Using Social Testing to Brighten One of Life’s Darkest Moments

Using Social Testing to Brighten One of Life's Darkest Moments

By: Tim Murphey

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Certainly, one of the most a-social times for our students is when they are taking tests. Traditionally, they are not permitted to talk to others, exchange ideas, collaborate, help others, laugh out loud, or make a new friend … they must do it all alone! However, in normal, everyday life when we do not know something, we can ask people for help, we can be social, and not feel alone and alienated—a direction that our societies are going more and more (aka “III,” Increasing Isolation and Individualization, the reason the UK now has a Minister for Loneliness). Thus, because tests are so isolating, they are also stressful, alienating, depressing, and basically one of the lowest-ranked learning events in places that advertise themselves as learning institutions!

Swain et al. (2011) described the problem very well: “We tend to take the use of tests for granted. However, underlying their use is a set of assumptions about the knowledge and abilities being tested that are different from those of SCT [socio-cultural theory]. For example, in general, we think of tests as something that must be done alone. It is considered cheating to ask a peer for help, to use a dictionary, or to search the Internet. Why?” (p. 118). Thus, our basic assumptions lead us down a path that ignores our sociality.

What if I told you there was a way to make tests and quizzes more social and enjoyable and even have students learning with more motivation before, during, and after the tests? In some Japanese schools, they have already done this partially with open-book (and notes) tests. But no teachers, to my knowledge, have yet allowed students to have dialogues with each other to create answers. Let’s look at the steps to make things clearer:

Student self-evaluated social testing procedures:

The following steps have developed over the last six years of experimenting with this procedure with a total of seven semesters of university “English as a Foreign Language” classes, involving students from all four years, and graduate students, from 4–160 students in a class (drawn from Murphey, 2019a & b):

    1. Students do a regular style test alone at first (usually a fill in the blank, short -test, entailing recalling and reflecting on information) and after an appropriate amount of time (e.g., 20–30 mins), they stop.
    2. Then I tell them to put away their pencils and erasers, and to take out a pen (blue for best contrast) and to give themselves an estimated score at the bottom of the test, say 50% or 70% or 86% in “1st score         “).
    3. Then I tell them they have 5 mins (I usually lengthen it to 10 to 20 minutes depending on how active they are and how big the group is) to ask any of the questions to anyone in the room to improve their answers.

To make it as orally interactive as possible, I set a few more rules:

    1. “You are not allowed to look at anyone else’s paper or show your own to anyone.” If I see this happening, I mark them down 20%. (Sometimes I need to explain that “copying” is not learning; whereas a dialogue teaches.)
    2. If I want them to interact with more people, I tell them: “You can only ask one or two questions per person, then change partners.” I usually remind them to change partners every few minutes and most do; some end up in 3- or 4-person small groups to question each other and that is ok, too.
    3. If they want to erase an old answer, they simply cross it out with the pen. 
    4. I also suggest to them that, instead of just giving someone an answer, that they should to try to scaffold it (give hints): e.g. hum the tune of the song they can’t remember, use the gestures that we have done in class for the eight ways to reduce stress, give the first few words of an answer but not the rest.

After finishing the second part, I ask them to put in the second score at the bottom and write the names of the people who helped them, the names of those they helped, and comment on what they think of the test. The bottom of my tests all look something like this:

The change from pencil to ink allows the teacher to see approximately how much was answered with the help of classmates and how much was answered alone. (2020 UPDATE: When they now do these tests online (ZOOM) and in breakout rooms, they change from normally written answers to ALL CAPITALS IN THE SOCIAL PART SO THEY AND I CAN SEE THE DIFFERENCE, AS YOU CAN HERE.) They usually become intensively interactive during the interactive time. I circulate and remind them loudly not to look or show their tests to anyone and to simply ask and dictate to each other and discuss. Many report dialogically, constructing answers together. 

The third score is for the teacher to write after the test and could be used in a variety of ways or not at all. For a final score, the first two scores can be averaged or calculated with different weights. Often, with my overly humble Japanese students, I raise the scores, but that may not always be the case. I often take points off for questions left blank because it usually shows they are not even trying.

Each time I do a test like this, the students are in awe. My explanation cannot capture the excitement you will see when you start the second part of the test.

Some Student Comments

(1) It was interesting because I think it is important to help each other and share information. I also had a chance to speak to strangers. 

(2) The most fascinated test that I’ve ever had. 

(3) I really like this type of test. I’ve never done such a creative and interactive test, and I really think that I was required to get information and help people, and these are vital skills to live in real life! 

(4) I like this kind of test because it has been interesting to share answers with peers. Japanese tests make me isolated, but today’s wasn’t. 

(5) I really enjoyed to share the answer. My classmates helped me very well. But sometimes I couldn’t answer, and I felt very sorry about it. So in the next time, I’ll study more! 


About 5% to 20% of the students still comment that it was too hard or they did not have enough time to finish, while the majority express positive thoughts similar to those above. Student #3 seems to be realizing that yes, in the real world, we need to ask for what we need or don’t know about. This will be expected in their jobs and elsewhere in life. Student #5 enjoyed the social style but regrets that he/she could not help others much, and thus wants to study more, not for her/himself but so they can help their classmates. Both of these comments are quite common in the feedback.

The Social Brain

The neurologist Cozolino (2013) uses the metaphor of the synapse between neurons to talk about the “social synapse” between people, and how they are being connected by their smiles, nodding, eye contact, hugs, greetings, etc. I think my main job as a teacher is getting students up and interacting so they can appreciate the great support that such dialoging connections bring. For some lonely students (potentially future hikkikomoris—modern day hermits in an apartment) the social period seems to really get them appreciating the social activity and smiling a lot. Sometimes, there is a question that no one seems to get, and so I tell the answer to “Hiro” who seems to be a low proficiency, somewhat lonely student. Then I shout to the class, “If you need the answer to #5, Hiro has it!” and suddenly he becomes popular, and he is beaming while helping people.

I must admit that I was worried a bit about “freeloaders” in the classroom when I first started this, but after the first few quizzes and the feedback that I received from students, the worry went away, mostly due also to self evaluations. (Self-evaluation and self-grading, by the way, are the top-ranked learning activity by Hattie (2012, p.266) in his meta-analysis of the impact of 150 learning activities.) When students give themselves their own grades, they are usually very harsh on themselves, especially Japanese students. I am continually boosting their scores.

Social testing should be done often, every few weeks if possible, because as Roediger (2014) says, “tests make us smarter.” I would amend it and add, “good test procedures make us intellectually and socially smarter, especially when we can help and teach others.” And as Lieberman (2013a, 2013b) has confirmed in his laboratory, social pain activates the same brain regions as real physical pain. Thus, we are indeed born to be social and to help our mates, not to add to the increasing individualization and isolation of our educational pandemic

References and Further Reading

  • Cozolino, L. (2013). The social neuroscience of education. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

  • Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximum impact on learning. London, UK: Routledge.

  • Lieberman, M. (2013a). The social brain and its superpowers [Video]. TEDxStLouis.

  • Lieberman, M. (2013b). Social: Why our brains are wired to connect. New York, NY: Crown Publishers.

  • Murphey, T. (1989). Student-made tests. Modern English Teacher, 17(1&2),28–29. Reprinted in Teacher Talk Taipei, Taiwan (Spring, 1991) and in English Teachers Association Switzerland Newsletter 9(3) (Summer, 1992).

  • Murphey, T. (1993). Why don’t teachers learn what learners learn? Taking the guesswork out with action logging. English Teaching Forum, 31(1), 6–10

  • Murphey, T. (1995). Tests: Learning through negotiated interaction. TESOL Journal, 4(2), 12–16.

  • Murphey, T. (2013). The impact of self-information given to socially intelligent dynamic systems (SINDYS) i.e. Classes! Scuola e Lingue Moderne, 1–5 & 6–9.

  • Murphey, T. (2017a). Provoking potentials: Student self-evaluated and socially mediated testing. In R. Al-Mahrooqi, C. Coombe, F. Al-Maamari, & V. Thakur (Eds.), Revisiting EFL assessment: Critical perspectives (pp. 287-317). New York, NY: Springer.

  • Murphey, T. (2017b). A 4-page condensed version of Tim Murphey’s book chapter “Provoking potentials: Student self-evaluated and socially-mediated testing.” Tomorrow’s Professor.

  • Murphey, T. (2017c). Teaching to learn and well-become: Many mini-renaissances. In P. McIntyre, T. Gregerson, & S. Mercer (Eds.), Positive Psychology in SLA (pp. 324–343). Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

  • Murphey, T. (2019a): Peaceful social testing in times of increasing individualization and isolation. Critical Inquiry in Language Studies, 16(1), 50-67.

  • Murphey, T. (2019b). Innovating with the “the collaborative social” in Japan. In H. Reinders, S. Ryan, & S. Nakamura (Eds.). Innovation in language learning and teaching: The case of Japan (pp. 233-255.). London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Roediger, H. (2014, July 20). How tests make us smarter. The New York Times Sunday Review.

  • Swain, M., Kinnear, P., & Steinman, L. (2011). Sociocultural theory in second language education: An introduction through narratives. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Tim Murphey, PhD Université de Neuchâtel, Switzerland in applied linguistics. Neuchâtel is also the birthplace of the psychologist Piaget, born the same year as Vygotsky (with whom Piaget corresponded). Vygotsky worked with the neuroscientist Luria in Russia who was instrumental in distributing Vygotsky’s work abroad. Everything is connected.

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