Sunday, June 14, 2015

all set

It took several hours of toil, but I've gotten my final exams prepped for the students for this coming week. As was true with the midterm (I believe in keeping the testing format consistent), there's a speaking section and a listening section. The speaking section is a five-minute, one-on-one interview; the listening section involves answering questions based on audio segments: five semi-involved interview questions, twenty quick listening questions. The students know they're on a timer and being recorded, and that they'll lose points if they hesitate too long and go overtime (unanswered questions = lost points).

For the interviews in each level, I placed ten sets of interview questions onto a single sheet of paper, in table form. Each box of the table is numbered: 1, 2, 3, etc. The students will come into the classroom one at a time (the other students have to wait in the lounge) and will be asked to draw a card with a number on it. This randomizes the process. If a student picks "2," then I ask them the five interview questions in Box 2 of the table:

1. VOCABULARY: define [word] or use [word] in a sentence.
2. GRAMMAR (A): Form a question or statement according to [learned grammar rule].
3. GRAMMAR (B): Answer an "if"-conditional question with an "if"-conditional sentence.
4. TOPIC: Quickly answer a "What do you think" question based on a chapter topic.
5. TOPIC: Quickly answer an "advantages/disadvantages" question based on a chapter topic.

These are Level 1 kids, so this segment of the exam isn't meant to become an involved, abstruse discussion about heavily philosophical matters. I'm looking for quick answers, correctly executed. I told the students that, unlike many of their English teachers, I do actually care about the structural correctness of their utterances: they need to worry about things like word order, dropped articles, correct tense control, and so on. It's not enough merely to "convey essential information," as the oral-proficiency school's mantra goes.

I like the oral-proficiency school inasmuch as it drives students to produce when they might otherwise be silent, but where the school fails is in not correcting erroneous output. So much stress is placed on producing, producing, producing that students are allowed to get away with misspeaking—to the point that, after years of such schooling, they begin to form bad speech habits that calcify and become nearly impossible to unlearn by the time the kids reach my classes. This is why history keeps repeating itself when Koreans learn English: we expat teachers never bother to correct them properly, and native-Korean teachers of English often lack the skills to make corrections themselves. Fortunately or unfortunately, native-Korean teachers are usually the first English teachers these students have.

My exam reflects my pedagogical philosophy. It's a modest thing, of course; there's nothing special about formatting my final in the way I have. But one of the things I've stressed over the course of this semester has been correct output: don't just convey the basic info; convey it well. And that's a large component of this test.

Good luck to the students this coming week. I'm morbidly curious to see how the grade landscape is going to change. My Monday class—which is full of my highest performers—is going to suffer the most, I think: several students will drop from "A" to "B," and more students will drop from "B" to "C" because of the curve... unless this exam succeeds in naturally whittling away those extra "A"s and "B"s. My other three classes were more stoic about facing the ugly reality of the curve, but we'll see how stoic they are when they get their actual letter grades. I'm expecting several plaintive emails, with much weeping and gnashing of teeth.


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