Let me just state, right off the bat, multiple-choice tests are not how I prefer to evaluate my students. In fact, when it comes to evaluating how well a student can or can not use a language, I don’t think they tell us very much at all. They are however, incredibly easy to grade so they are the preferred question type for standardized tests. Standardized tests are often used as gatekeepers allowing some students to pass on while others say behind to try again or worse, give up. Opportunities to advance academically, study abroad, and even advance in a career are granted and withheld solely on a student’s ability to choose the best answer out of 4 and for this reason, I believe it is super important to help our students do well on these tests no matter how you may feel about them personally.
I used to think that by advancing my students’ English level their test scores would automatically follow but I soon discovered that the abilities to speak more fluently, write more eloquently and read with a more nuanced understanding, while valuable skills, did not necessarily mean that a student’s test scores would improve. That required a whole different set of skills.
In this post I will share some of the most successful strategies I have used to help my students achieve higher scores on standardized tests.
1. Get to Know the Test Yourself
When I was tasked with helping my students pass the TOEFL exam in Japan I had a very limited knowledge of the test. Because I grew up in the United States, I have never been asked to take a TOEFL exam, it is just assumed that I can handle the English language. In this regard, my husband, a native speaker of Turkish, had a great advantage over me. He has taken many tests to evaluate his English language abilities and he knows what they are all about. In order to remedy this, I signed up for the TOEFL and took it right along with a whole room full of university students. This helped me in a number of ways: first, it enabled me to understand just how stressful the whole process is, second it showed me exactly what the conditions were like while taking the test and third, it helped me to understand exactly what was on the test.
Before we even start studying for the TOEFL, I give my classes a “pub quiz” in which I put a question up on the projector. I then give them a minute to discuss the answer in pairs before I give them the answer.
I address the following things in the quiz:
Before they take the quiz, I give them a note organizer and ask them to take notes that we can refer to throughout the semester so they understand exactly why we are doing what we are doing and how it fits into the test.
2. Teach your students the vocabulary words that appear frequently in the test questions.
Vocabulary is one of the things that frequently trips students up on these tests and while it is a challenge to teach every single word that they might see on the test, it is a much less daunting task to learn the words that frequently appear in the questions.
For example, the TOEFL exam reading questions often use the following words: suggest, imply, infer, according to, except, essential, probably, to indicate, to express, to present, to mention, and statement.
3. Teach Time Management Skills.
I have found that the single biggest problem students face while taking the test is not budgeting their time effectively. In the listening section of the TOEFL, this is not a problem because the questions are usually spoken and students have to answer and then move on, in the reading and grammar sections however, they are just given a whole bunch of questions and a limited amount of time to complete them. Most students start with the first question and laboriously work their way through one at a time, in order, meaning that if they get hung up on a difficult question they spend a lot of time trying to work out the answer causing them to only get to maybe half of the questions.
We start by looking at how many reading passages or grammar questions they have and how much time they have to complete that section. Then we do the math to figure out how much time they have to focus on each reading passage or grammar question.
I usually show my students a photograph of an apple orchard with a ladder and ask them how they would harvest them if I only gave them 30 minutes and they had to get as many apples in the basket as they could in that time. Would they go tree by tree getting every last apple off of each one using the ladder or would they start with all of the low hanging apples and then move on up if they had time? Of course they would get the low hanging fruit first!
The strategy has to be the same while they are taking the exam, go for the easy, fast questions first and then go for the more time consuming and/or more difficult questions. The trick is to figure out what questions are the easiest and fastest and this could vary from student to student.
A note to remember is that on the TOEFL exam, they are not penalized for getting a wrong answer so they should answer every question. This means they should give themselves enough time to fill in any questions they skipped before the time runs out. If the exam penalizes wrong answers, students should adjust their strategy.
4. Teach strategies for answering multiple-choice questions.
Standardized tests are usually fairly predictable, they ask the same kinds of questions over and over again. For example, the reading portion of the TOEFL asks the following kinds of questions: factual, negative factual, summary, inference, vocabulary, reference, purpose, sentence insertion, and complete the table.
It is important for students to know what kind of question is being asked so they can do 2 things: first, they need to be able to quickly estimate how long the question will take to answer and how easy or difficult it is likely to be, second, they need to be able to implement different strategies to answer each question.
To find more information about strategies, go the Best my Test site linked here.
5. Make sure you regularly test your students using the multiple-choice format.
As they say, practice makes perfect, so if you want your students to do well on a multiple choice test, it is important to give them lots of opportunities to take multiple choice tests. This doesn’t mean that you have to base your entire grading system and all of your class work around the multiple choice format but it does mean that you should give your students lots of chances to practice taking timed tests that approximate the way they will have to take the exam. Most of the time I break the exam up into shorter practice sessions but once or twice a semester I will ask them to use the entire class period to take a practice exam so their brains get a chance to train.
It is kind of like training for a marathon. You don’t have to run a marathon every day in order to get in shape, most days you will run shorter distances but every once in a while you do need to run a longer distance to get your body used to it. Standardized tests are marathons for the brain. Students need to practice all of the strategies they have been working on while at the same time learning how to pace themselves in order to excel.
6. Make sure students know how to take care of their bodies and minds before taking the test.
,Taking one of these long tests is difficult for both the body and the mind. Students are required to sit for long periods of time, often in large crowded rooms and focus on not very exciting content. This is taxing and often students have been cramming for the test, feeling stressed out and not sleeping enough.
When I took the TOEFL exam, I noticed that there were many students madly trying to memorize last minute vocabulary words, stressing themselves out just minutes before the exam was due to start. I also noticed a lot of students dozing off during parts of the exam.
I gave my students a list of ways they should be taking care of themselves starting 10 days before the exam. I explained that they had been studying to take this test for an entire semester, in some cases an entire year and they were ready. There is nothing they could learn in the last 24 hours before the test that was going to make a difference so, instead of stressing themselves out those last days, they should make an effort to take care of themselves.
When I asked my students to do these things before the test many of them completely ignored the advice, some of them did some of the things and only a few did everything. They were convinced after the test however when one of my more nervous students who worked hard, but had never done particularly well on the practice exercises, came to class after the exam and said that she felt good about it because she had done all of the self-care recommended, and followed the schedule exactly. A few weeks later, when we got the results, she had increased her score dramatically and had the highest score in the class! It is amazing what the brain (and body) can achieve when well taken care of.
What do you do to help your students pass these super important gate-keeper tests? I would love to hear what has worked for you and what hasn't in the comments below.
For more ideas and inspiration, check out these posts.
Hi, I'm Kia.
Teaching is my passion, I have been teaching for over 20 years in 4 different continents. One of the things I have learned over the years is that I am never done learning about teaching. Both teaching and learning should be fun and inspiring.
Are you looking for more posts? Click on one of the categories below to find it.