made on the basis of test scores and the uses to which a test is put (Messick, 1989:20, in Alderson, 2002: 79). According to Alderson (2002, 79), testers have distinguished different types of validity: content, reductive, concurrent, construct and even face validity. On the other hand, Hughes (2003, 26) argues that “the term construct validity has been increasingly used to refer to the general, overarching notion of validity; and that it is not enough to assert that a test has construct validity” and he suggests that empirical evidence is needed. Hughes (2003: 26) also divides the term construct validity into two subordinate terms such as content-validity and criterion-related validity which are the ones that I am going to refer in this paper.
To begin with, according to Hughes (2003:26) content validity is when the test accurately reflects the syllabus on which it is based. If its content constitutes a representative sample of the language skills, structures, etc. with which it is meant to be concerned and if it includes a proper sample of the relevant structures upon the purpose of the test, then it is said to have content validity. In other words, content validity is the extent to which a test’s content is proportionally representative of all of the construct’s features. For example, an achievement test for intermediate students should not have the same structures as one for advanced learners. For this reason, it is important to have a specification of the skills or structures that are meant to appear in the test; however, it is not necessary to have all of them in the test. But these specifications may help the item designer select what to include in the test, bearing in mind that areas that are not part of the test are likely to become areas ignored in both teaching and learning. Therefore, the content of tests is determined by what is easy to test rather than what is important to test. All this aims at having accurate measures and so positive backwash. On the contrary, content validity fails to reach its main objective which is to ensure that the test content is a fair reflection of the test specifications (Hughes, 2002: 27)
Secondly, Hughes (2002: 27) states that “construct validity refers to the degree which results on the test agree with those provided by some independent and highly dependable assessment of the candidate’s ability. This independent assessment is thus the criterion measure against which the test is validated.” That is to say, criterion-related validity is used to demonstrate the accuracy of a measure or procedure by comparing it with another measure or procedure which has been demonstrated to be valid. Nall (2003:4) explains that concurrent and predictive validity are both forms of criterion-related validity; and he states that “concurrent validity is determined by comparing results from one test format with those of another instrument which is assumed to be testing ‘the same thing’, that is, to be held in reference to the same language construct. This is typically accomplished by examining the correlation between the tests' results, looking for high positive correlation coefficient.” Whereas predictive validity is concerned with the degree to which a test can predict a candidate’s future performance. As an example we can mention a placement test which is aimed at predicting the most appropriate class for a particular student.
However, construct validity and criterion-reference validity are not the only sources of evidence of test measurement accuracy. What if it is not possible to prove that some parts of the test are measuring what they are supposed to? (Hughes, 2003:29). It is then necessary to point out the importance of face validity; it means that if it looks a good one: what teachers and students think of the test. Is it a reasonable way of assessing students? Trivial? Too difficult? (Nall, 2003:4). When a test does not have face validity, it may not be used, (Hughes, 2003: 33), otherwise, it will not accomplish its major aim which is to provide an accurate measure of the candidates’ performance. In short, tests must be as valid as possible in order to affect positively to those who take them.
2.3 Reliable tests
Validity is not only what makes a test successful, but it is also necessary to rely in the test in terms of score results. Let’s suppose that a candidate takes a perfect test one day at a specific time and not the following day at a different hour. We would not expect to have the same results the two different days even though the conditions were the same. In case we do get similar results we are talking about reliability. In other words, reliability has to do with the consistency in score that a test has, no matter the difference in conditions in which it has been administered. A way of calculating the reliability of a test is the reliability coefficient which is a way of comparing the reliability of different tests. According to Hughes (2003: 39) the ideal reliability coefficient is 1; and this is a test which would give the same results for a particular group of candidates regardless the administering process.
Hughes (2003:44) suggests several ways of making a test more reliable. For example, the more items a test has, the more reliable it is. However, the additional items should be independent of each other, that is, they should be “a fresh start for the candidate” (Hughes, idem). In this way, the test and the test results are believed to be reliable. It is also important to have a small number of easy, non- discriminating, items at the beginning of the test in order to give the candidate some confidence and reduce their anxiety level. Hughes (2003:46) also states that it is necessary to restrict the candidates’ performance to a level they can carry out the task with some freedom. In addition to this, items should be clear so as to avoid confusion and ambiguity. Instructions should also be clear and explicit to avoid misinterpretation; in the same way the test’s lay out should be one that lets candidates have enough space to answer, as well as avoid badly typed texts as it may lead to bad performance. Another very important factor that reduces reliability is the lack of familiarity of the candidates with the tests formats. In other words, examinees should have the opportunity to know what they are required to do with a specific activity.
The administering of tests sometimes may influence the tests’ reliability. For this reason, it is important to specify the time, check the conditions under which tests are taken, avoid objective items, provide a detailed key which anticipates all possible responses examinees may give. The scoring should be made by people who have been trained to do so and each test should at least, receive two independent scores; in the same way, it is advisable to give a number to the candidates in order to avoid subjectivity as it has been proved that there is a big difference on candidates scores when they are anonymous. Finally, although it is not easy to have a reliable test, it is the only way to obtain accurate tests’ results.
2.4 Why using standard examinations
At the English BA, the current English curriculum, known as MEIF (for the words in Spanish Modelo Educativo Integral y Flexible) , has as a main objective to provide the learners with the opportunities to develop the communicative competence in English. For this reason, since 2008 there has been an emphasis on changing from the old-fashioned structuralist approaches to a more communicative one. However, if we examine carefully what is happening in the classroom, we should agree with what Chapman (2006: 3) illustrates by saying that activities within a classroom lack of authenticity, and so, they become unsatisfactory as students will do the activity but, “do these activities have true communicative value?” On the other hand, we face a second problem, in practice, teachers and students view the English class as a way of improving their communicative competence and/or as a way of getting prepared for the standard examination they ought to take every school term. It is exactly here that we run into our main problem, if a teacher follows a coursebook, language, then, is homogenised and standardised; therefore, the way the students are assessed should be standardised as well.
According to Chapman (2006: 1) “standardised testing has been commonly used to assess students providing information about their behaviour and performance on a variety of learning tasks.” Standardised testing has become increasingly important as a means of selection, ranking and prediction (Thaman, 2006: 5) in a variety of contexts including their potential to succeed in higher education. Nevertheless, with standardised testing, we not only check the extent to which our students have reached some academic content, but also the way in which classroom practice interacts with the testing techniques used to measure the students learning process, (Fasi, 2006:2 in Thaman, 2006: 5). Suggested by Dirkwen (2006: 12) the standardisation element of student assessment create a dilemma when considering equity as it should be aimed at ensuring accuracy of information and the appropriateness of decisions for different groups in society. And most of the times we deal with different backgrounds among our students; it is important to be aware of these differences as it is well known that some students learn faster, grasp and demonstrate skills easier and express themselves better and clearer in their mother tongue, (Thaman, 2006: 6) and they accommodate these abilities into the foreign language giving them an advantage over others whose background might be different. Thaman (2006: 8) concludes that assessment is unhelpful when it is used to “reinforce and/or extend social inequities by influencing the distribution of benefits and sanctions to some or in denying opportunities for optimal growth and development for others.”
2.5 The impact of tests
As we know, tests are means of obtaining systematic evidence on which to base instructional decisions; information about people’s language ability in a second or foreign language is often very useful and sometimes necessary in order to know what they are learning and what we have taught them (Biggs, 2003:141). It is certainly needed dependable measures of language ability, and so tests will be needed in order to provide information about the achievement of groups of learners, without which it is difficult to see how rational educational decisions can be made. In some cases, educators see tests as motivators that stimulate individuals to do their best. If they are well designed and properly used, tests can effectively enhance the educational process (Richards, 1990). Educational testing is in fact a world endeavor which aims at finding the best ways of determining people’s ability.
As Smith and Adams (1972 in Taylor, 2005) assert, tests given in schools attempt to measure the achievement of students. Perhaps the most common use of educational tests is to identify strengths and weaknesses in the learned abilities of the students. Linden et al (1974 in Taylor, 2005) consider evaluation of students’ progress to be a major aspect of the teacher’s job. It gives a sense of where the students are, relative to the curriculum and to other students, as well as how students are progressing towards the attainment of specified objectives. A test is also a tool which teachers need in their evaluative repertoires as grades assigned on the basis of test results are evaluations of the students’ achievements which somehow help the teacher to label students as passing or failures. It is also believed that tests should be fair, valid, reliable, and, most important of all, that tests should provide useful opportunities for learning (Tomlinson, 2005). Tomlinson differentiates teaching/learning from assessing; he argues that the main purpose of teaching/learning tasks is to promote learning, while assessing means to collect relevant information in order to make decisions about individuals. It means that the main purpose for testing is not to promote learning; on the contrary, they are used as means of making useful inferences about the learners’ abilities.
According to Taylor (2005), tests also impact on educational systems and on society more widely, she says that, for example, test results are used to make decisions about school curriculum planning, immigration policy, etc. and that the growth of a test may lead publishers and institutions to produce test preparation materials and run test preparation courses. In the same way, Tomlinson (2005) suggests that it is necessary to find the ways of promoting learning by using the appropriate tests. That is, Tomlinson recommends that tests should have the same kind of activities as the ones the students use in class; this way, teachers can be sure that class work is useful for students’ performance in an examination. As it is suggested, teachers and students may orientate teaching as well as learning towards the methods and “answers” that will allow them to pass examinations (Heaton, 1990; Hughes, 2003), which means that both teachers and students are focused on finding the best way to be prepared to succeed in a test. Thus, as teaching and learning depend upon each other, looking objectively at teaching becomes of paramount importance since what is done within the classroom becomes the main issues to be measured with a test. Bachman (1990 in Taylor, 2005) states that “language testing occurs in an educational and social setting, and the uses of language tests are determined largely by political needs” For this reason, it is very important to be aware of the fact that teaching and testing are linked and that they should be integrated for the sake of the testing system and everything that it embodies.
2.6 Backwash, defining the concept
It has long been believed that tests directly influence educational processes in various ways. One common assumption is that teachers will be influenced by the knowledge that their students are planning to take a certain test and will adapt their teaching methodology and lesson content to reflect the test’s demands (Taylor, 2005). As said by Hughes (2003: 1), the term ‘backwash’ or ‘washback’ has been used to refer to the way a test affects teaching materials and classroom management. As stated by Biggs (2003: 140) backwash occurs when the assessment determines what and how the students learn more than the curriculum does. Therefore, the importance of this papers lies on the fact that it is sometimes the case that tests fail to measure what they are supposed to measure (Hughes, 2003). As suggested by Prodromou (1995: 13) the backwash effect affects direct or indirectly the way the teaching practice is carried out. Therefore, it usually tends to rule what teachers do and what learners expect from their language class. According to Hughes (2003: I), the backwash effect of testing can be either harmful or beneficial. He suggests that “if a test is regarded as important, if the stakes are high, preparation for it can come to dominate all teaching and learning activities. And if the test content and testing techniques are at variance with the objectives of the course, there is likely to be harmful backwash” (Hughes, Idem).
Alderson and Wall (1993, in Canning- Wilson, 2000: 2) state that the relationship between assessment and teaching and learning results in a test influence teaching as follows:
1. A test will influence teaching.
2. A test will influence learning.
3. A test will influence what teachers teach.
4. A test will influence what learners learn.
5. A test will influence how a teacher teaches.
6. A test will influence how a learner learns.
7. A test will influence the rate and sequence of teaching.
8. A test will influence the rate and sequence of learning.
9. A test will influence the degree and depth of teaching.
10. A test will influence the degree and depth of learning.
11. A test will influence attitudes to the content, method, etc. teaching and learning.
12. Tests that have important consequences will have backwash.
13. Tests that do not have important consequences will not have backwash.
14. Tests will have backwash on all learners and teachers.
15. Tests will have backwash effects for some learners and not for others.
However, Canning- Wilson (2000: 4) says that there are some more additional factors which may affect learning, teaching and testing. She believes that these practices and beliefs include, but are not limited to the following:
-The influence of a test is dependent on each individual program and its curriculum.
-Tests scores are just the result of a predisposed set of questions which only reflect internal standards of a program.
-It is not only tests that influence teaching and learning, but also time limitations, course content, grading also influences the impact of testing.
-Grading criteria influence teaching practices as well as learning practices.
-Implementing grading internationally recognized criteria influences standards.
-Task type will influence learning, teaching and testing.
It is necessary to highlight that teachers’ training can be either beneficial or harmful as it can impact the quality of the tests’ results and exam preparation; it is necessary to have appropriate statistical analysis in order to provide authentic feedback into teaching, learning and testing, any changes on this, may lead to improper feedback to the program. A way of achieving this is by implementing standardized practices which allow better accuracy into the goals of teaching and learning; consequently, a positive impact may result in testing, teaching, and learning.
Hughes (2003: 4) suggests that teaching is the primary activity, adding that “if testing comes in conflict with it then it is testing that should go.” Buck (2001 in Tomlinson, 2005) supports this belief by saying that “a good test is one that allows us to make useful inferences about the test taker’s communicative language ability.” In other words, the testing procedure should reflect the skills and abilities which are taught in the course. Hence, as the school’s main goal is to prepare proficient English speaker so as to be capable of interacting with native speakers as well as non-native speakers using English as the only means of communication, learners’ worries should not be those of passing an exam to go advancing in their BA; on the contrary, to feel better prepared to engage in using the target language. Hughes (2003:4) also states that “language abilities are not easy to measure for this reason it is very important to be aware of the importance of tests and the results they have with both the class activities and the learners. According to Thanasoulas (2005: 1) the backwash effect of testing is that teachers measure learners’ success in terms of grades instead of creating effective learning experiences in accordance with their individual needs and inner capacities. Teaching practice should not be based on providing learners with the training they need to succeed in the evaluation process, on the contrary, they should be based on what learners need: to negotiate meaning in the target language.
However, the backwash effect in the teaching-learning process, it is important to notice its importance in the formal language instruction; we should agree that testing is a major component and an effective means of knowing not only how learners are improving their language skills, but also to prove if the teacher is applying the proper methodology to enable learning to take place, which is the main goal of every single class. Thanasoulas (2005) supports this since he says that students learn English mostly from classroom situations through their teachers, for this reason, teachers must be aware of their role within the language class in order to set the conditions for facilitating learning. For example, Brown (2000:7) defines learning as “getting knowledge” and teaching as “setting the conditions for learning,” so he concludes that “teaching cannot be defined apart from learning” (Brown, 2000:7). Moreover, teaching is concerned with planning, decision making, research, focus, and implementation, and most important of all, evaluation (Bowen, 1994:168). As a result, teachers should be prepared to handle the evaluation process in a positive way, mainly if it has a harmful backwash effect.
It is commonly discussed that evaluation embraces teacher, learners and the methodology used; thus, it is said that evaluation influences teachers and learners’ attitudes (Thanasoulas, 2005). Prodromou (1995: 13) suggests that “negative backwash makes good language teaching more difficult,” in the same way it might give the learners the impression that what matters in language learning is the mark they get (Prodromou, 1995: 19). Consequently, Richards (1996: 34) and Bowen (1994:169) suggest that if teachers look at what they do in a class and what they evaluate in a test, it will be easier for them to rely on the evaluation process. That is the case of students who are taking a course that is meant to train them in the language skills but what they are tested is completely different from what they have been trained for (Hughes 2003: 1), the result would be what is known as harmful backwash.
Testing is of big importance in a course, as supposed by Davies (1968:5 in Hughes, 2003:2) who says that “the good test is an obedient servant since it follows and shapes the teaching.” Biggs (2003: 140) supports this belief by arguing that students learn what they think they will be tested on. In other words, teachers and learners should be aware of the fact that testing becomes a major issue in their language education, it is a way of proving that the learners are advancing in their learning as well as showing that teachers are skillful and their teaching performance goes in accordance with the syllabus, the course book, and the methodology they are demanded. It means that the exam becomes the main issue in the classroom not only as a tool to measure students’ progress, but also as a way of taking decisions of what should be done or learnt in the classroom; this is what is known as negative backwash.
So far, I have discussed some of the important issues relevant to the main concern of this paper. For example, I have described what communicative language testing is, and should be in a communicative context; I have also discussed some characteristics of good tests such as validity and reliability which are very important features of the evaluation process. I have also given an overview of the evaluation system and its impact at the English BA in order to provide a general background of the context of this research. And finally, I have defined the term backwash and its implications in language teaching because it is the main concern of this piece of work.
In this section I will discuss the methods I used to collect data for this study. It is important to mention that this work is based on a similar study made in Japan by Liying Cheng in 2005. Cheng (2005: 61) mentions that not many studies have been done concerning this topic. Therefore, most of the sources I have used were taken from the Internet. To begin with, this section will discuss the methodological and theoretical foundations lying behind this study. Secondly, I will discuss the instruments adopted for this study.
3.1 Research Questions
The purpose of this research is to see how the evaluation process influences the learning process or what is known as the backwash effect, as some researchers have called this phenomenon. My aims are to know to what extent negative backwash affect classroom instruction; in other words, whether classroom activities are affected as a result of the standard exam. Especially, what teachers’ attitudes towards the examinations and its results are. For this reason, there are four main questions which led me explore the subject matter areas; and each of them is divided into other questions depending on what the informants answered.
3.2 Research framework
This study has been conducted in the form of Qualitative research, which according to Denzin and Lincoln (in Richards, 2003: 11) studies “things in their natural settings, attempting to make sense of, or interpret, phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them; it involves the studied use and collection of a variety of empirical materials that describe routine and problematic moments and meanings in individual’s lives.” As I mentioned above, qualitative research is used to understand a social context; Kvale (1996: 14 in Sewell, 2008:2) defines qualitative research interviews as "attempts to understand the world from the subjects' point of view, to unfold the meaning of peoples' experiences, to uncover their lived world prior to scientific explanations; the nature of qualitative interviews can help ensure that you understand how (or even whether) community members perceive a problem and what they would see as key elements in a program designed to resolve it.”
According to Heaton (2004: 37, in Bhamani, 2008: 1) data collection is a hard task and it can be done in different ways; for example, interviews, focus groups, surveys, telephone interviews, field notes, taped social interaction or questionnaires. O’Leary (2004: 150 in Bhamani, 2008: 1) remarks that “one method of data collection is not inherently better than another.” Therefore, the data collection method that is used would depend on the research goals and the advantages and disadvantages of each method. The one that is my concern is the use of interviews in order to get involved in the context of my study by making my informants express their points of view as well as their interpretations and perceptions of the situation I am studying.
Gillham (2000: 62) also states that interviewing is an appropriate way of collecting data when a small number of people are involved and they are accessible; the questions are mainly open and require an extended response with prompts and probes from you to clarify the answers; and when the material is sensitive in character so that trust is involved. Furthermore, Gillham (2000: 63) also supports this and explains that the “face-to-face interview is the richness of the communication that is possible.” What it means is that using interviews is a good way of approaching a situation because it enables the researcher to obtain highly personalized data as well as it gives opportunities for probing. Gillham (2000:62) adds that when you interview you have to get to know the setting and the people and you have to establish your credibility and earn people’s trust as well as focus your aims and research questions in order to find out what will be best answered by asking questions in an interview setting.
3.3 Types of Interviews
Bhamani (2008: 3) mentions different types of interviews, which include: structured interviews, semi-structured interviews, unstructured interviews, non-directive interviews. According to Corbetta (2003: 269 in Bhamani, 2008: 4) structured interview is sometimes called a standardized interview. The same questions are asked of all respondents, using the same words and sequence. Bryman (2001: 107 idem) explains that in structured interviews the scheduled is administered by the interviewer and the respondents are given the same context of questioning and it is also mentioned that this type of interviews are somehow rigid. On the other hand, “semi-structured interviews are non-standardized and are frequently used in qualitative analysis. The interviewer does not do the research to test a specific hypothesis,” (David, & Sutton, 2004, p. 87 idem). It means that the interviewer by making use of a list of issues to be covered follows the interviews’ direction; questions can be changed and additional questions can be asked. Gillham (2000: 65) defines semi-structured interviews in the following way, “it is the most important form of interviewing as it can be the richest single source of data”. However, he suggests being clear about the key issues in your research and what will be best answered in a face-to-face interview before using these types of interviews. A skillful interviewer is free to conduct the conversation as he thinks fits, to ask the questions he considers appropriate in the words he considers best, to give explanation and ask for clarification if the answer is not clear, to prompt the respondent to elucidate further if necessary, and to establish his own style of conversation.
There are also the so-called unstructured Interviews which are non-directed and follow a flexible method. This interview differs from the others in that it is more casual and there is no need to follow a detailed interview guide. In other words, each interview is different and “interviewees are encouraged to speak openly, frankly and give as much detail as possible,” (Bhamani, 2008:6). Finally, in non- directive interviews questions do not follow a plan; on the contrary, he just listens to what the interviewee says in a frankly and open manner. The interviewer only asks for clarification or paraphrases the interviewee’s words. It sometimes becomes very problematic as there is no direction there is a risk of losing the direction when analyzing data.
For the purpose of this research and the constraints I faced I used two structured interviews and only one semi-structured interview. On the one hand, time prevented me form asking more questions in a formal interview; however, I was able to have informal discussions with my interviewees, and this led me to reach the information I needed for this paper.
The present work was carried out at the B.A. in English of the Language Department of the University of Veracruz campus Xalapa. The B.A is currently working with Modelo Integral Flexible ( MEIF). This program requires that students cover 318 credits of the curriculum in order to get their degree. Along their studies in this curriculum, students not only learn English but also other subjects such as Culture, Linguistics, English and American Literature, Translation, and Teaching Methodologies. Also, students take six levels of English based on the criteria of the Common European Framework and those levels are classified as follows:
To pass each level, students are required to take three standardized English exams, two partial exams and one final. The partial exams’ main goal is to test students’ level of grammar and vocabulary and the final exam tests the four communicative skills of the language as well as some grammar and vocabulary. However, it is important to point out that these examinations are mainly focused on the language in use section which comprises grammar and vocabulary which grant about sixty-five percent of the total; while the other skills such as reading, listening, and speaking only eight percent each. For this reason, the grammar and vocabulary sections are what most concern the students in this B.A.
I have been working with three EFL teachers, who have been teaching at the English BA for over five years; the reason why I have worked with only three people is lack of time as I work for another institutions and I go from one workplace to another, making it difficult for me to schedule my interviews to my colleagues’ schedules. However, Hannan (2007: 5) affirms that “as your survey is using a research instrument that is time-intensive, you will probably be considering a limited number of cases, chosen for particular interest.” Taking into account this, I decided to work with three female teachers, who are well-informed and have some experience teaching at different levels at this BA. In fact, one of them is not only a teacher but also an exam designer which I believe is quite important as she knows both sides of the coin, being a teacher and also an exam designer. This teacher, whom I will call Sarah, has been working for the English B.A. for about five years, but she has previous teaching experience in different private institutions in the area; she likes teaching and learning languages, at the times of the interviews she was studying German as her fourth language and this helped her to be more sensitive to what a student in the language class feels and expects from the course. The other teacher, Carla, has been working for the Universidad Veracruzana for a long time; however, her experience in the English B.A. is short as she has been working more for the Language Center of the University of Vercaruz which is an institution open to the public who want to learn a foreign language. Then, teaching English at this Faculty has been a challenge for her. Finally, Miriam, the other teacher, has worked for a public senior high school for about ten years and for the English B.A. for about three years. Whilst working with this project, I established a close and relaxed, though objective, relationship with the researchees. This allowed them to describe what is meaningful or important to them as they felt comfortable expressing their ideas and opinions which is something very important in this type of work (Sewell; 2008:4) as it let me get deep comments useful for this research.
3.6 The instrument
The items were adapted from a questionnaire used in a similar study in Japan in 2005; bearing in mind what I have read about this topic as well as my own experience as an EFL teacher, here at the English BA. The open-ended questions allowed the interviewees to express their opinions freely. These interviews were analyzed according to question groups. Since each group focused on a specific field of the EFL teaching and testing, this division facilitated my classification of strengths and weaknesses in the test or in the program as will be seen in the following chapter. The analysis of the questions is grouped according to the research questions (see appendixes).
The interviews were conducted in the way of conversations which focused on issues in EFL instruction and learning, and evaluation as well as validity, authenticity and experience in particular, and on an open-ended question format. That is to say, any aspects of EFL learning and instruction and evaluation that my informants wished to discuss. The interview protocol included approximately 19 items, plus a space for teachers' concerns, observations, recommendations regarding ESL teaching and evaluation. As mentioned before, the interviews were carried out during the February-August 2014 semester, the results of which constitute the main focus of this study.
I preferred to interview teachers rather than giving them the questionnaires as it is very common to answer them in a rush and sometimes people do not answer them in depth. That is why I considered more enriching to interview the teachers, unfortunately, as I said before, due to schedule differences it was impossible to talk to more teachers. However, it is important to note that teaching is the main concern of this paper because from my own experience I have noticed that it is the teachers who usually tend to modify their teaching as a result of the standard examinations and the learners’ expectations.
Another source of information came from my many casual conversations with experienced and novice teachers as these exams are a constant focus of discussion among teaching staff. Although these conversations naturally occur, I have been cautious enough to take mental notes whenever something important was mentioned. Eavesdropping, then, also informed this study. Yet my own experience and knowledge gained during the evaluation course at the MA in TEFL also made me aware of the issues mentioned in the discussions of the findings.
ANALYZING THE DATA
Throughout this work, I have described the way English is evaluated at the English BA as well as the methodology used to collect data for this research. This chapter will provide the actual data generated for this work; what teachers think and say regarding this area. What their expectations are and how they might feel to be affected along the semester as a result of different factors, such as the exams, students, and their own decisions. Each of the three researchees has been very helpful as they have some experience teaching in this institution; therefore, they have not only expressed their feelings and thoughts about exams, but also, their own perceptions of what it means to teach in here. It is important to highlight that their points of view have been very helpful as they have expressed how they feel with the standard examinations and the learners’ expectations in the English courses, making them take a very important role in the classroom.
Thanasoulas (2005) supports this viewpoint when he says that students learn English mostly from classroom situations through their teachers; it is teachers, then, who need to be aware of their role in order to set the conditions for facilitating learning. Therefore, it is them who may face different kinds of constraints which somehow modify their teaching performance in order to satisfy the needs of both, the students and the institution. In order to show what I found out with this study I present this analysis following the research questions which, in a way, facilitated teachers express the way they feel affected by the exams and my own understanding of the data.
The purpose of the interviews was then to explore attitudinal and behavioural changes in relation to the standard exam as well as to know what type of washback occurs on teachers. The interviews were analyzed using qualitative methods emphasizing teachers’ own perceptions of context, attitudes and teaching content in order to provide solid evidence of the washback effect in this particular context. Kvale (1996: 14 in Sewell, 2008:2) states that “the nature of qualitative interviews can help ensure that you understand how (or even whether) community members perceive a problem and what they would see as key elements in a program designed to resolve it.” In order to illustrate what I noticed with the interviews I decided to organize the analysis according to the way I formulated the research questions. Then, what I was able to notice was that in most of the questions asked to my informants they expressed similar opinions about what might affect their performance in the language classroom as a result of the standard examinations.
To begin with, it is important to mention that some efforts have been made to improve English teaching in the English BA in order to meet the expectations of the current tendencies of how a language should be approached in the classroom. That is to say, teachers have tried to find the best way of teaching a second language according to their context and their students’ needs and abilities. For this reason, the implementation of the so called communicative approach was supposed to be the most effective way of empowering the students’ English proficiency and communicative skills. However, the way the communicative approach has been interpreted so far may be failing in giving our students crucial issues of meaning, understanding, and mastery of what we might consider real life skills because the context of the classroom gives the language a vague sense of pointlessness and falsehood in a ‘practical’ language lesson where explicitly ‘useful’ structures and vocabulary are presented by the teacher, (Chapman, 2000:
1) as we can see in the following comment made by one of the researchees:
“… with vocabulary I try to do … er… meaningful for them not just to read hundred of pages about vocabulary; or to apply that knowledge to make it more real or meaningful for them in the purposes to help them to learn because there is too much information for them to memorize.” (Mirna’s comment)
According to Chapman (2000: 1), the communicative approach is based on the belief that language is a tool for communication; however, and taking into account these teachers’ experience, the classroom might not be the appropriate context to reach these objectives. On the contrary, and as it has been commented, it has become a limiting context where language is presented virtually empty of personal significance, where language becomes easily forgettable; especially if the evaluation process may not be suitable enough for the way English is presented in the class. If communicative teaching exists, there should be communicative testing, but it is not an easy task to achieve because such a test should test the learner in a variety of language functions. For example, it has to test for grammatical, discourse, sociolinguistic, and illocutionary competence as well as strategic competence, (Brown, 1987:230, in Moritoshi, 2002: 9). In other words, it should put authentic language to use within a context, but, this is not the case of the exams used in this school. What is more, for most of the students there seems to be one main goal when taking the standard exam: the grammar section:
“…they (the students) focus their attention on grammar and they want to know everything, every single thing about grammar; why this is the right answer, why is not? But they don’t focus attention on speaking.” (Mirna’s comment)
“…I recommend that they go to, either, SAC (self-Access Center) or they find extra material which contains structures similar to the ones that they are going to be asked on the exam…” (Sara’s comment)
As it has been previously mentioned, in the teaching and learning process it is important to highlight the importance of testing because it shows not only the learners progress but also teachers’ effective teaching. Then, the use of standard examinations at the English BA is necessary because if all the teachers follow a coursebook, language, then, should be homogenized and standardised. Therefore, the way the students are assessed needs to be standardised as well. According to Thaman (2006:5) standardised testing has become increasingly important as a means of selection, ranking and prediction in a variety of contexts. Linden et al (1974 in Taylor, 2005) consider evaluation of students’ progress to be a major aspect of the teacher’s job. It gives a sense of where the students are, relative to the curriculum and to other students, as well as how students are progressing towards the attainment of specified objectives. As expressed by my researchees, the main reason for having a standard exam at the English BA is to have general results from the whole community; in other words, to check that all the teachers are somehow doing the same things in the classroom so that students reach the same language level.
“…because they want to check that everybody has the same level as a request; it doesn’t matter what kind of teacher you are or you have, what kind of students; you have to cover a syllabus…” (Mirna’s comment)
“…we want to measure students achievements but we don’t want to do it isolated that every teacher designs his/ her own exams but have the same exams for everybody so we can see if they all reach certain standards.” (Sarah’s comment)
However, trying to reach the same level in a community is not as simple as it may seem; Dirkwen (2006: 12) claims that the standardisation element of student assessment creates a dilemma when considering equity as it should be aimed at ensuring accuracy of information and the appropriateness of decisions for different groups in a society. This decision-making process becomes even more complex if we consider previous knowledge apart from the current syllabus. In other words, these teachers agreed that having a standard exam puts on them some pressure as these exams sometimes recycle previous knowledge and neither teachers nor students know what to expect from them; it is not only the fact of covering a syllabus but also being aware of the language that students are presumed to have already learnt.
“I sometimes feel some pressure, for example I have realized that some of the students cover things like units that are not requested in the syllabus so, one of the problems I feel is that I have to cover more than what I am asked to cover in the syllabus… I don’t know what to expect from the exam and I don’t know what to do extra…” (Mirna’s comment)
“Well […] I feel under pressure because these are recycling examinations, so I don’t know which is the extent students will be tested on previous knowledge.” (Carla’s comment)
As mentioned before, the standard exams tests more than what teachers and learners do in the classroom. Therefore, both, teachers and students, change their way of approaching English as a consequence of the exam results. However, according to Thanasoulas (2005:1) the teaching practice should not be based on providing learners with the training they need to succeed in the evaluation process. On the contrary, they should be based on what learners need to negotiate meaning in the target language. Nonetheless, these researchees commented that their teaching is affected, especially, after the partial exam. That is, after they see the results of their students. According to Prodromou (1995: 13) “negative backwash makes good language teaching more difficult.” In the same way it might give the learners the impression that what matters in language learning is the mark they get. Biggs (2003: 140), for example, states that from the students point of view assessment defines the curriculum. And, as we can see, this is what tends to happen in our classrooms, what students ask is to have exam practices and quizzes in order to be prepared for the exam and obtain good grades, or at least passing grades. Actually, most of the students think that the English class has as a main goal to prepare them for the standard exam. That is, the students expect it to be part of the program, they want to be familiar with the exam asking teachers to make changes in their methodology. And what is more, they blame teachers when they obtain poor results:
“…I try to look up something I can give them to practice for the exam, so I think there is a lot of influence of the exam on me!” (Carla’s comment)
“…the things that you teach them are not meaningful to them in order to get a good grade on the exams because things are different … so they feel terrible about the results because they compare with the other rest of the students and they see, they think sometimes that you are not doing your job as a teacher” (Mirna’s comment)
According to Tomlinson (2005) tests should be fair, valid, and reliable, and the most important of all is that tests should provide useful opportunities for learning; he suggests that it is necessary to find the ways of promoting learning by using the appropriate tests. In the same way, he recommends that tests should have the same kind of activities as the ones the students use in class which becomes a common conflict at the English BA. Firstly, teachers need to cover the requirements that the course book presents. Secondly, students feel they need especial material to face the standard exam successfully. My informants claimed that taking into consideration the context of the standard exam, they usually have to approach the English class in a different way in order to fulfill the students’ needs because what they want is to pass the exams. Therefore, the evaluation system becomes of big importance here because what is done within the classroom becomes the main issues to be measured with a test. It means that teachers are influenced by the knowledge that their students are taking a standard exam and adapt their teaching methodology and lesson planning to face the test demands.
“… you have to, I mean, not only to follow the book, the material or the exercises of the book or the workbook but I think you as a teacher you have also to find other sources to provide students with different activities similar to those that are coming on the exam.” (Sara’s comment)
“Hmm, …err, students are always worried about the exam and I think I’m also; I try to practice this transformation exercises and I pay a lot on emphasis on vocabulary because I know that if they are familiar with most of the vocabulary there are a lot of possibilities that they pass the exam so I think it has influenced my teaching.” (Carla’s comment)
“I try to keep changing according to the needs of the students because sometimes you use a specific method and you see that is not working in order to get the goal of teaching that specific structure grammar point or whatever you have to do that... teach so I have to change sometimes.” (Mirna’s comment)
What I have illustrated here is the importance of the standard exam in the classroom; especially, how classroom instruction is usually influenced by the evaluation system. Despite the fact of having a coursebook to follow, classes are not planned in order to cover it; but there seems to be a tendency to teach what might come in the exam. In other words, what is done in class is shaped by the exam that students will take.
4.2 Teaching and the Standard Exam
As explained above, the English BA follows a coursebook which is based on the communicative approach. That is, English is supposed to be taught as a means of communication. Then, students are supposed be presented with communicative tasks which somehow will empower them to cope with real life situations. However, according to Chapman (2006:1) “there is more than merely a vague sense of futility and falsehood in a ‘practical’ language lesson where explicitly ‘useful’ structures and vocabulary are presented by the teacher, then practiced and reproduced by accommodating students.” In other words, the lack of context that the classroom has, makes language become meaningless and forgettable. For this reason, in many of the classes, students do not usually pay too much attention to communicative activities due to the fact that the exam designed to check students’ knowledge do not include items which measure their communicative competence . What is more, they only evaluate their ability to manipulate certain structures which becomes a mechanical procedure more than a way of reasoning the use of language, making students not to worry too much about the main aim of the English language: a tool for communication.
“Communicative activities I think are very, very important but sometimes we don’t have time because we have to cover some specific pages I … […] …with regards to the speaking exam sometimes they just don’t take so much importance on that aspect because they see that there is only one exam and they don’t have to worry about the whole semester so for me i try to use speaking activities in class sometimes the number of students doesn’t help you to do that.” (Mirna’s comment)
Hughes (2003: 8) claims that each institution requires specific kinds of tests, one that measures accurately the abilities we are interested in. According to my researchees it does not happen at the English BA; on the contrary, a good reason to mistrust the standard exam is that it fails to measure student’s language proficiency accurately, and what is more both, teachers and students, tend to modify their ways of getting prepared for this exam. As illustrated by the researchees who said that it is not only them who usually have to modify what they do in classes in order to enrich the program with extra material, but also the students who are sometimes worried about the exam and look up specific activities to get some training in order to succeed in their exam:
“I recommend that they go to either S.A.C. or they find extra material which contains structures similar to the ones that they are going to be asked on the exam…” (Sara’s comment)
“… by developing strategies to answer the exam faster because sometimes that is the problem, not having enough time to answer the exam.” (Carla’s comment)
The standard exam seems to lack both, validity and reliability taking into account the researchees experience with it. According to Hughes (2003: 26) construct validity is when the test accurately reflects the syllabus on which it is based on. And this is the main complaint of these researchees, the big difference between the coursebook content and the exam items. In addition to this, instructions should also be clear and explicit to avoid misinterpretation. Another very important factor that reduces reliability is the lack of familiarity of the candidates with the tests formats (Idem, 2003:46). In other words, examinees should have the opportunity to know what they are required to do with a specific activity. However, it seems not to be the case of the standard exam because my researchees commented that it is necessary to have some activities similar to the ones that are part of the exam in order to familiarize the students with the exam format; in other words, the agreed that it is necessary to have exam-like activities because the exams items are quite different from what students have in their textbooks:
“…vocabulary and grammar activities like filling the gaps the ones that we have on the exams… I mean, from the classes to the exams is not the same, there are not the same instructions, there are not the same vocabulary, sometimes it is not the same grammar …”(Mirna’s comment)
“I think they should get some training in the way they develop strategies to answer this kind of examinations… mmm sometimes there are exercises which students are not familiar with; that kind of exercises, maybe they know the language, or the vocabulary but since they don’t know how to answer that, sometimes they make mistakes because of that […] actually most of them complain about how much they have studied the topics seen in class and they don’t see, I mean, they find the exam different to what they have already studied, it doesn’t match (Carla’s comment)
As we can see, in this context neither communicative testing nor communicative teaching takes place. On the one hand, communicative testing should test the use of language naturally, authentic language in real life contexts. On the other hand, communicative teaching which means to present language in such a way that students can develop real life skills. Language is a means of communication not a
model of accommodating words and structures. Apart from not being a communicative test, the standard exam lacks construct validity as it is not based on what students actually do in the class as expressed by my informants. In addition to this, the fact of having recycling specifications from the side of the exam designers makes matters worse because in most of the cases students complain about not knowing what to study because there are a lot of items that belong to previous courses.
4.3 The Standard Exam and its backwash
First of all, with the use of standard testing at the English BA we not only check the extent to which our students have covered some academic content, but also the way in which classroom practice interacts with the testing techniques used to measured students’ learning process, (Fasi, 2006:2 in Thaman, 2006: 5). Secondly, information about people’s language ability in a second or foreign language is often very useful and sometimes necessary in order to know what they are learning and what we have taught them, (Biggs, 2003:141). Thus, it is believed that tests influence the teaching-learning process in various ways; for example, the teaching materials, classroom management, students’ expectations, etc. This backwash is, then, the reason why teachers sometimes need to modify their lesson planning along the semester in order to fulfill the standard exam’s demands, Hughes (2203: 1) comments that if the test content and testing techniques are at variance with the objectives of the course, there is likely to be harmful backwash.
According to my informants’ experience, they agreed that sometimes they feel that students’ expectations change, especially after the mid-term exam, and these expectations become a key element when they plan their class activities:
“…the material I use to make classes more meaningful, more relevant topics… (Sara’s comment)
“…the material that I use like posters, flashcards or any kind of visual material that help students to learn” (Mirna’s comment)
Regarding the testing process, Smith and Adams (1972 in Taylor, 2005) assert that tests given in schools attempt to measure the achievement of students. Perhaps the most common use of educational tests is to identify strengths and weaknesses in the learned abilities of the students. Therefore, my informants said that it is a good idea to have a standard exam because it is aimed at standardizing the students’ language skills. However, they complained about the way these exams are designed since in many of the cases the standard exam is not designed taking into account what is done in classes. Bachman (1990: 54) highlights the importance of having accurate testing techniques which is an ongoing process of monitoring students’ achievements and not only by discriminating between the ‘strong’ and the ‘weak’. For this reason, it is important to have clear specifications of the skills or structures that are meant to appear in the test; however, it is not necessary to have all of them in the test. But these specifications may help the item designer select what to include in the test, bearing in mind that areas that are not part of the test are likely to become areas ignored in both teaching and learning, (Hughes, 2003:27) Therefore, the researchees agreed that it is necessary to pay careful attention to the way exams are designed:
“…I think that a lot of careful attention should be put into designing exams…” (Sara’s comment)
“…I agree with the exams because they check the level of the students; […] yes, the only thing that I object is the way the exams are designed… when they design an exam they check exercises from different sources but they don’t check if the material that involves that kind of,[… ] These kinds of activities are related to the ones that we are teaching this semester during the classes… I think that the people that are designing the exams should be sure about that the design they are doing in the exam is the same that students have been working with during the semester…” (Mirna’s comment)
We can see that the standard exam seems to lack, to some point, validity. As it has been mentioned before, a test is valid only if it measures accurately what it is intended to measure. Hughes (2003: 26) says that content validity is when the test accurately reflects the syllabus on which it is based. Unfortunately, this seems not to be the case of the standard exams at the English BA due to the fact that the courses are supposed to follow a textbook which serves as the syllabus or program to be covered during the semester. However, and according to the researchees, the textbooks are not very helpful when planning and choosing the material for the classes. They also said that students expect more meaningful material, relevant to what they are expected to do in the exam. For this reason, they feel that the textbook is only an aid to organize their lessons but it is not necessary to follow it in order to succeed in the exam because the exam activities are very different from the book; there is a mismatch between textbooks and exams. In other words, validity seems not to be a characteristic of the standard exam in this context:
“… well, it (the textbook) as my guideline to organize my lessons well since vocabulary… a lot of vocabulary is considered in the exams I go through the lessons as I know students have to practice … many of them actually most of them complain about how much they have studied the topics seen in class and they don’t see, I mean, they find the exam different to what they have already studied, it doesn’t match” (Carla’s comment)
“…I like to think of it as an aid but sometimes I try not to follow everything in the book and to make it only my help and present the topics apart or maybe before using the book present the topics and vocabulary and then just helping them using some of the exercises.” (Sara’s comment)
What we can say here is that despite the fact that my researchees agreed on the fact that having a standard exam is a good way of having everybody cover the same program, having a coursebook as a program is not as good as it may seem because the exam gives the impression of being based on something different from it. That is, according to their experience, the exam has more disadvantages than advantages due to the fact that its content and the program’s content are not usually the same. For this reason, in many of the cases, these researchees said that they have to do other things in the class which may be more meaningful for the students when they take the standard exam as the book may not be a useful guide.
4.4 Teachers and the Standard Exam
The evaluation of the students’ progress is believed to be a major aspect of the teachers’ job (Linden et al, 1974 in Taylor, 2005). What is more, a test is a tool that teachers’ need in their evaluative repertoires because grades assigned on the basis of its results become a major issue when collecting relevant information to check students’ achievements. However, the standard exam at the English BA becomes not only a way to promote learning or infer the students’ abilities, but also a way to dominate teaching. According to Hughes (2003: 1) “if a test is regarded as important, if the stakes are high, preparation for it can come to dominate all teaching and learning activities. And if the test content and testing techniques are at variance with the objectives of the course, there is likely to be harmful backwash.” Unfortunately, this is what seems to be happening in this context because when interviewed, the researchees agreed that the exam influences both their lesson planning and the students’ expectations from the class that is why students demand a lot from their teachers. The researchees, then, commented that they usually change their methodology in order to fulfill the students’ expectations. Therefore, we can see that, as they commented, the exam is the aspect that most influences their lesson planning:
“… and well influence the way I plan my lessons when they are worried about the exam and I try to look up something I can give them to practice for the exam, so I think there is a lot of influence of the exam on me! On my lessons.” (Carla’s comment)
“I check what the book show us and then look for extra material it depends on the need of my students that I change my way of teaching or the method that I’m going to use based on the results and based on what I see on my classes” (Mirna’s comment)
Alderson and Wall (1993, in Canning- Wilson, 2000: 2) state that the relationship between assessment and teaching and learning results in a test influence teaching in the following way: a test influences teaching and learning; a test influences what and how teachers teach and what and how learners learn. However, they also said that it is not only tests that influence teaching and learning, but also time limitations and course content. In other words, tests’ results may be affected by not having enough time to cover the syllabus; this is another phenomenon that seems to be happening in these courses, as stated by one of the researchees:
“… they always wonder why they are being tested about material they saw in previous semester why they are not being tested on the contents on the course they are attending, they say they study a lot vocabulary and grammar related to the course they have been attending and when they have this exam there are only a few questions about what they have already studied (Carla’s comment)
Here we can say that teachers tend not only to worry about the program of the corse they are teaching, and seek ways of providing opportunities to practice these contents and/or the exam format; but also, they have to take into consideration previous knowledge due to the fact that the standard exam is supposed to be based on the contents of the earlier semesters. And, this brings about another problem which is time, time to do different things in order to be ready to take the standard exam.
They also explained that learners’ attitudes are changed after the exam, especially if their results are failing. As stated by Alderson and Wall (1993, in Canning- Wilson, 2000: 2) tests will have backwash on all learners. For example, a test will influence learning, and what and how learners learn. A test will influence the rate and sequence of learning as well as the degree and depth of learning. And also, a test will influence attitudes to the content, method, teaching and learning. According to the researchees, this happens because of the results the students obtain in the standard exam, especially when their performance during the exam is low; students, then, expect more meaningful material and relevant to what they are expected to do in the exam, they feel they need to be prepared for the exam; as in most of the cases the exams is seen as testing something completely different from what is presented in the textbooks. For this reason, these teachers agreed that students sometimes face an exam for which they are not prepared as they were designed to test previous knowledge or the format is rather different form the activities in the textbooks:
“… things are different… I mean… from the classes to the exams is not the same, there are not the same instructions, there are not the same vocabulary sometimes is not the same grammar so they feel terrible about the results…” (Mirna’s comment)
“… I don’t know. Since it’s evaluating previous knowledge as well I’m always, I mean, I don’t know if what my students practice and learnt in the semester I was teaching has been really measured ‘cause there is a lot of recycling aspect vocabulary and grammar, so I ‘m not sure how much they have learnt through the course” (Carla’s comment)
Although evaluation of students’ progress is part of the teachers’ job, at the English BA it may not be as effective as it should be because it seems to dominate what both, teachers and students, do in the class; the kind of activities teachers use to present the topics of the class; things that students mostly decide to learn in order to pass the exam. Moreover, the way they feel about the class is also changed as a result of the exam because students want to feel better prepared for the exam and succeed when they take it more than learn English for communication.
To sum up, throughout these pages I have tried to illustrate the way my informants expressed their opinions about the way they feel and they see their students feel towards the standard exams we have in our school. As we can see, the standard examinations seem to be affecting the way English should be approached inside the classroom. On the one hand, exams are believed to be an ongoing process of monitoring students’ achievements. (Alderson, 2002: 80) as well as indicators of abilities or attributes that are of interest in research on language, language acquisition, and language teaching, Bachman (1990:54, in Alderson, 2002:79). On the other hand, these exams are thought to be quite complex for both, teachers and students, because it seems that its content validity fails to reach its main objective which is to ensure that the test content is a fair reflection of the test specifications (Hughes, 2002: 27). In other words, the standard exam is a world apart from what the textbook presents in the program as the activities and structures are usually different from each other.
This results in what is known as backwash which is the way a test affects teaching materials and classroom management (Biggs, 2003: 140). According to Hughes (2003: 1) “if the test content and testing techniques are at variance with the objectives of the course, there is likely to be harmful backwash,” unfortunately, it seems to be what is happening in the English BA, due to the fact that the English course tends to become an “exam training” class.
Along this paper I have discussed the theoretical as well as the methodological foundations that support this research. I have provided an overview of how languages are evaluated, and I have focused especially on how English is evaluated at the English BA and the impact it has on teachers and students in the classroom. I have shown the way teachers perceive the standard exams, how they react towards it, and how they approach it in the class. Thus, in this chapter, I will talk about the conclusions I have drawn with this study using the theoretical framework I provided together with the data I gathered to examine the influence of the backwash effect at the English BA and to what extent it interferes with both the teaching practice and the learning process.
To begin with, I must say that this study has been of big importance in my professional development because it has made me more aware of the importance of the teacher’s decisions in the actions they take in classroom instruction. What is more, I believe that I have portrayed the current situation we face at the English BA regarding the examination process; and this, somehow, shows the problems teachers face when they plan their classes in order to fulfill their students’ expectations as well as the institution’s objectives. The intention of this paper has been, then, to show how teachers have been influenced by the standard exams and how they have found out the best ways of approaching their teaching in order to enrich their classes for the sake of the students and the institution.
5.1 Classroom instruction
It has been discussed in this paper that the way English is approached in this BA has been in constant change due to the fact that what is sought is to empower the learner with effective communicative abilities in the L2. However, it has not been possible for one main reason: the standard exam. On the one hand, teachers have to follow a course book which requires a lot from them in terms of time and knowledge. In other words, they have to plan their classes based on a communicative textbook which in most of the cases is full of false language structures and contexts. On the other hand, teachers face the problem of the exams. That is, the exams are designed in a format that is familiar neither to teachers nor to the students; they also find sections that are more challenging than others, this becomes a major problem for both of them -teachers and students, who at the end seem to be focused on only this sections: grammar and vocabulary.
It is here when we can see the importance of this phenomenon, because according to what I have perceived from my informants and my own experience working with these students, is that they seem to be more concerned with the grade they get than the mastery of the language they really reach. It may be safe to say that in many of the cases the English class is perceived as a way to train students for the exam more than a way of enriching the communicative skills of the learner. For this reason, it becomes very hard for teachers to promote more communication in the class, the complexity of the English class is such that teachers have to cover the program as well as provide students with exam-like material.
5.2 Teaching and the Standard Exam
Having a standard exam is a positive way of measuring the level of the whole community. However, this exam does not follow the requirements of this institution but what it intends is to familiarize students with the format of a proficiency test they should take so as to show what level they reach at the end of their studies. If the institution is supposed to have a communicative textbook, then, it is necessary to have communicative exams, exams that measure the students’ ability to engage in meaningful, purposeful and authentic communicative tasks, and not only their ability to play with language patterns or memorize meaningless isolated lists of words. What seems to be happening is that more than learning the target language, students are developing strategies which help them take an exam that gives them a feeling of dissatisfaction and failure because, in many of the cases, the grades they obtain are not good enough for them as they do not show the real progress of the students.
For this reason, I believe that is necessary to have more valid and reliable tests; based on what teachers and students do in the class and that reflect the students’ real language level. Because what seems to be happening in the English courses is that teachers seem to be to helping students memorize and manipulate language patterns mechanically more than using English as a tool for communicating ideas, opinions, feelings, etc., as the communicative approach fails to make students get at least a passing grade in their examinations.
5.3 The Standard Exam and its backwash
Effective testing is not an easy task; however, a lot can be done in order to make the best of it in an institution which aims at preparing proficient L2 speakers. For this reason, using a standard exam to evaluate the students’ learning process is a positive action aimed at seeking not only to check the extent to which students have reached some academic knowledge but also the way in which classroom practice interacts with the testing techniques used. However, as it has been mentioned before, there is a belief that tests influence the teaching materials, classroom management, and students’ expectations. Unfortunately, in this particular context what seems to be happening is that teachers need to make some changes in their teaching in order to fulfill the exam demands; teachers seem to teach for the exam. Here it is important to highlight the necessity of having accurate testing techniques; such a technique should aim at monitoring students’ achievements and not only discriminating between the ‘strong’ and the ‘weak’ students which is what tends to happen in this BA.
What I would dare to say is that there is an urgent need of having clear test specifications in order to include what is done in class based on the programs; this would give more validity to the standard exams.
5.4 Teachers and the Standard Exam
The teachers’ job is a very complex one, especially because it is teachers who take important decisions and actions in the learning process. Evaluation, as mentioned before is a major concern of the teachers’ job because the result of this process provides information of students’ achievements and progress in their learning. However, what seems to happen with the teachers at the English BA is that their teaching becomes dominated by the standard exam. This standard exam gives the impression that rules what and how teachers should carry out their classes. All this makes teaching an even more complex task since teachers face the learners’ disapproval of the exam; and what is worst, they complain with their teachers about their poor results. As discussed before, students, are also influenced by the exam, that is to say, the exam influences their attitudes to the content, method, teaching and learning. For this reason, teachers feel more pressure when they plan their classes as they are aware of the fact that their learners expect classes with exam- like activities which will allow them be ready to succeed in the standard exam.
As we can see, it is not easy to teach English at this BA; on the one hand, teachers have to cover a program based on a communicative syllabus, looking for the best ways of enriching the learners’ communicative skills. On the other hand, they have to provide their students with the opportunities that will enable them take an examination which is a world apart from what should be done in classes. To make matters worse, they also have to deal with students’ dissatisfactions for not being able or prepared to take an exam that seems to be not appropriate for this school.
Finally, what I can conclude is that the English class has lost its main objective: to empower the learners with their communicative skills, graduate proficient English speakers to a more mechanical mastery of the language, students can manipulate structures in terms of gramma. Unfortunately, there seems to be harmful backwash affecting teaching materials and classroom management, what learners expect from this course is training for the exam, and teachers agree to do so. I believe that as long as we continue having this standard exam, with poor specifications, and inappropriate format, the backwash effect will be the same, no matter the teaching methodology suggested by the textbooks or programs.
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(O): Ok this is Sara, she’s a teacher here at the English BA, she teaches several groups here and she also design exams the touchy subject here in the school. Ok Sara, good afternoon, no, actually, good evening, how are you?
(S): Good evening, fine, a bit sleepy.
(O) Ok, but fine now, fine. OK the first question Sara what do you think is the main reason for having standard exams here in the English BA?
(S): I think the main reason the main reason is that, mmm, we want to measure students achievements but we don’t want to do it isolated that every teacher designs his/ her own exams but have the same exams for everybody so we can see if they all reach certain standards.
(O): Ok, what kind of extra work if there’s any puts you or puts in the standard exam in your work, in your teaching in the classroom?
(S): All kind of extra work? Mmm.
(O): Or pressure, if there’s any pressure for you because of the Standard Exam, because of having these Standard Exam do you have any pressure on you because you have to cover some things or…
(S): Exactly that’s the main source of pressure I think is that you have to cover certain units for example from certain books so you have to be ready by certain day so you have to do as much as you can sometimes you have to run a little bit with the material and I think that students are not always ready or they do not really have the time and they don’t spend time studying on their own preparing for the exam so most of the times it’s a disaster.
(O): Yeah, I know so do you think you have to make any changes in your teaching as a result of the Standard Exam.
(S): Yes, definitely for example, you have to, I mean not only follow the book the material or the exercises of the book or the workbook but I think you as a teacher you have also to find other sources to provide students with different activities similar to those that are coming on the exam.
(O): So what do you find the most difficult aspects of your teaching in English because of the exam?
(S): I think that students level and also the lack of strategies because sometimes you don’t always ok you can teach English and grammar and sometimes vocabulary but then you realize that they are lacking something else they don’t have strategies, they don’t know how to study so all the effort you put on your teaching is not always enough of course it’s 50% and 50% but I think some teachers have also to focus on teaching strategies so that they learn how to sometimes take an exam how to do it in an efficient way, how to be successful at the exam and that becomes part of the teaching and then it’s more work for the teacher.
(O): Ok, thank you of bringing up the topic of strategies, so as a result of the Standard Exam, what strategies do you recommend just because of the exam?
(S) Just because of the exam I recommend that they go to either sac or they find extra material which contain structures similar to the ones that they are going to be asked on the exam, for example sentence transformations which sometimes don’t come in the book and it’s difficult to find so but when you have the material for transformations I also try to teach them, for example to observe sentences how you can make the changes not to make unnecessary changes an so on.
(O): Ok so you mention that you have sometimes to teach them or to make them aware of how to use these or to make these changes in sentences, so what kind of activities do you think should be involved in the students learning because of these transformations for example?
(S): Mmm perhaps, in the classroom you mean? I started last semester with a group that had never been in touch with transformations before, so I wrote one on the board and asked them so how can you say this in a different way, let’s brainstorm so brainstorming was one way and they got very good ideas doing this perhaps doing some research like they do on their own read this article or I have to do this, basically that is what I’ve been doing.
(O): In what ways do you think you would like to motivate your students in your class?
(S): In general? Or for the exam? I like to motivate my students by trying to show a positive attitude and my liking for English and all the culture but sometimes it’s not enough so I try sometimes to make them reflect on their own needs because if they’re learning studying this BA is because they want to be teachers or they want to be in touch with foreign people etc so I try to make them aware or realize how important is this that they study or they have study habits or that they develop certain skills that they are going to need in the end I also like to bring some materials, like realia, sometimes candies, songs and something that they don’t expect to surprise them and make them feel good.
(O): Ok so now that you mention the things that you bring to class what do you think are the aspects that most influence your teaching?
(S): I think a very important factor is time because I spend a great deal of my time preparing my lesson, preparing, grading homework trying to be updated so time is a very important factor and for some reason I don’t devote enough time to prepare a lesson then the result is often not very good so time is a key factor another thing I would say is the material, yeah the material I use to make classes more meaningful more relevant topics, yeah I guess that is, pretty much,
(O): At present what is your reaction at Standard Exam?
(S): My reaction? is well I am surprise at the result of the Standard Exam, well just like everybody else, because I think that a lot a careful attention should be put into designing exams and on the side of the students I think that they don’t pay enough attention or they don’t really care sometimes about how to learn in an efficient way so they can succeed in the exam I think it concerns me a lot.
(O): Ok what is the medium of instruction in your class? I suppose it’s English, to what extent?
(S): uhu. mmm I think it depends on the level, the students the group, sometimes I could say 100 % but its important to check if they have understood by maybe by eliciting an example sometimes they ask you directly in Spanish, ok what do we have to do?
(O): What is the role of the textbook in your teaching?
(S): In my teaching the textbook? Mmm I like to think of it as a an aid but sometimes because of the exams it becomes the main source of, or the main guideline that I have to follow in order to fulfill the objectives of certain semester yes, syllabus, but sometimes I try not to follow everything in the book and to make it only my help and present the topics apart or maybe before using the book present the topics and vocabulary and then just helping them using some of the exercises.
(O): Ok, apart from the textbook what are some other teaching aids you use?
(S): Well, use audio CDs, music CDs, sometimes native speakers magazines, exam books or tests books different grammar books sometimes dictionaries and very rarely unfortunately video.
(O): And do you think that the students’ strategies from students from first semester have changed as they go along with the BA because of the Standard Exam?
(S): Well I think in some cases yes, they develop certain awareness so they don’t know exactly what topics are going to come in the exam but they know more or less the format of the exam and they start studying and in such a way that they can succeed in the exam but some students I think maybe don’t have the attitude and they do not pay attention perhaps to the exam what kind of exercises or what they can do to improve so I would say that not all students but maybe 50% of the students.
(O): I guess that is thank you very much for this interview
(S): Ok thank you, no problem.
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(O): Ah, this is Carla, she is a teacher in the language school thank you Carla for accepting the interview.
(C): You’re welcome.
(O): Ok the first question, what are the major changes you think the standard exam needs?
(C): Major changes? It has to do with validity. Mmm sometimes err we are not actually testing what students have seen in classes and maybe the exercises that come in the exams maybe not all of the teachers are familiar with them sometimes we don’t practice them in class so when they answer the exams, the students find students are not familiar with them.
(O): Ok so, if you think that the Standard Exam needs some changes, so what do you think is the main reason of having a standard exam?
(C): I think that the importance of having this examination is to am measure students knowledge I mean to get general result from the whole community and maybe to avoid students cheating on the students and to avoid teachers being subjectivity I mean the SE students are mixed so you don’t know who you are checking.
(O): And you as a teacher of any semester do you feel under pressure because of this exam, do you have to pay special emphasis on something just because of the exam.
(C): Mmm, well, now that I know the exam I think I have to this transformation exercise vocabulary well I feel under pressure because this are recycling examination so I don’t which is the extent students will be tested on previous knowledge.
(O): Ok apart from the extra material that you use in classes do you think that your teaching methods are changed because of the exam.
(C): Mmm I think so, cause err students are always worried about the exam and I think I’m also I try to practice this transformation exercises and I pay a lot on emphasis on vocabulary because I know that if they are familiar most of the vocabulary there are a lot of possibilities that they pass the exam so I think it has influence my teaching.
(O): So, it means that there are some exam practices in your classes?
(C): Not really but I try to ensure that students aa er practice this kind of exercises during the course but I’m not focused on them.
(O): Does your teaching change according the test format?
(C): I think I mean it doesn’t really affect my teaching I try to include exercises similar to the ones in the exam only when I give my students worksheets I try to include exercises similar to the ones on the exams but not I mean 40% of my teaching practice is focused on this type exercise but I mean the rest has to do with something different not necessarily with the exams.
(O: Ok what do you find the most difficult aspect of teaching the Standard Exam, if any? For example, the students, the format, the book etc.
(C): Well what I find the most difficult regarding the exam is maybe language in use I mean the test format,
(O): What do you think about the textbook, the ones we used and the exam and we have new books, what is your opinion about the books?
(C): The new ones are better more related to the test format and I think that is an improvement in the school and the old ones, to start with they are not the kind of exercise that come in the exam and err somehow the level was lower
(O): What are the kinds of strategies that you recommend to your students because of the Standard Exam?
(C): Mmm to err to answer exercises I mean by how can I say by within a time limit. Measure time control when answering exercises and then check their answer key and study themselves by developing strategies to answer the exam faster cause sometimes that is the problem, not having enough time to answer the exam
(O): Ok, what kind of activities do you think should be involved in their learning?
(C): Mmm well if its possible strategies to answer the Standard Exam you know like when you have this proficiency test you get some training so I think they should get some training in the way they develop strategies to answer this kind of examinations.
(O): So, do you have to work in two different ways in one way you have to teach what students should learn and in the other you have to train them with strategies to face the exams.
(C): Yeah, that’s right, maybe to cover the components of the course and in simultaneously you have to train them or to provide them with strategies to face this kind of exam not maybe you know not to be so obvious just to train them by giving them worksheets to work with.
(O): And, nowadays, what is your current reaction to the Standard Exam?
(C): Well, since the books have been replaced, the old ones, that’s good its more makes the exam more valid and reliable because students have the opportunity to practice this kind of activities very similar to the exams.
(O): And what are your students’ most common comments or reactions about the Standard exam?
(C): They always wonder why they are being tested about material they saw in previous semester why they are not being tested on the contents on the course they are attending, they say they study a lot vocabulary and grammar related to the course they have been attending and when they have this exam there are only a few questions about what they have already studied.
(O): And as a teacher of different levels what is the medium of instruction in your classes? Is it English all the time? Or it depends on the level you are teaching?
(C): Mostly English.
(O): You don’t change because of the level?
(C): Well, the thing is that I teach 5th and 8th so it’s not necessary to switch, but when it’s necessary I do it, only when it’s necessary.
(O): What are the primary functions of the textbooks in your teaching?
(C): Well, in the 5th I mean the one that I always teach it there is no program so that’s my I use it as my guideline to organize my lessons well since vocabulary a lot of vocabulary is considered in the exams I go through the lessons as I know students have to practice I mean they have to see the whole lessons because of the vocabulary so I use it a lot,
(O): Ok, what are attitudes towards the exam results?
(C): Mmm, well I don’t know. Since it’s evaluating previous knowledge as well I’m always I mean I don’t know if what my students practice and learnt in the semester I was teaching has been really measured cause there is a lot of recycling aspect vocabulary, grammar so I ‘m not sure how much they have learnt through the course.
(O): What aspects do you consider when you prepare your lessons?
(C): Mmm, well I try to practice the four skills and I always use extra material especially for grammar. I try to use material according to their age and well influence the way I plan my lessons when they are worried about the exam and I try to look up something I can give them to practice for the exam, so I think there is a lot of influence of the exam on me! On my lessons.
(O): And what teaching and learning aids do you usually use in your teaching?
(C): Overhead Projector and wall charts only.
(O): Do you think s students change strategies as a result of the SE?
(C): Their Learning strategies? What I have only noticed is that they pay more attention to the participation percentage and they are more worried about their logs but not about their learning strategies I think nothing changes about that just to get the percentage point.
(O): What types of activities should be involved in language learning?
(C): Well, from previous experience you can introduce something new or just make students realize they already know something taking into account their previous experience so trying to make it easy for students.
(O): Do you think there is a mismatch between what you do in your classes and what comes on the exams?
(C): Mmm yes I think so ‘cause as I said before mmm sometimes there are exercise which students are not familiar with that kind of exercises, maybe they know the language, or the vocabulary but since they don’t know how to answer that, sometimes they make mistakes because of that.
(O): Do you think that students’ motivation is affected because of the results of this exam?
(C): Yeah I think so, as I said before many of them actually most of them complain about how much they have studied the topics seen in class and they don’t see I mean they find the exam diff to what they have already studied, it doesn’t match.
(O): And finally, any other comment that you want to make about the exams? And your experience?
(C): Mmm well I think that just to make design this exams in such a way that they really measure what students see in the classroom or through the course and maybe the layout should be, it’s been the same for many years so, I err I think it would be good for everybody to look for something more, I mean, different or better organized, friendly.
(O): Ok, Carla, thank you very, much for your help.
(C): You’re welcome, Olga.
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(O): So, this is Mayra, she’s a teacher at the English BA, she works with ...
(M): Young teenagers because they are in first and fourth semester
(O): First and fourth?
(M): Second and fourth.
(O): Ok, the first question is, what are the major changes that you think the Standard exams needs?
(M): I think that instructions are one of the problems because I have found some difficulties on students in order to understand what they have to do one of the main problems once in writing that the instructions on fourth semester were unclear the instructions were not showing anything to do a situation for example was that students were required to complain about going to the cinema and the instructions was all the arguments to complain, so the instructions were not clear this is about writing, and also on multiple choice sometimes they have some problems because they use a lot of vocabulary and verb forms that they sometimes have not studied completely in depth while you are in this semester.
(O): Ok. So, if you think that the Standard Exam needs some changes, what do you think is the main reason of having standard exams?
(M) I think that they check the level of the students it’s supposed that everybody do something in the class and they study some vocabulary, and some units and some grammar, and I think the main objective of do this kind of exams is because they want to check that everybody have the same level as a request it doesn’t matter what kind of teacher you are or you have, what kind of students you have to cover a syllabus this is one of my opinions. The other is that they check the level of the students not only the level of the teacher in order to check if they teach in their classes but also the level of the students should cover at this stage either fourth semester or eighth semester.
(O): And you as a teacher of any semester, do you feel under pressure because of the exam, this Standard Exam? Do you think that you have to pay special emphasis on something just because of the exam ?
(M): Yeah, I sometimes feel some pressure, for example I have realized that some of the students cover things like units that are not requested in the syllabus so, one of the problems I feel is that I have to cover more that what I am asked to cover in the syllabus it happens with vocabulary and grammar tenses, grammar structures (constructions?) where I see difficult who designed the exams take into account some other units that are not requested another problem is that I feel pressure about that I don’t know what to expect from the exam and i don’t know what to do extra for my students.
(O): So apart from book or the program that you receive at the beginning of the semester you think that sometimes you change the objectives of the course because of the exam?
(M): Yes, well not me, but I have to look for extra material that is not asked or required on the books or the syllabus so it depends about the teacher because the results show that sometimes you are not giving classes or you are , I don’t know, like…
(O): Wasting your time?
(M): Wasting your time so they ask you: what are you doing in the classroom? And sometimes that’s not your problem the problem is about the exam that they don’t cover what they ask you to cover.
(O): So, apart from the extra material that you use in your classes, do you think that your teaching methods are changed because of the exam? Or you just keep on teaching the same way?
(M): I try to keep changing according to the needs of the students because sometimes you use a specific method and you see that is not working in order to get the goal of teaching that specific structure grammar point or whatever you have to do that... teach so I have to change sometimes.
(O): Ok, so do you ever organize in your teaching practice some exam practice?
(M): Yes, I have some... I have. Basically, I do every weekend or Friday my students have from fourth semester and second semester they have a verb exam and also after some units for example. If the exam is going to cover three units I apply an exam and then I ask my students to have an exam for the whole units from 1 to 6 in case the book cover s 6 units so I’m always testing them.
(O): So do you think that sometimes your teaching changes according to the test format?
(M): Yes, yes, for example with vocabulary with verbs I try to ask my students to focus on that kind of themes or tenses or grammar points in order to reinforce what they are doing with the other tenses then use past participle or even past and with vocabulary I try to do err meaningful for them not just to read hundred of pages about vocabulary or to apply that knowledge to make it more real or meaningful for them in the purposes to help them to learn because there is too much info for them to memorize.
(O): And what do you think or what do you find the most difficult aspect in your teaching, the students, the class,
(M): Sometimes there are many elements involved for example the students is one element that is sometimes difficult to help them to learn because they don’t want they don’t like English and sometimes they have personal problems perhaps you want to help them to learn and you do everything you can do to teach but sometimes they don’t want to and that’s the main problem. Other are the grammar aspects they don’t have basic err basic err grammar that they should cover for example when they are in fourth semester and I don’t know what happened in the other semesters that we are there, it is one of the problems and also the environment for example in forth semester that I’m in F15 my students sometimes they found-they find distractors such as they look though the window and the people are screaming yelling there is noise I mean there are some many things that we have to take into account when we want to teach.
(O): And what about the textbook?
(M): The textbook I think is ok, so demanding for them sometimes because if they don’t have the level is gonna be demanding but for the others is good they don’t complain about it.
(O): And because of this exam what are the kind of strategies that you recommend to your students?
(M): I try to well, once I have the results of my students from this exam I call them individually and I show them and help them realize where are their weak points in the exams so I suggests based on the results to work on vocabulary based on the results to have a better grade on the exams.
(O): And what type of activities do you think should be involved in their learning?
(M): Communicative activities I think are very, very important but sometimes we don’t have time because we have to cover some specific pages I think also vocabulary and grammar activities like filling the gaps the one that we have on the exams reading texts where they have to choose between several options and they are the ones that i can think about now.
(O): Taking into account that the students only have one oral exam in a year is it really important for you communicative activities? Do the students complain about not having so many speaking evaluations or…
(M): I haven’t heard their opinions about complaining about with regards to the speaking exam sometimes they just don’t take so much importance on that aspect because they see that there is only one exam and they don’t have to worry about the whole semester so for me I try to use speaking activities in class sometimes the number of students doesn’t help you to do that.
(O): Well have they told you teacher lets not do this because we are not going to have speaking exam we are going to have grammar exam we need more grammar
(M): Yes, they sometimes complain about that and they focus their attention on grammar and they want to know everything every single thing about grammar why this is the right answer why is not? But they don’t focus attention on speaking
(O): Ok, in what ways do you think you would like to motivate your students to more speaking activities or grammar act or English in general?
(M): Perhaps if you help them to realize that its very important to communicate because sometimes you don’t have a paper or you don’t write because you need to open your mouth and express something so what I try to do is to just explain to them the importance of speaking and do some practice if I have time I have to be honest I sometimes don’t have time to do any speaking activities but I try to just help them to realize the importance of speaking.
(O): Sometimes they don’t complain,
(M): No, sometimes they don’t complain.
(O): As long as they have grammar.
(M): Yes and according to the results they have is the way they’re gonna complain if they don’t have bad grades they don’t complain about anything they complain more about grammar and vocabulary perhaps, but speaking no.
(O): Ok what do you think the factors that most influence your teaching are?
(M): Factors such as the students, motivation? (aha) One of them is as I mentioned motivation from the students and from me to give the classes (hahaha) also is the environment, the teaching materials that I use in the classroom, other is the peer pressure between students is the factor that affect my students to learn and also the material that make us work with during classes, and also the material that I use like posters, flashcards or any kind of visual material that help students to learn.
(O): Ok what’s your reaction towards the standard exam?
(M): My reaction mmm about like a …. Good points from the exam or I think
(O): Positive, negative, neutral.
(M): Mmm, it’s ok I think that I agree with the exams because they check the level of the students if you want to check what standardized, standard level they have so I agree with that IF as I said if it’s to check the level in general.
(O): Ok, so if you agree with the idea of the standard exam as it was created as an exam to standardize the students and the teachers teaching performance.
(M): Yes, the only thing that I object is the way about the exams are designed
(O): Ok, so the idea of the standard exam is ok?
(M): it’s ok.
(O): But the exams sometimes are not ok.
(M) : Yes.
(O): What is the medium of instruction that you use in your classes, English a hundred per cent?
(M): I try to use Like 80 % of English in my classes, sometimes I have to explain them in Spanish because grammar points that are not understandable for them so I use my mother tongue to explain that I sometimes use examples in Spanish that help my students to check the point that I want.
(O): Ok, I’m sure that you’re the only person in charge of preparing your classes the way you prepare them.
(O): sometimes the, the probably , the textbook the exam results or .. These can make you sometimes make changes? Or you start your teaching from the very beginning of the semester to the end, the same way or …
(M): No, I have to look for some material, for example if I found that my students have problems with passive voice I check what the book show us and then look for extra material it depends about the need of my students that I change my way of teaching or the method that I’m going to use base on the results and based on what I see on my classes.
(O): Ok. What teaching aids do you use in your classes?
(M): I try to use visual materials if I have some sometimes there are some difficulties to get one I try to use realia in some cases when is needed and I use flashcards and posters sometimes maps photographs sometimes and music and I use music listening err (I forgot) err listening about native speakers.
(O): ah, ok do you think that your students have to change strategies because of the standard exam?
(M): Yeah, I have talked to them about their results based on their results from the exam I say, for example if one of my students is has problems with vocabulary I say ok your strategy or whatever it was is not working so you have to do something else in order to get a better mark on vocabulary or grammar, because I don’t know what they are doing about learning I can. I know because I teach them in some hours but besides that outside the classroom I don’t know the way they are working so just talk to them individually and I see ok look here these are your grades so let’s check what you are doing and this is not working because your results are these and is the only advise I can give them.
(O): Ah, ah) do you think that there is anything required in your teaching that is contradictory to the standard exam?
(M): Mmm, well, sometimes the instructions and the kind of exercise that are coming on the exams because it’s suppose that the exams are based on the method that you are… the textbook specifically so when you face the exams and you face what you’re doing in the classroom is not the same, so this is a contradictory situation because they say ok the exam is going to be based on these units and you find out that it’s nothing form the text, so that is the main problem that I see.
(O): So, what types of activities you think should be involved in language learning?
(M): I think that the ones that we have are ok like filling the gaps, comprehension check I mean reading comprehension listening comprehension, but also I think that the people that are designing the exams should be sure about that the design they are doing in the exam is the same that students have been working with during the semester so that is one of the things that I’d like to say and they should be aware of what they are doing in the classroom the teachers, in order to prepare exercises as the one that you are asking on the exams.
(O): So do you think that there is this mismatch between what you don in classes and what comes on exams?
(M): Yes, one of the problems is,… I don’t know who is designing the exams and sometimes I do but (I would never say anything about that) but the thing is that sometimes the students the teachers that are designing the exams are not teaching in that semester and they don’t know specifically what is going to be checked in this semester like grammar tenses or grammar points or whatever, listening, what kind of grammar specifically and they don’t know I mean just they prepare an exam they design an exam they check exercises from different sources but they don’t check if the material that involves that kind of, these kind of activities is related to the one that we are teaching this semester during the classes.
(O): uhm, do you think that the standard exam err somehow affect the students’ motivation?
(M): Yes, because sometimes they feel that they are not learning or sometimes they feel that they have, mmm, I mean that they are in a point that they are not learning anything and the things that you teach them they are not meaningful to them in order to get a good a good grade on the exams because things are different I mean from the classes to the exams is not the same, there are not the same instructions, there are not the same vocabulary sometimes is not the same grammar so they feel terrible about the results because they compare with the other rest of the students and they see, they think sometimes that you are not doing your job as a teacher or something that is happening with them that they are not learning so.
(O): Sometimes it’s amazing to see that even good students the ones that you know that are excellent students don’t even get a 9.
(M): Yes, no and is going…. they are making them going down and depressed about and upset because they don’t see …in my case when I was a students it happened the same because I tried to learn lots and lots of pages of vocabulary and then I found that on exams they just ask me like three or four or five from my semester and besides that we have to learn a lot of vocabulary that often you don’t use .
(O): Ok Mirna I think that’s it. Thank you very much for your cooperation
(M): You’re welcome.
(M): Ok. Thank you.
(O): No, thank you.
- Quote paper
- Olga Lidia Sanchez Cruz (Author), 2014, The "Backwash Effect" in the English BA Program at the University of Veracruz, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/338930