24 September 2010

After writing my post on gap-fills and cloze tests in language lessons, I went back to a blog post that I'd read some time ago, which was part of the Pools project that had introduced me to technology such as Hot Potatoes. I commented about how I had never seen the purpose of fill-in-the-blanks as a learning tool and his response was that it was a test.

Now, it has often been observed that repeated testing aids student retention, so most teachers would assume that anything that is a test is valid as a retention aid. Is this true?

As I said in my earlier post, the cloze test and the gap-fill rely on having a sound internal model of the language under test.  Does doing a cloze or gap-fill help build that knowledge?

In the previous post, I said that doing these tests early appeals to conscious knowledge.  Many of the most successful students will look at a fill-in-the-blanks exercise and reason through it.  If you ask them how they did it, they'll say things like "that's a noun and that's an article, so the thing between them must be an adjective".  As the conscious strategy proves so successful, the learner will continue to apply it and will perhaps never develop the gestalt.  And because any attempt to use gestalt at this time will appeal to the student's first language, the student who approaches the test in the intended way will be penalised.

In effect, the student learns how to pass the test, rather than learning the specific competencies that the test was originally designed to measure.

How much damage does this really do?  In my opinion, a lot.  As students go through their academic career, they will be expected to do more complicated things, and they will be expected to do them quicker.  But there is only so fast that we can conscious churn through these rules.  Sooner or later, we can only succeed by gestalt, but how can we encourage that?  The mechanics of testing militate against going by your gut, because this leaves you with a worse mark.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't use testing as a learning mechanism early on, but that we should look again at what constitutes appropriate testing - what tests the student can carry out in a way that supports, rather than hinders, learning.

Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3...
This of course does not only hold for testing with fill-in-the-blanks.  It has been said by a number of academics, with figures to back them up, that testing aids recall.  I'd like to present an argument against that.

"Are you mad?" I hear you cry.  Yes, but that's beside the point.

My point isn't that their figures are wrong, but that the word "test" is something of a red-herring.  What is it we do when we test a student's knowledge?  We check that we can recall accurately what they have been taught.

If we discuss this as "testing", we have in our mind a goal -- scores, marks, grades.  We don't want to focus on that goal when we use testing as a learning aid -- we need to focus on the process.

The process involved in testing is accurate recall and application of learned information.  A task can be designed to require recall and application without being strictly a test.  If the figures say that testing is a successful classroom strategy, might it not be because they are comparing "tests" against other tasks that do not require any recall or genuine sentence construction skills?  I'd like to demostrate how some of the most common exercises fail to rely on these skills.

The problem with drills 
Form drills, pattern drills, substitution drills; these repetitive exercises fail to teach because the core language we expect the student to learn from the task is never subject to recall.  The teacher says it and the student repeats it, changing only a vocabulary item of very small grammatical features.  We cannot learn to recall something without doing it.

The problem with communicative tasks
Anyone who has been at either end of a classroom recently is likely to have come across communicative exercises based on an idea like the "knowledge gap".  Each student has partial information or a partial picture, and the students have to talk to each other in the target language to get the information from each other.  However, being understood by your classmates is different from being understood by a native speaker, and accuracy not only slows down the task but potentially renders you incomprehensible to a classmate of lower ability.

In general, though, regardless of the exact nature of the task, the class starts by presenting or otherwise providing the students with the language that they are going to use.  If we attempt to do this by eliciting the information from the class, we may get one or two to recall it, but most will not -- instead they will end up holding the patterns in working memory, often meaninglessly and mechanically, and parroting the phrases during the class.


We all want to receive or provide the best education possible.  Empirically we know that "testing" aids this, but that statement is an oversimplification of the real situation.  There is nothing magical about "a test" that makes it more effective than "an exercise".  We must examine what the core activity is in what we consider a test to be, and we must find ways to incorporate that into the day-to-day teaching process.

I contend that the distinction implied between "teaching" and "testing" is artificial -- teaching we consider to mean presenting information and going through some kind of repetitive "training" regimen, whereas testing is an unsupported check of recall.

The idea that "testing aids retention" is therefore an obstacle to good practice, because it prevents us from looking at the nature of the tests to identify what really happens.  I believe the real point is that recall practice aids retention.  If so, our task design must always be built around developing recall, or the student will never be able to spontaneously produce language.

No comments: