It’s time to change the way we test our students.

Friday 11 February 2011

by Nik Peachey

This posting was prompted by a question I was asked during a recent teacher training session that I was delivering on digital study skills and digital literacy.

I can’t remember the exact wording of the question but in essence it was this;

“How can we get our students to appreciate using digital tools and web based activities to develop their study skills, when in their exams they are only allowed to use pencil and paper?”

image of salt pot


Of course the easy answer is that the digital study skills are ‘life’ skills and so students should see the importance of these beyond their exams, but of course that is a very naive answer, because many of our younger more exam focused students are too stressed to see past the piece of paper they need to continue with their studies.

So, my answer to the question was that it’s the exams that need to change.

I can’t imagine why schools that are equipped with computers and internet access are still getting students, especially those in an EAP context, to hand write exams. I guess in part this leads to a larger question about what we are testing and how we can be sure that the answers actually come from our students. Are we testing hand writing skills? If so, why are we testing those skills rather than keyboard skills? The only texts I can remember hand writing in the last week are a birthday card to my daughter and post-it notes to myself.

Are we worried about our students copying texts from the Internet and Googling for their answers? Well if we are, shouldn’t we be testing their ability to use the Internet honestly and transparently as this is a fundamental skill for most people living in developed or developing societies.

Why aren’t we testing the skills and abilities that our students really need to be successful participants in a 21st century society? Is it because exams haven’t moved forward with the times or is it just that it is so much easier to test memorisation of discrete items that can be ticked off an assessment list?

I really believe we should think again about the kinds of skills our students will realistically need for their future and start helping them towards achieving those skills. Then perhaps we can start designing tests that are truly relevant to life in the 21st century rather than the 19th.

As for where to start, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that connectivism offers us a convincing set of principles. Here are a few which I have taken from  ‘Connectivism: A learning theory for today’s learners’ (If you visit the link you can see these and some others explained in more detail):

  • The integration of cognition and emotions in meaning-making is important.
  • Learning has an end goal – namely the increased ability to “do something”.
  • Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources. A learner can exponentially improve their own learning by plugging into an existing network.
  • Learning may reside in non-human appliances.
  • The capacity to know more is more critical that what is currently known.
  • Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate learning.
  • Learning and knowledge rest in diversity of opinions.
  • The ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill.
  • Learning is a knowledge creation process…not only knowledge consumption.

Personally I believe we need to start developing skills based around these kinds of principles and then designing exams which test what students are able to achieve using these skills, then perhaps we will have students who leave our schools with skills that prepare them for this century, not the last one.

What do you think?

  • Do your students do paper based or computer based exams?
  • Is there any reason why students shouldn’t be doing exams on computers and utilising their digital literacies?
  • Can we integrate the forms of learning and the kinds of abilities described by the principles of connectivism into our language teaching and testing?
  • Is it part of the English language teachers role to develop students’ digital literacy, or are digital literacy skills simply transferable from L1?

Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

8 responses to It’s time to change the way we test our students.

  1. There is very little to disagree with here, Nik. Testing is one of the weakest areas in the whole EFL field in my opinion and is often done badly. However, I see no reason why the EFL profession should have to take on responsibility for teaching these digital skills, and we can’t in all fairness test students on what we haven’t helped them to learn. For me, this is where the problem lies. If I spend the time that would be needed to teach these skills, it would leave the students with little time to improve their langueage skills. And I don’t believe that it will simply happen concurrently with the same effort. So, until the education system as a whole catches up, we probably have to hold back a bit. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean stopping students using keyboards etc, but you have to be careful you are grading assessments fairly, and not giving people low marks for failing to use skills they haven’t been taught by anybody.
    Better stop, or the comment will be longer than the post!

    • Nik Peachey says:

      Hi Kevin

      Yes I agree that we should not test or assess our students on skills we haven’t helped them to develop, but I do believe we can combine the development of digital literacy with the development of language skills, in much the same way as we can combine learner training and the developement of autonomous learning skills alongside language development.

      I don’t think it’s so much a case of teaching the digital literacy skills and expecting the language to come, as developing the language skills within a digitally rich environment and expecting the digital skills to come.

      Digital tools can be the vehicle of language development and they can also help students develop their language skills more autonomously too. That was the basis around which I developed my Daily English Activities (though these are starting to get dated now).

      If we had tests and exams which were more open to assessing language skills in this way, and within a computer based medium, then I’m sure it would be much easier to get students and teachers onboard, but while we are still doing pencil and paper based tests, I think this is a long way off.



  2. Sandy Millin says:

    Hi Nik,
    My students do paper-based exams at the moment, as did I all the way through my education (I left university three years ago). I agree that the way exams and assessment are done should be changing, and I think the e-portfolios link shared on Twitter earlier today ( is a very interesting method of continuing assessment.
    I think digital literacy is a responsibility of all teachers, not only L1, if they’re able to pass them on. In the Czech Republic digital literacy is not covered a lot in the public school system due to a lack of resources, although more and more schools have IWBs.
    The exams we expect our students to take should reflect the real-life skills we want them to gain. If their lives revolve around technology, a paper-based exam involving no technology whatsoever is a case of testing for testing or teachers, not testing to reflect learning.
    I’m not sure how much that added to the discussion, but these are things I’ve been thinking about for a while. Thank you for putting them into words.

    • Nik Peachey says:

      Hi Sandy

      Thanks for your comment and for the link. Yes I agree that e-portfolios are an excellent method for assessment, especially for our language learners as we are able to track progress over time, so it isn’t just a measure of where they are it also measures how far they have come.

      E-portfolios are also great for developing those digital literacies as they can include so many formats from text to audio and video to ‘mash ups’ and more creative projects. Have you used e-portfolios at all with your students?

      Thanks for sharing your experience. It’s great to get some idea of what’s going on in other countries and other institutions and it helps to give us all a broader perspective.



  3. phil says:

    Great topic Nik.

    Doing etests would save my school hours of admin and probably whole rainforests of photocopies. The only arguments against them I have been given is that students will cheat by using the net or by telling their friends the questions as they may not do the test at the same time. We can solve both by using laptops in the class and as more EFL exams (FCE, CAE) jump on the bandwagon it makes sense for us to do it too. BUT computer-based oral tests still seem to have a long way to go.

    We really need more people like you to push us into the right direction. Keep up the fight.

    • Nik Peachey says:

      Hi Phil

      I don’t think it wuld be too difficult to create an oral test that was delivered and recorded using a computer, but of course computer marking of oral tests is a whole different question.



  4. Olga Penkovsky says:

    Nik, thanks a lot for your real care and brilliant ideas about testing. You are right – Russian students take paper-based exams but this year we try to do etesting in classes. Yet it is not a rule but rather like entretainment but it may be a rule very soon in my school. As for exams I am afraid they will be paper -based in Russia for a long time because it’s a great business giving lots of money to people who is in this kind of business. That is the problem.We have and use some sites with etesting and learnEnglish.Kids is the best for us.Thank you for the articles,I’m planning to study them more thoroughly on my vocation. Best, Olga Penkovsky, Saratov, Russia

    • Nik Peachey says:

      Hi Olga

      Thanks for you message. I liked your comment “it’s a great business giving lots of money to people who is in this kind of business.” Yes I suspect that when you do finally move to e-testing, that will still be true.



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