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Pilgrims 2005 Teacher Training Courses - Read More
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching

Taking the sting out of exams

Judy Baker and Mario Rinvolucri

Judith Baker has trained teachers in ELT and NLP almost all over the world - in India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Turkey and many European countries. A Pilgrims trainer and friend. Co-author on Unlocking Self-expression through NLP. Has trained and worked as a secondary school teacher and teacher of immigrants in Australia. Her special interests include cross-cultural issues, different learning styles and the use of metaphor.

Mario Rinvolucri teacher, teacher trainer and author. Has worked for Pilgrims for 32 years and used to edit Humanising Language Teaching. Regularly contributes to The Teacher Trainer. His books include: Creative Writing, with Christine Frank, Helbling, Multiple Intelligences in EFL, with Herbert Puchta, Helbling, Unlocking Self-Expression through NLP, with Judy Baker, Delta Books, New edition of Vocabulary, with John Morgan, OUP, Humanising your Coursebook, Delta Books, Using the Mother Tongue, with Sheelagh Deller, Delta Books, Ways of Doing, with Paul Davis and Barbara Garside, CUP. Mario's first CDrom for students: Mindgame, was written with Isobel Fletcher de Tellez, and engineered and published by Clarity, Hongkong in 2000


Exam time
Dealing with Exam Anxiety
Focus on the Positive
Oh, How I Worry!
Sharing Marks
Students as Their Own Examiners
A Good Feeling
Exams from Different Angles
Failure or a Chance to Learn?
Getting Ready for a Test

Exam time

Tightly timed exams are manifestly unfair in at least these three ways:

a. They favour fast rhythmed students and penalise people with slower tempos who may sometimes be better thinkers.

b. They raise the adrenalin level of some students, stimulating them to perform better, while throwing others into a state of anxiety.

c. They invite most students to play safe and avoid answers where they are near the edge of their knowledge and may thus make more mistakes.

It is odd that great testing institutions, like Cambridge ESOL, pay scant attention to the affective state of mind of their candidates across the world. It is odd to the point of absurdity.

While it is worth pointing out this intense irresponsibility on the part of testing institutions, there is little we teachers can do to change the intrinsic unfairness of these exams, moments in a person's life on which much often hangs.

However we can "arm" our students to face the pressures the exams force on some of them.

From: Unlocking Self-expression Through NL


Dealing with Exam Anxiety

A worry shared is a worry halved

Level: lower- intermediate onwards
NLP focus: reframing

Before the lesson
Find a colleague or someone from outside the school who was or is nervous about exams. He/ she may be a native speaker of English or of the students' first language. Invite the person to your class to recount an exam or test experience describing their anxiety, tension or fear and how they coped with it ( or not!).

1. The speaker talks for up to 10 minutes.

2. Without commenting on the speech, students recount similar experiences of their own and how they coped. Encourage them to talk about different kinds of tests, e.g. Maths exams, performance tasks set by parents, listening comprehension tests, driving tests, sporting tests

3. The speaker finishes the session with his/her reactions to what students have said.

Note: Often we think we are the only person with a problem. When we find out that other people also face something similar, it comes as a great relief and, for some people, it marks a real change in the way they see the problem.

Acknowledgement: A modified version of an exercise by Paul Davis, 1990. The Confidence book: Pilgrims- Longman.


Focus on the Positive

For students who need a boost

Level: lower-intermediate onwards
NLP focus: representational systems, presupposition: "people create their own experiences".

1. Students shut their eyes and spend two minutes remembering some of the good things they have done over the past three months. Suggest that some may see themselves in the situations, some may find that they talk to themselves and some may relive the feeling of the positive situations.

Time the two minutes.

2. Students write down, in English, how the experience of thinking positively about themselves for this short time affected them, but without talking to any other students. No one else will read what they write: it is private

3. In groups of five or six students give feedback on any aspect of the experience they want to.

Acknowledgement: We learnt this technique from Penelope Williams.


Oh, How I Worry!

How do you worry?

Level: lower-intermediate onwards
NLP focus: modelling

Before the lesson
Think of a time when you got yourself into a worried state. Prepare to share the story with the class. Make copies of the questionnaire below.

1. Tell your "worry story" to the class.

2. In fours students tell each other worry stories.

3. Give out the questionnaire and have each student ask him/herself the questions. They do, however, have to write the two extra questions.

4. In threes they compare their answers.

5. Round off with class feedback.

Oh, How I Worry! - Questionnaire

1 When, typically, do I worry?

2 Where do I do most of my anxiety making?

3 How, exactly, do I go into my worry state?

4 How long does a worry state last?

5 As I worry, do I see things, hear them, feel them, or all three?

6 How much of my talking to myself is about worries?

7 Where, in my body, do I feel worry?

8 Are my anxieties more about before, now, or the future?

9 How do I, typically, stop myself worrying?

10 Now write two questions of your own.



11 Have I always worried?

12 Did I worry differently when I was younger? In what way?

13 Is my worry pattern the same as that of other people who I know are worriers?

14 Have these questions made me worry?


Sharing Marks

This activity challenges the idea of individualised testing

Level: lower-intermediate onwards
NLP focus: rapport

1. Tell the students that you want them to revise for the next class test in groups of three.

2. As far as possible, organise them so that in each three, there is a strong, a middling and a weak student. Organise them in terms of their language levels.

3. Explain that students will take the test individually but that each person will receive the average mark for the threesome. If C gets 80%, B gets 60% and A gets 40%, then they will each get the average: 60%.

4. They do the test and you give the average marks.
Students get their exam papers back and compare and explain their answers.

Note: This anti-individualistic activity places the helping of weaker students in the area of self-interest for the stronger ones. It reduces the isolation of the test situation and pushes the stronger students into a quasi-teacher role. (Mario days he has been fiercely attacked when presenting these US ideas in certain places in Northern Europe!)

Acknowledgement: The way of thinking demonstrated in this activity originates in the US Co-operative Learning Movement.


Students as Their Own Examiners

Doing the test is easier if you can see it from the other side

Level: lower-intermediate onwards
NLP focus: perceptual positions

Before the lesson
Take two lessons for this activity, about a week apart.
Choose two reading passages. It could be from a unit in the course book you are using, but three or four ahead.

Lesson One

1. Divide the class into two groups, A and B.
Give out one passage to each A student and the other to the B's. Students read the passage individually and ask you about anything they do not understand.

2. Explain that the objective of the activity is for the students, in threes, to write six multiple- choice comprehension questions about their passage. Each question should have one correct answer and three 'distractors' (wrong answers). Do one yourself with the class to make sure they understand. The work, helping if it is required.

3. Collect the work and, after the lesson, choose the best questions produced for each passage.
Make copies of each passage with the best questions below it. Copy enough of each passage for half the class.

Lesson Two

1. In the following lesson, give the class a reading test:
Half A do the test created by half B, and vice versa.
Students exchange papers and, in pairs (a student A with a student B )correct each other's work.

Acknowledgement: We learnt this technique in conversation with Jean-Paul Creton.


A Good Feeling

Stop those last-minute jitters

Level: intermediate onwards
NLP focus: anchoring; creating resource states

1. Ask students to shut their eyes and listen to a passage you are going to read about feelings. Explain that as thy listen you would like them to think of a code word to help them bring back the scene from the story and the good feelings the story creates.

2. Read the text below in a gentle voice with plenty of pauses. Read slowly, stopping at the end of each line to allow the students to mentally carry out the instructions.

3. Explain that the code word is an exam resource. Students should remember their code word, so that they can use it as they walk into the exam room. Invite them to practise bringing the word and the good feeling to mind as much as they can before the exam, so that their response (memory of the story/good feeling) becomes automatic.

4. Discuss with the group whether anyone in the class already has a way of getting themselves into a good, positive state before exams?


I'm thinking of a person I feel good with,

a person I trust,

a person who makes me feel more myself,

a person who makes me feel more resourceful.

I can see us meeting.

I notice the place where we are meeting.

I see the colours around us.

I can hear the sounds in that place.

I notice how I feel when in my friend's presence.

I hear my friend's words and voice.

I can hear our conversation and the good feeling it gives me.

I feel I am fully in the place where we are meeting.

I feel my own confidence and happiness and resourcefulness.

And now I am going to chose a code word that will remind me of this feeling and immediately allow me to come back to this feeling any time I want to.

I am going to choose a code word that will come to me whenever I need this resource in the future.

Now I choose the code word for this resource…..I open my eyes and bring my attention back to where I am right now in this room.


Exams from Different Angles

Students get different perspectives on their beliefs about exams and tests

Level: intermediate onwards
NLP focus: reframing

Before the lesson
Make a list of 'judgmental' words, e.g. good, bad, right, wrong, stupid, important, absurd, pointless, immoral, sensible. Make a copy for each student of the stem sentences below.

1. Ask students to think about a test or exam. It could be one they are about to take or one they have taken.
Explain that this activity will help them to think about exams from different points of view. It will also enable them to hear other students' approaches to tests, which may well be useful to them.

2. Hand out a copy of the stem sentences. Allow students time to complete each sentence.

It's good to pass this exam because…………………
It's bad to pass this exam because………………….
It's right to pass this exam because…………………
It's pointless to pass this exam because…………….
It's sensible to pass this exam because…………….

3. After each student has completed their statements, they work in small groups telling each other their answers.

4. With the whole class, go through the list. Ask students to volunteer some of their answers for discussion. Ask them for their new perspectives on exams and tests.

If your students are not taking an exam course, you can still use this activity to talk about testing situations, for example driving tests.

Note: If any students feel negative about exams, this activity will help you gather useful information about their state of mind.


Failure or a Chance to Learn?

If at first you don't succeed….

Level: intermediate onwards
NLP focus: disassociation and the NLP presupposition: 'There is no such thing as failure, only feedback.'

1. Tell students about a time when you thought you had failed but you actually learned something useful.
Choose a medium-sized 'failure' your model will probably influence what students write so it should be neither trivial nor catastrophic.

2. In groups of three or four, students tell each other the story of something they did, or that happened to them, that they thought was a personal failure, egg in sport, at school, an experience with family or friends.

3. Each student works alone and writes his/her story in the third person - standing outside the experience, like an onlooker, describing the situation as if it were happening 'out there'.

4. Now ask each student to write five sentences about how this situation has been useful or a source of learning.

5. Students return to their groups and read what they have written to the others.

6. Invite a whole-class discussion for general feedback.


Getting Ready for a Test

Knowing what you know already helps identify where you need more work

Level: intermediate onwards
NLP focus: outcomes

Before the lesson
Do this activity with students well before tests or exams.
If possible bring to class copies of old exam papers or test requirements. If you are creating a test for your own students, make a list of what is required for your test.

1. Students write down a list of what they think they need to know and be able to do, to pass the test.

2. In groups of three or four, they compare their lists.

3. With the whole class, create an agreed list of requirements for the test. The students copy this down onto a piece of paper headed:

For the test

4. Students think about what they already know in terms of what is needed. Taking another piece of paper, they write test questions based on their current knowledge. In other words, they create a test they can already pass. Head this piece of paper:

What I know now

5. They put the What I know now and the For the test papers in front of them, with a third piece of paper between them. This piece of paper should be headed:

What I need to do and learn

This third sheet (What I need to do and learn) is for making notes about whatever the student thinks he/she still needs to do or learn in order to pass the test. This could include: tidying a space to work. Getting a more positive attitude, organising a study timetable, doing more research, learning lists of vocabulary, consolidating what I already know.

6. Students then compare their lists.

7. With the whole class, discuss what everyone needs to do.

8. Allow a little further time to discuss what they, as individuals, need to do to prepare for the test.

NOTE: This can be used in any situation where there is a gap between what students know already and what they want to know or achieve. So it could equally well be used at the beginning of a course as a kind of 'needs analysis'.

Editorial: The pre-exam activities that make up the body of this article are drawn from Unlocking Self-expression Through NLP, Baker and Rinvolucri, Delta Publishing, 2005. You will also find more exercises to prepare students for exams published by Judy Churchill in HLT and in the section An Old Exercise in the next issue of HLT.


Please check the Humanising Large Classes course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the What's New in Language Teaching course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Skills of Teacher Training course at Pilgrims website.

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