Teaching exam classes – Some questions to consider

Last week, I ran a workshop for a small group of teachers, and we focused on preparing learners for exams. Whenever I run a workshop, I always keep an eye out for teachers’ doubts, questions, etc. and then I write these down. At the end of the session, I then include a ‘thinking questions’ stage, which is when I bring all these doubts, questions, etc. to the forefront of the conversation (if we haven’t covered them already) and we go a little deeper. I thought I’d share the questions that came up and some possible answers (I’m sure you have your own!).

What are your priorities as teachers in exam classes? What are learners’ priorities? Why should we be aware of these?

OK, so there are a few questions here, but they are all related. Teachers’ and learners’ priorities – why is it important to have a clear understanding of these? Well, here we’re touching on a few key concepts: perceived needs and wants, actual needs as wants (as determined by teacher), and course/syllabus requirements. Let’s take a look at these in a little more detail:

  • Perceived needs and wants: Here we are talking about what learners feel they need to work on, and what they want to work on. Common learner statements in needs analyses include “Oh, I need to improve my grammar” and “I really want to learn phrasal verbs”. Perceived needs are likely to biased as is is hard to know what you don’t know. Also, perceived needs may be influenced by what learners’ teachers have told them they need to work on.
  • Actual needs: Here we are talking about the needs that the teacher has identified from looking at learners’ work. For example, after marking learners’ writings, the teacher might identify that all learners need to work on their use of the cohesive devices because there were errors with cohesive devices in all texts. Actual needs as determined by the teacher are also likely to be influenced by the teacher’s view of how languages are learnt and what they view as important in the classroom.
  • Course/Syllabus requirements: Here we are referring to course design. A exam class is likely going to be following a syllabus or course book that aims to include language practice as well as exam practice and awareness raising.

So, why is it important to be aware of all of these? There are many reasons, but I’m going to highlight two that I think are important:

  1. Both teachers and learners need to be aware of what each of their priorities are so that there is congruence regarding feedback and focus. What I mean by this is that if the teacher is focusing on X and the learner is focusing on Y in a writing task, then there are going to be problems. To avoid this, teachers can make clear what they expect, but should also ask learners what they are focusing on at an individual level (e.g., Juan is working on his use of cohesive devices, whilst Carmen is trying to write more appropriately in formal essays).
  2. By being aware of learners’ priorities, we as teachers can guide the course to where ‘teaching’ is needed most. This is not to say that as teachers we can’t focus on something that we feel will be interesting and useful to learners; however, we should be aiming to meet our learners’ actual needs and wants as much as possible, although keeping the overall course goals in mind.

A final point regarding ‘priorities’, and it links more with motivation. We need to remember that not all learners ‘want’ to be in class. Some learners are there because their parents or the employer is making them go. Some learners are there simply because they need the qualification to get a better job, graduate with their degree, etc. Being aware of learners’ real reasons for being there will help us work with learners throughout the year. This information will help us better navigate the motivation variables that are present in classes, and, perhaps more specifically, it will help us devise appropriate motivational strategies for our learners (Dörnyei, 2001).

How much time should we spend on developing exam awareness and strategies?

This is a good question, and one whose answer will change depending on learners’ level, experience with the exam, stage in the course, etc. I would say, though, that we need to keep two things in mind. One, that the course we are teaching is meant to prepare learners for an exam, and as such the course needs to cover all of the exam components and aim to develop learners into competent exam ‘takers’, which means having an understanding of exam-specific strategies, rubrics and actual experience in taking the exam (Harmer, 2015). However, the second thing we need to remember is that the exams we are preparing learners for are designed to test language proficiency (well, some exams, but that’s for another blog post!), and as such a major component of the course needs to be language improvement. This ties in with the idea of teaching/developing, not only assessing.

What is the difference between assessment and development?

Do we assess or develop? To illustrate this, let’s think about an activity:

Read the paragraph “How much time should we spend on developing exam awareness and strategies?”. Answer the following questions.
1. According to Jim, what are the two things we should keep in mind?
2. In Jim’s opinion, should we develop learners’ exam exam awareness?

So, is this activity assessing or developing? One could say both, and it is true that many activities will include an element of both, but the main focus of these questions is assessment – in effect, I am getting feedback from my learners, and I am finding out if they understood X, Y and Z. So, what would development look like? Well, perhaps something like this:

Read the paragraph “How much time should we spend on developing exam awareness and strategies?”. Complete the following task.
1. After reading, turn the text over. With your partner summarise your understanding of the text. How similar are your understandings of the text? Once you’ve finished summarising, look at the text together – discuss anything that you were not sure about.

During my time as a teacher educator, I’ve mentored and worked with many teachers teaching exam classes, and personally I feel that this is one of the biggest hurdles for teachers to get over: understanding the difference between assessment and development, and then acting on this knowledge in their classes. There of course needs to be an element of assessment in our classes; however, I would argue that the majority of our course time needs to be devoted to development – helping learners progress to new levels of awareness, developing their ability to encode/decode, mediating their learning process, etc. If you’re interested, Rost’s book of teaching listening touches on this quite a lot (although only from a listening perspective, but the principles are generalisable).

How often should learners be given a mock exam? What should happen afterwards?

I think many of us out there have different opinions regarding this, but here is my take. I feel that in an academic year with three terms, learners should have a mock exam at least once a term, if there goal is complete the exam. In our academy, learners are given an exam at the end of every term and these marks are used in conjunction with other holistic marks to judge their progress. It is not a perfect system, but it does give us some feedback (we are looking to include a task-based assessment element next year, but more on that hopefully soon 🙂 ).

But, what should happen after the mock exam? I see these exams as vital moments to work towards individual learners’ needs, and as such what learners produce should be worked with, either in terms of them receiving explicit feedback, or their work informing what is to occur in the next teaching period. Let me illustrate with two possible examples:

  • Explicit feedback for writing: Let’s say that Harry has completed a B2 writing exam, and his teacher gives him his results and a few comments on his writing. What impact does this have on Harry? If the feedback is positive, then it will probably make him happy, but there is very little guidance on how he can improve. If the feedback is negative, then he will probably understand (he is a learner afterall!) but will feel a little lost regarding where to go next as the teacher hasn’t really taken the time to exploit this writing task in terms of learning value. So, what’s a better option? I’m sure you can think of many, but what I would recommend is that these writings are then brought back into class, worked on through a process writing approach, with individual writing conferences held with each learners (nothing crazy – just 5 mins with each learner in class while they work on their tasks).
  • Low reading results indicate need to develop reading skills: Ok, so we have a class that have, across the board, scored low on the reading exam. Whilst learners should receive feedback on what they did, and in a perfect world, they would have time to go back over all the questions, work through the answers, and understood why something was B and not C. However, we don’t live in a perfect world, and there is no guarantee that all that work going over the answers would lead to ‘learning’ or improved reading ability anyway. What can we do? Well, this is where the teacher being the one in control of the class can direct the next teaching period (e.g., term) to focus more on developing reading skills. This might include a reduced focus on speaking and writing skills, and the inclusion of more free-reading stages in lessons, or reading logs for homework.

Should learners be shown the criteria that examiners use?

So, you take an exam and then find out you fail the writing. The feedback you get is this: You scored 11/20, but you needed 12 to pass. Now, I would hope that we don’t provide only this to our learners, but I have seen it happen. What does this actually tell our learners, apart from the fact that they failed? Nothing really. However, if this feedback is broken down into something like the following, we might actually achieve something:

Hi Carmen, thanks for submitting your writing. (Here we might provide more comments about learner’s writing in general). Let’s take a look at the breakdown of your writing score.

Content: You scored 2/5 in content because you failed to include all of the necessary points from the exam tasks and unfortunately you were 50 words under the word limit of 220 words.

Communicative achievement: This essay definitely looked like an essay. Your introduction had a clear thesis statement, and each paragraph presented a clear topic sentence. Your conclusion, however, lacked clarity and didn’t link to your thesis statement (can you think of a way you might improve this?). Your score for CA is 3/5.

Organisation: Great to see clear paragraphs and some use of the cohesive devices we’ve been focusing on in class. Paragraph 2, however, is one sentence – a very long sentence indeed! What changes could you make here? Your score for organisation is 3/5

Language: You’re made some good gains in your language accuracy this last year – this essay demonstrates that. This being said, we can always improve and you’ll find some questions and comments in the writing focusing on language. After you’ve had some time to read over them, we can talk about them next week. Your score for language is 3/5.

Overall, Carmen, a good attempt. Remember you need 12 points to pass, and you are almost there. We are not finished though! When you have time, submit your writing again and we will take a look at your marks once more.

For those of you familiar with Cambridge exams, you’ll see that I’m using the writing criteria for B1+ exams. This being said, it could be any set of criteria for any exam board. By raising learners’ awareness of what they are doing well and poorly at in relation to the criteria, we have more chances of them making the necessary changes so that they can pass their exams – and if we can make the feedback interactive, even better (Pawlak, 2014)! Now, I can hear you saying “Well, Jim, that’s a lot of work and I’m not sure I have enough time to write comments and provide corrections on writings”. I hear you, but I’ll respond with two points:

  1. Our job is to ensure that learners are successful, and so we should be taking the time to give them the right amount of feedback (this doesn’t mean colour their writing texts in red pen, or write a short novel of written comments though).
  2. Nobody says your feedback needs to be written! Why not simply send an audio message via email to your students explaining your rationale behind the marks and including some pointers? This can be done in two minutes, and in some way is more personal than writing comments (in my opinion).

But what about the actual criteria used by examiners? Should we give that to learners? Well, some might want to take a look, but I would say that these sets of criteria will not do much more than confuse learners. Criteria are vague enough as it is for teachers, let alone learners. So, what can we do? You might consider creating a learner friendly version of the criteria you use. This is actually a great activity to do as a teaching staff – get together with other teachers and devise your learner friendly criteria, and then give these to learners. Learners, then, might use these as they are or may even create a set of checklists for ‘passing marks’ (i.e., “What is the minimum I need to achieve a passing grade?”).

What are some resources for teaching exam classes?

There are boat loads of resources online. Personally, I like to go to the exam boards themselves and look at their handbooks. You might also follow other blogs such as Sue Swift’s An ELT Notebook and Rachel Tsateri’s The TEFLZone. YouTube also has plenty of videos for both teachers and learners, although beware that not all the advice given is good advice. And, if you are in charge of training and development in schools, you might like to check out my article of developing assessment literacy in teachers – there might some ideas for workshops there!

Final notes

These were some of the thinking questions that arose in one workshop with a small group of teachers. As such, I am sure that there are many more questions that teachers have regarding teaching exam classes, and I’d love to hear them! Please let me know in the comments what questions you have, or perhaps you agree/disagree with some of my points raised – either way, I’d love to hear from you!


Dörnyei, Z. (2001) Teaching and Reaching Motivation. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.

Harmer, 2015. The Practice of English Language Teaching – Fifth Edition. Harlow: Pearson.

Pawlak, 2014. Error Correction in the Foreign Language Classroom. Heidelberg: Springer.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.