Examining the Language Teaching Practice of Testing in Terms of the Brain

November 2022

Testing, be it in standardized or teacher-made form, is an ubiquitous part of classrooms around the world. In this month’s issue we’re putting tests “to the test” and assessing the conclusions that neuroscience has discovered in recent years. We felt this is such an important topic that we’ll be covering it even further next month with an issue devoted to Assessment, so be sure to stay tuned in December!

“Standardized tests don’t care if you’re white or black, short or tall, or even the rate at which you learned the course material. At the end of the day, all it cares about is whether you know what you’re supposed to know. It can’t be cheated, bent, or bargained with.” – Steven Crowder

Cover photo by Adam Bixby on Unsplash; others from Pixabay & Pexels.

Watch before you read...

Tests are such an integral part of our lives that the Think Tank decided we ought to look at them in terms of psychology and neuroscience. The Main and Deep introductory videos discuss the scientific aspects of test design and their application, questioning their relevance. Then, Julia Daley starts us off with her own dilemma of using tests for assessment.

In the Think Tank, Heather Kretschmer explores the stress and anxiety tests can produce, followed by Curtis Kelly discussing how neuroscience might have identified brain types that are better or worse suited to testing. Then Alun Roger takes us in a different (and new) direction in his examination of how the psychological disposition of test givers might affect results.

In the PLUS section, Harumi Kimura tells us about an insight she had in regard to last month’s article by Marc Helgesen on multisensory input in the listening classroom.

Our Thoughts on Testing

Who’s Testing Really for, Anyways? Julia Daley

Early in my journey to become a teacher, back when I was an undergraduate student, my old junior high school graciously allowed me to fulfill my practicum hours and observe classes there. I was able to observe the 7th and 8th grade English Language Arts classes taught by the same teachers who had taught me when I was 13 and 14 years old. For two weeks, I observed the gifted and honors students in these classes as they went about their days learning English. To thank the teachers for their time, I helped with grading, making copies, and squashing the occasional uninvited scorpion. The most memorable experience from this practicum came when I was grading a set of quizzes—a memory that has been quite formative in my educational career ever since.

Think Tank Articles

Rising to the Challenge: Understanding and Dealing with Test Anxiety Heather Kretschmer

In the middle of a high-stakes speaking exam, the sixteen-year-old student, who had done well up to that point, suddenly faltered. She was visibly, desperately reaching for a vocabulary item in her memory bank. Not coming up with what she wanted to say, she panicked and burst into tears. Her exam partner gave her a sympathetic look and jumped in. He kept the conversation going until, about a minute later, she stopped crying and picked up the thread of the conversation.

Lawyers and Priestesses in the World of Tests Curtis Kelly

I remember this student I once had, Junko, a forerunner of many others that came later. Junko was smart, interested in English, and one of the best students in the class. I perceived her as an archetypal A student. Then came the test. Her score was surprisingly low. She had been doing her homework regularly and coming to class, so this result did not make sense. It baffled me, so I asked Junko if she had studied for the test. She said “Yes.” I asked her why she did so poorly in a subject she was obviously good at and she just mumbled, “I’m just not good at tests.”

Administering Speaking Tests: Who We Are Becomes What We Do Alun Roger

If you cast your mind back far enough, you may recall a time from your earlier education when you were waiting in the school hallway for an interview test and secretly praying that you get “Mrs. Smith” as your rater because “she’s always sympathetic and gives high grades!” In this article I want to argue that “Mrs. Smith” may have given you those preferential scores (what she did), partly because of who she was. While it seems intuitive that the characteristics of those we interact with might influence how a discourse unfolds and hence shape what is said (and even how!), it has not always been thus—at least not within the second language (L2) testing community.

Think Tank Plus

Questions We Ask in Using Audio-Visual Materials Harumi Kimura

In the October issue, Marc Helgesen wrote “the more senses we use, the more deeply we learn” (p. 25). I also wrote “the more hooks or scaffolding we have for memory, the better” (p. 21). Yes, we promoted using multi-sensory input in language teaching since our brain integrates information from multiple senses in natural environments. Furthermore, multi-sensory input makes neural pathways stronger in the brain for memory consolidation and automatic retrieval of stored information. I do believe we made a good case in that issue, but the other day I realized that teachers need to reconsider what questions to ask when using audio-visual (i.e., multi-sensory) materials in the classroom. Good questions have a potential to promote thinking and foster engagement, while bad ones might do more harm than good. Let me share the story of an elementary school English class for sixth graders in Japan.

Call for Contributions: Ideas and Articles Think Tank Staff

Become a Think Tank star! Here are some of the future issue topics we are thinking about. Would you, or anyone you know, like to write about any of these? Or is there another topic you’d like to recommend? Do you have any suggestions for lead-in, or just plain interesting, videos? How about writing a book review? Or sending us a story about your experiences? Contact us.

Mr. Bean – The Exam

Taking a test might not be fun, but watching Rowan Atkinson do it is!

(Note that Rowan got high grades in Science A levels and got an MSc at Oxford.)

“Just Breathe”

“Just Breathe” features kids speaking candidly about anger and how they cope – something for all ages to ponder… With a running time of a whopping 3 1/2 minutes, “Just Breathe” is the quickest lesson on mindful meditation you’ll ever get, by the youngest teachers you’ll ever have. 😉

Standardized Testing: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO) Link

“American students face a ridiculous amount of testing. John Oliver explains how standardized tests impact school funding, the achievement gap, and how often kids are expected to throw up.” (Warning: Strong language)

When you have a foreign language speaking test in school

“In this sketch, you’ll peer into my past experience with learning languages in high school. Just substitute French for Spanish.” – Ikenna

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The MindBrained Think Tanks+

is produced by the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT) Mind, Brain, and Education Special Interest Group (BRAIN SIG). Kyoto, Japan. (ISSN 2434-1002)

Editorial Staff

Stephen M. Ryan                Julia Daley                   Marc Helgesen

             Heather Kretschmer          Curtis H. Kelly            Skye Playsted               

    Jason Walters                               Mohammad Khari




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