Teacher Nicholas McKay writing for Hello Teacher!

Updated November 16, 2018
By Nicholas McKay

Teaching to the test

Education should not be something that ends the moment students leave high school. As someone who believes in life-long learning, this is my belief.

However, teaching to the test, an internationally recognized strategy, imposes a pedagogical technique, where the end justifies the means.

In this case, the end is for students to pass the test, which means every task undertaken is leading towards this outcome.

Such a strategy, however, needn’t get in the way of teachers creating super-awesome lessons.

The problem with teaching to the test

I acknowledge that schools use exams at the end of each semester to test students’ knowledge. This not only keeps students accountable, but teachers too, and proves the effectiveness of their lessons.

But, if completing a test is the ultimate goal, what happens to all that knowledge afterwards?

Let’s face it, most exams in China (and other countries, for that matter) contain only a written component. Due to this, most classrooms are equally comprised of written activities. This offers no authenticity for the learner.

With this in mind, how can a student ever become passionate about a subject? The simple answer is, they won’t.

When I think back to my high school years, I remember almost nothing about subjects including legal studies, humanities and science.

These were subjects where all we ever did was undertake written activities, at the end of which, the information was regurgitated for the test.

Think outside the box

For me, I know in my heart that English as a second language is more than just a subject which ought to be forgotten at the end of the school year.

To make sure students are enthusiastic about a subject, more needs to be done to increase their appreciation of it.

This is easier said than done, considering the strict teaching strategies schools often have in place.

I recently taught a second-language class where every lesson was supposed to use a textbook that the end-of-year exam was based on. Between you and me, much like my mother’s meatloaf, this book was something best avoided at all costs.

Besides the editorial errors, incomplete activities, lacking instructions and missing audio tapes, the text was super boring!

I even observed classrooms using this text. On one memorable occasion, the teacher jerked me awake because I was snoring. If the text was a glorified sedative for me, imagine what it was like for the students.

So, how can we, the teachers, provide students with the knowledge they need, while at the same time, making them passionate and enthusiastic about the content?

For starters, we need to think outside the box!

Using classroom alternatives to fulfil lesson goals

In the class I briefly mentioned earlier, I would occasionally base my own activities on those from the textbook. This way, I met the goals of the lesson.

One activity required students to answer questions on presentations. I adapted this to fit a practical lesson.

Forming students into groups, they read passages from a movie face to face, back to back, and from across the room.

Next, students in their groups brainstormed, using markers and poster paper, the major themes, characters and plots in the movie. They could either write or draw their responses.

Students would then collect one of many prop cards from the centre of the room. Pictures included, but were not limited to, a doll, teddy bear, shirt, car, coffee mug, keys, etc.

Students were expected to individually write a short story about a character from the movie, incorporating their prop, and some of the themes. They later read this to their group members.

Once complete, students took a passage from their story and, incorporating their prop, alongside gesture, they individually developed short performances, which were delivered to the class.

Over the course of the activity, students used key macro skills, including reading, writing, listening and speaking. Students also experienced using tone, rhythm and gesture, all of which are important components in a presentation.

Linking activities to student interests

Students’ vested interest in an activity makes for a good learning environment. On one occasion, I used students’ love of food to my advantage.

In so doing, I created what I called the Colored Card Game. For this activity, I separated students into groups. On each table were two plates of candy.

One plate was filled with yellow, red and green candy. The other plate was filled with black, white, blue, and other colored candy.

Also on the table were cards. Red cards were multiple choice questions. Green cards were fill-in-the-gap exercises, and yellow cards pertained to a reading.

One student would pick up either a red, green or yellow piece of candy at random. They would then pick up a card of the same color. Every group member would assist in fulfilling the objectives, then each would pick up a piece of candy from the second plate as a reward, before repeating the process again.

This way, every student in the group had the opportunity to pick up the starter card. The candy incentivized students to participate, and though there were a lot of questions, many of which were challenging, students excelled at the task.


These above tasks are just a couple of examples of how a lesson can be improved to maximize student interest, whilst fulfilling the expectations.

Countries like China are learning English faster than English-speaking countries, and if we are to make students passionate about the subject, we need to do more.

It’s an unfortunate fact; students often come to class with little motivation. As teachers, it’s up to us to motivate students to learn.

Now, in no way am I advocating for teachers not to teach to the test. However, there are ways to make this far more interesting, whilst also captivating the attention of learners in the process.


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