Saturday, July 05, 2008

Testing moments

I spent all of today (actually yesterday) and yesterday (actually the day before yesterday) listening to student 'conversations,' for their oral tests. It has been

(Excuse me. A rather large spider just galloped across my desk. It was not as large as the one I saw last year, but it was large enough to be paying rent.)

The conversation tests have been enlightening. Also depressing, horrifying, worrying, entertaining, and nerve-wracking. I do not like to watch my students having panic attacks, and no amount of reassurance that the test is only a small part of their final grade seems to work. Really, I only do these tests so that I can catch the quiet ones who have improved but so quietly I might not notice otherwise, and so that I have a stick to go with my carrots around the middle of semester when things are starting to flag.

Here are some high points of the tests.

(Where did that spider go?)

1. A student was talking about his hometown, and explained that it was so deep in the countryside that bears sometimes came to his house.

"Oh, really?" said his partner, and paused, staring. Finally, he asked,

"What kind of music do you like?"

I don't think he understood what 'bears' were. Meanwhile I sat there and tried to banish Goldilocks from my head.

(I think the spider went somewhere under that pile of unmarked homework. I am planning to mark it tomorrow, and the prospect has suddenly become far more exciting than it should be.)

2. A very good student, who I was sure was going to do well because he'd been doing well all semester, froze up during the test. His partner was no help at all. When the good student got stuck, they stared at each other in horrified silence, and nothing happened at all. After what felt like an eternity, the timer went off. They ended the conversation, and the good student sank his head in his hands and moaned.

I looked at him and wondered what to do. Should I ask him if he wanted another chance at the test? After a while I enquired,

"How many points do you think you should get for that thirty seconds of silence?"

He peeked at me from between his fingers, and there were another few seconds of silence.

"I was THINKING," he said, finally.

I raised my eyebrows.

"Really?" I asked, and grinned.

"Yes!" he said, then opened his fingers wider and added, "In ENGLISH."

"Oh, good," I said. "As long as you were thinking IN ENGLISH then it's all right."

(I suppose I should be grateful it is a spider and not a bear.)

3. I had an extremely wound-up student make a mistake I remember another student making years ago in a similar test.

"How! Hi are you?" he blurted, and his partner faltered.

"Er . . . I'm . . . er . . . fine," he replied.

How refreshingly different! I thought, and only halfway into the conversation also realized it was completely wrong. It was near the end of the day, that one.

4. I have been trying to drum into my students the importance of clarifying things when they do not understand, or, if that's beyond them, even just admitting they do not understand. I have had them practicing saying things like, "What do you mean?" and "I'm sorry, I don't understand." But in a test situation they seem to think these phrases are forbidden. Perhaps they think, despite everything I have told them, that if they show they do not understand something they will be marked down. Or maybe they think their partner will be marked down for not being understandable. I don't know. All I know is that almost no student admitted to not understanding anything during the tests, and that led to a large number of exchanges similar to this next one, which I noted especially for it's befuddling qualities.

"What did you do next weekend?" asked one student, and the other thought for a moment then replied,

"No, I will."

They nodded wisely at each other, and my head started to spin as I tried to figure out what they thought they had said. I also started to understand how Alice felt after she walked through the looking glass.

And now it is time to abandon my desk to the spider and go to bed.


shyam said...

Note to self - do NOT read Badaunt while at work or you will end up with a strangulated hernia from trying not to laugh out loud.

(Did you find the spider - or did it find you?)

Sravana said...

"What did you do next weekend?"


I'm teaching myself Japanese, so I imagine I wouldn't do much better. Does the future tense make them tense (since Japanese doesn't have one?)

Keera Ann Fox said...

No future tense? How do they manage?

(And where is that spider?)

Anonymous said...

Well.... English doesn't have a future tense... just 3 or 4 future constructions. We get by.

In fact, English has only two (2) tenses, speaking strictly: present & past. (Hard to believe, but check out the number of tenses in French or Italian, basically 8 tenses in each.) We've only got four parts to any verb, just to contrast with the (at least) 8x6 = 48 parts for the Romance languages.

Speaking of tenses, what about Mandarin - no tenses or time constructions at all! just time phrases. As in "I go to Tokyo today"; "I go to Tokyo yesterday". We should all be learning this one! :-)

Hebron said...

It was meeeeee!
I was the spider all along!

Lia said...

Oh, how I love these stories. For very few people would I actually laugh out loud at work, but somehow, these posts overcome any natural inhibitions. No, I will.

Improdome / Chris O'Neil said...

I will be so happy right now that I can not remember when that could be so!

Badaunt said...

Everybody: The spider did not reappear. I am still waiting.

Anon" I was hoping someone else would explain that. I didn't want to. It confuses me, too.

My students do not usually have trouble with talking about the future. What they have problems with is SPEAKING. They only know how to translate. Badly. And that take so much time they make multiple mistakes when put on the spot, as they are during conversations.

Anonymous said...

I just stumbled upon your blog and almost got confused as to what you taught. I'm a special ed. teacher and I swear we must have most of the same students 'cause I experience the exact same situations!

Badaunt said...

Casey & Crysti: I have just been reading some academic papers about articulatory and phonological skills in English, and came across one in which the experimenters discovered that Japanese college students' articulatory skills for English phonemes were at about the same level as English-speaking dyxlexics. So you weren't that far off!