06 Oct Teaching Exam Classes: What’s Different. 4 Points to Consider before Doing It
Author: Ilinca Stroe
Language exams such as TOEFL or those in the Cambridge suite seem to be growing more and more popular. And important. Many times, people’s education, career or residence status depend on the exam score, while for many others the exams are a matter of achieving short-term objectives which signpost longer-term learning and progress. In either case, increased demand for exams means more opportunities for teachers to provide exam preparation classes. It’s a professional option which should not be overlooked or discarded, because it can often come with a better salary and with huge professional satisfaction.
But are you ready to teach exam classes? What does it take? First, the amount of responsibility is considerable: as already suggested, the exam results can make or break your students’ educational prospects or future careers, so as a teacher you are co-responsible for that kind of life-changing success or failure. That is a lot to take on, but it’s also tremendously exciting and challenging. Secondly, exam classes are, admittedly, a lot less fun than regular classes which may seem, by comparison, a walk in the park: no more songs, no more stories or film clips in class; instead, hard against-the-clock practice and a possibly dull repetition of the test-teach-retest cycle. Teachers, then, need to be impeccably organised and at the same time still inspiring.
While Oxford, Cambridge and the major global networks offer courses on teaching for exams as part of their teacher development programmes (in case your own school does not provide teacher training in that direction), here we would like not to get you better qualified to teach exam classes, but to make you more aware of that particular task’s main implications, as compared to regular teaching. And to get you to really think whether you are, irrespective of how long or short your teaching experience is, professionally and psychologically prepared to teach exam classes. Here are the points we invite you to reflect on:
- Teaching needs to be reset. In regular classes, we aim at teaching the “target language” (be it Present Continuous or vocabulary related to travelling) and we feel satisfied when the learners manage to use it fairly accurately in practice exercises by the end of the class. In exam classes, it’s paramount that we first and foremost teach techniques, strategies and subskills. Take time to teach your students the types of tasks included in the exam (explain what kind of exercise, with how many points and answer options, etc.). Take time to teach them the most efficient, least time-consuming techniques to do those exercises (e.g. not reading the whole text of a Reading Paper part, but going through the questions first and then between the text and the answer options). And take time to teach them sub-skills: how to scan or skim a text, how to listen for gist or for detail. That, in exam classes, is essential teaching.
- Reactive teaching needs to be applied efficiently. Making mistakes is pivotal to teaching exam classes successfully. And so is, much like laser surgery, reactive teaching based on those mistakes. When a mistake is made, pause the exam practice and react by impromptu teaching using all your resourcefulness. Be focused, selective and efficient when processing errors: if a student had difficulty with a structure like “would have been” in the Use of English part, don’t start teaching Conditional Clauses or modal perfect to the whole class, but narrow it down to the Third Conditional only, as you’re all, teacher and student, working against the clock and you can’t afford to spend any time on possibly irrelevant points. Teach that selected structure till you make sure everyone in the class has followed and understood, then go back to practising.
- Teachers need to take on multiple roles. You are the strategist who shows the students how they can perform an exam task in the cleverest of ways. You are the timekeeper who calculates how many minutes can be allocated to each of the exam tasks and who disciplines the students into completing a task within the time allotted. You are the assessor: honest about below-standard performance and uncompromising about how much work there’s still to be done to reach above-standard levels. You are the coach: you point out faults, you praise good work, you motivate and give pep talks, you encourage (self-)competition but also fair play, you make sure the class stays on the ball at all times right up to the exam day. And you’re a caretaker who is interested in their students’ general wellbeing, inquires about their worries and concerns, cares how well they eat and sleep, and has a word of advice about stress-relieving methods or concentration techniques, if asked.
- Feedback needs to be dedicated and personalised. Practice writing tasks, whether completed in class or as homework, are half worthless if they’re not followed by detailed written feedback. For each and every student. It is, undoubtedly, very time-consuming for teachers to write in-depth feedback about the content, language, cohesion, etc. of each individual composition (or to provide such oral feedback after a speaking exam task), but it’s paramount. Useful, constructive feedback can skyrocket an exam candidate’s confidence and motivation, and it can really boost their progress. Excellent exam class teachers are excellent feedback providers, as productive, skill-building feedback makes up a great part of teaching exam preparation classes.
Does that all sound demanding? It is. But don’t let yourself be put off by the extra effort. For very, very few other teaching joys can compare to the fantastic sense of achievement you feel when the exam results come in and you see all of your students have passed. It’s a step to the fulfillment of their life potential that you know you’ve been a part of. And that’s… pretty much a teacher’s bliss.
International House Bucharest runs regular CELTA and DELTA courses for teachers of English at its Teacher Training Centre, as well as training events online, onsite or at partner locations. To sign up for a course or event, contact [email protected].