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December 2020 - Year 22 - Issue 6

ISSN 1755-9715

A Humanistic Approach to Teaching for Exams: Going Inside, Above and Beyond

Toni Le is an English Teacher at the British Council in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam. She has published several articles on different areas such vocabulary teaching, assessment and feedback with Modern English Teacher magazine. Her professional interests are teacher professional development, learner autonomy, and language assessment. She holds a CELTA and a DELTA in language teaching.




More and more students are taking English tests every year for various important reasons. As a result, many language teachers are preparing students for these high-stake tests to achieve the best results, and exam classes have never been more popular.  Therefore, more attention should be on how we are preparing students for exams, how students are learning, and the impact of the exam on the teaching and learning process as a whole.  I have been teaching exam classes since the first year I started as an English teacher, and my approach to exam teaching has dramatically evolved over the years. In this article, I would like to share a few ideas to make the exam preparation process as lively and engaging as possible, with strategies to minimize possible negative backwash and promote authentic language use with a focus on the human and organic aspects of the language.

To many teachers and students, the primary goal of an exam class is to help students achieve the best scores possible. Understandably, students come to the class with a hope that their teachers are the exam experts with valuable insights and strategies to help them maximize the scores and meet the immediate needs of getting into universities, a scholarship, or a better job, etc. Students in exam classes are more likely to be under a lot of stress and anxiety to achieve the requirements set out by external authorities. Senior (2010) believes that we are negligent as teachers if we do not prepare our students for exams. This is sensible as language students have to sit for exams at some point in their learning career. However, I don’t think that maximizing students' opportunities to achieve the highest scores is everything that an exam teacher does. Students who have a lot of practice in exam strategies can achieve high scores even though this does not mean that they have mastered the skills being tested. One example of the negative backwash of an exam is when teachers and students focus on areas that are likely to be tested while other areas might go unnoticed or completely ignored.  Even when the students' scores rise, this does not necessarily mean that there are improvements in their language abilities. Linn (2000) as cited in Green (2007: 8)  reports a fascinating phenomenon when introducing a new test:

'At first, scores are comparatively low, but during a period of adjustment in the school system, the scores rise steadily as teachers and learners adapt to the demands of the test. When the first test is replaced with a new, unfamiliar measure, scores fall. They then rise once again when teachers and learners adapt to the demands of the new test.'

It is important that we help students achieve their immediate goals; however, it is even more critical for students to be aware that the master of the test is not synonymous with the master of the English language and that there is so much more to English than choosing the correct answers and being approved by others. An overreliance on scores and external approvals can be detrimental to learning. According to Green (2007), learners may be under the impression that exam scores can indicate all aspects of their abilities; however, these numeric measurements ‘may reflect a relatively limited knowledge and ability.’ It is absolutely necessary to point this out to students and advise them on the judicious use of test results in combination with self-assessment, critical reflection, feedback from peers and teachers to have an accurate understanding of their language ability.

There needs not to be conflicts in helping students prepare for exams and enjoy the process of learning the language. In fact, they are two sides of the same coin, and the latter plays a critical role in preparing students for exams as it moves students fast towards their immediate goals with the minimum level of stress and anxiety, at the same time, motivates students to go further once the exam is over and a certain band score is achieved. Exam teachers don’t have to do so much more than what they have been doing to help the students see beyond the exam to get a complete picture of the nature of language and learning. The awareness that our roles, as exam teachers, are not completely limited to or defined by the exam, will make a big difference in how we teach and how our learners respond. Together, we can go further and beyond.

In a humanistic exam class, the teacher aims to maximize the learning potential of each and every student, first and foremost, by helping students have a realistic, correct view about the learning process. Exam tips and strategies alone are not sufficient; there are no shortcuts and magic recipes when it comes to learning English.  Students should understand that learning can be slow and frustrating. Still, it is also highly rewarding and fulfilling and does not stop even when the students have achieved the highest possible score.  Even when students have not been aware of the ultimate goal of learning a language, i.e., to be self-reliant, competent language users, the teacher always keeps this goal in mind and makes it an indispensable part of her every lesson. She helps the students understand that they don’t need to achieve a certain score before they can use English or that they are using English now just to achieve that score.

This teacher is sympathetic to the students’ anxiety when preparing for the test. She addresses their concerns by meeting their immediate needs, providing them with test-taking strategies and essential knowledge of the test. However, this is not the teacher’s ultimate goal. She is aware of the importance of developing students’ language skills and their practical applications in real life. To her, language cannot be removed from their social contexts and functions. Even though some of the test can be inauthentic, she adapts them to be as authentic and social as possible. Once this is impossible, she does not hesitate to point this out to students, that nobody has to do this in real life and so even when they make a few mistakes here and there, it is a very admirable feat what they are doing. The teacher is honest with the students personally, professionally, and pedagogically.

When preparing for the exam, setbacks and failures are inevitable. These events can have a negative impact on the learners’ identity and self-beliefs if they do not entirely understand the nature of learning or have already had a fragile sense of self as language learners. The humanistic exam teacher is aware of this, and she tries to build up the students’ self-esteem and agency by helping students understand that these experiences alone do not define them as language learners; their self-evaluation, creativity, and learning strategies are as valid as everybody else. The teacher tries to help the students move from being other-regulated to self-regulated and independent by regularly offering them opportunities to reflect on the learning process and various reasons for learning English. She also encourages students to take action based on the insights gained from the reflection process.

Overall, she balances out different factors and dynamics in class, such as immediate needs versus long terms goals, students’ expectations and the reality of learning, preparing students for exams, and preparing students for life-long learning. She always aims to create that equilibrium in her class and helping her students to achieve that equilibrium in themselves.

Learning a language is an act of self-discovery and personal enrichments, widening ones’ perspectives about the world, getting to know oneself, and others better. Like other aspects of teaching, it is not as useful to describe this to students as to help them experience these feelings themselves. The following section aims to provide teachers with some advice and practical strategies to humanize exam classes.


Help students see life beyond the test

Students might be too occupied and anxious to achieve the best result to be aware that they have 'forgotten’ to enjoy learning and the language. When preparing students for exams, the teacher should not stop short at ‘what will you do once you get your intended result?’, but should also remind them of other reasons to learn a language and see how English has become a integral part of their life and what opportunities it would bring in the future in terms of personal development and human connections. Students can draw or write a story about their future self with English as their primary mode of communication. There should also be opportunities for students to experiment with the language and gauge its impact on the listeners and the readers.

Students should be encouraged to engage with authentic content through English either in class or in their own time. Every time learners do something in English; they tend to think that they are doing this just to learn English. There is nothing wrong with it, but it doesn’t always have to be that way as too much 'learning' can be demotivating. Students can browse through their favorite magazines, looking at the pictures and captions without having to ‘learn’ English if they don’t find the content engaging. Students can listen to a news podcast and only pay attention to the bits that they find most interesting, completely ignoring parts that they find irrelevant. This is a desirable goal in itself as students can use English as any English speakers would use. When immersing themselves in the world of English, they are acquiring the language. This natural acquisition of the language will undoubtedly aid the exam preparation process, along with intentional learning.


Build up students’ self-esteem and self-belief

We might not know what students have experienced before they come to our class. Some might have been put down by numerous unpleasant learning experiences and failures without a sense of progress, especially when the exam date is looming. Teachers can help with this by acknowledging the difficulties and frustrations one might experience when learning and preparing for an exam. It is also worthwhile to point out that mistakes and failures are an inevitable part of learning and that they are, in fact, learning opportunities or even evidence of learning progress. Teachers do not have to put on an air of infallibility with the perfect wisdom of an enlightened being but should be honest and embrace the human side of the profession and the language that they are teaching.

It is harmful if students always attribute every failure and mistake to their language learning ability. It is equally detrimental if students always blame the outside world for their failures. Successful language learners acknowledge their failures and success objectively. Exam teachers should guide students, especially at the beginning, towards this balanced view of oneself. For example, in the feedback stage of a reading activity, the teacher should signal that she is interested to know why there is such a wide difference in the students’ responses, without rushing to provide the correct answers or taking side with students with the right answers. Students should have enough time and space to share their points of view; clarifications should come from everybody involved, and the teachers should only move on when everybody has reached an understanding. The teacher should acknowledge the fact that in real life, different people will respond differently to the same text, and that it is entirely natural that we interpret the same text in different ways. In other words, the teacher has attempted to draw a comparison between what students are doing in the classroom and the outside world.


Make learning activities in exam classes authentic

No matter how well designed they are, some exam tasks are not authentic. This does not mean that we can do nothing to make them more social, meaningful, and personally relevant. First, we should be honest with our students by pointing out, for example, that people do not usually have to answer a set of comprehension questions after reading a news article and that it is not the end of the world if they choose B, not A. This is not to dismiss the importance of reflective test practice; this is just to help students understand that the reality of exam preparation and its relevancy to the real world outside.

We should shift students’ focus on the communicative functions of the language structures and vocabulary they are learning and using. In other words, students are using specific structures and lexical items because they want to convey a particular message, achieving a certain effect on the audience, and not merely because they want to impress the examiners. It is not the ‘how’ to use these structures correctly that only matters; it also the ‘why’ we are using them that is crucial. By so doing, we are helping our students to move away from simply displaying knowledge to the outside world to taking control of their own language use with meaningful purposes and an appreciation of the language.

The following examples are to illustrate how the teaching of four skills in exam classes can be tailored to resemble authentic activities. When teaching writing, the focus should be on the writing process with a series of stages that a writer goes through, sometimes with frustrations and struggles, to get to the final draft. When teaching speaking, the focus should be on the natural and spontaneous use of language, helping students to enjoy the wonderful feeling of understanding other people, and being understood. When teaching reading, the teacher should make use of students’ existing reading skills in their L1 and help them see the reasons why reading skills, such as skimming and scanning, are used in real life. As for listening, for example, to a lecture, students can imagine that they are the participants in the lecture hall, helping them visualize the speaker, the lectern, and other participants. They can also put themselves into the shoes of the speaker, how they will go about structuring their talk, and what they would want the audience to take away from the talk.


Build up students’ autonomy

A humanistic exam class is a class of autonomous learners. In other words, learners take more control of the learning process. They can do that if the teacher gives them choices and voice. Students shouldn’t have to apply a learning strategy simply because the teacher says that it is good. Instead, we should remind students that this specific strategy might suit some but not all students and that they have the absolute right to either adopt or reject the strategy. Students should always be encouraged to be creative and think of their individual ways of doing things and learning, actively introspecting their thinking process, and take appropriate actions regarding their learning.

When a student asks the question a question, the teacher does not always have to provide the answer, at least, not right away. The teacher signals to the student that she might know the answer, but she is also interested to know what the student thinks the answer might be. After listening to the student’s question, a simple question from the teacher like ‘what do you think?’ can be very powerful in helping the student look inside to search for what they are looking for. If the student really does not have the answer, the teacher shows interest in knowing what other students would think before giving her answer. It is entirely possible the answers that we are seeking are already in us. Sometimes we ask questions only for confirmation and reassurance. One of the main roles of teachers is to facilitate the thinking process. Even though it can be hard and frustrating to those who are impatient to get the ‘right’ answer, the long-term benefits of this approach are numerous, one of which is that we have elevated learners to the position of introspecting and constructing their own knowledge.


Promote students’ ownership of the language

In exam classes, students are often called candidates. They are regularly evaluated against a set of external criteria, with the highest level of achievements are those of ‘native speakers,’ who they are not and will never be. Students remain on the outside of the circle, without the hope of getting in if they don’t meet a set of standards and are approved by a third party. Because of this, learners tend to act accordingly, as candidates, waiting to be approved and evaluated.

Teachers should help students take ownership of the language that they are learning. Our students are the owner of the English language in their own rights. The truth is English does not belong exclusively to any group of people, but to all humanity. There are several benefits if learners accept English as one of their languages. First, they don’t have to deny a part of their identity to take on another, but instead expanding their perspectives and being more active and in control of their learning. Second, since they have taken ownership of English, they are also more responsible to develop and nurture it. English use is not confined to the classroom and the test but is a living part of their lives.

A ‘humanistic exam class’ is not an oxymoron. Preparing students for an exam is a huge responsibility, but our roles do not stop at helping students achieve a numeric value or a certificate. Does this mean that there will more for us to do as exam teachers? I don’t think so. All that we need is an awareness, from which many practical ideas will spring forth. We don’t have to drastically change the way teach, but to adapt them in smaller ways. The fundamental principle is to acknowledge the nature of language and learning, helping students form a correct, unbiased view of the experience that they are going through. We should relate to students on personal levels, sympathizing with them, and genuinely caring about their language developments. Such human connections are powerful, which can potentially transform the exam preparation process, making it more relatable, meaningful, and impactful.



Green, A. (2007). IELTS Washback in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Senior, R. (2010). Exam Driven Teaching. English Teaching Professional. 69.


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