Thursday, 1 May 2014

What's with exam techniques talks?

I have no quarrel with exam techniques. As a young teacher I conducted many be honest, they were a training ground for me. As an excellent teacher, I sharpened my skills and extended my repertoire by doing those talks. It was one of those "must do" things in school.  However, as I grew in my career, there are some questions we need to ask ourselves about our common practices in school. Now, whenever I receive an invitation (I don't do many) my first question is always "How many students have you got?"

150, 200 are the usual numbers.

If I have the choice I prefer small groups as it is more effective. School counselors can set a target group instead of having a one size fits all approach. After all counselors are trained in this area. But more often that not, all students, excellent and poor are cramped in one session. Once, I gave a talk in a packed hall with 350 students and half of them were not listening. They were the weaker students in the end classes and the teacher on duty was reading a newspaper at the back of the hall. I struggled for two hours with 350 students and that taught me a lot of things. I was 'smarter' in the years to come :)

On another occasion ( more than fifteen years ago) , a school invited me to a quaint resort to talk to about seventy top students.  The quaint resort did not help in any way because there was no microphone! I was expected to talk to seventy hyperactive students who couldn't keep their mouths shut. They were speaking in their mother tongue all throughout the talk and they were supposed to be the top students in the school! Phew! A learning journey for a teacher definitely.

What do you deal with in your talk?
  • how to score?
  • how to answer the novel question? the comprehension questions?
Some speakers 'teach' adjectives, connectors for example instead of giving exam tips. The materials they use are teaching materials you would use in a grammar lesson for example. I always thought exam techniques mean sensitizing students to reading the question, answering as required by the mark scheme...well, if anyone has any other thoughts please do share.

Some questions I want to leave you with:
  • How serious are schools about exam techniques talks?
  • What are the objectives? Is it just another programme in the counselor's calendar?
  • Who are their target students? Can you break them into groups based on their ability?
  • Does size matter?

Perhaps workshops to improve language skills are more effective than exam techniques?

Those who can Do Those who can do more TEACH


  1. I used to give similar talks last time but after some time, I tried not to accept invitations as I found that I had to spend more time scolding people not to talk and making them focus. This explains why it is quite difficult to get good teachers to come and conduct talk/workshop for students. The experience could be very disheartening.

    1. how true zainal :) i'm very selective. i do it for friends or ex-students usually. however i must say going out and giving talks raised my confidence level as a young teacher. in those days it was "all systems go"!!! now i enjoy talking to teachers more :)

  2. Personally, I believe 'talks' are more suitable for more matured learners like secondary school students. I don't think talks are effective for primary school students. The way younger learners learn are very different from their older counterparts.

    I actually have a very strong opinion regarding this matter. For primary schools, 'answering technique' is a big no-no. I wouldn't accept invitation for a one-hour answering technique talk for UPSR students. For me, they are useless. You can't force 11 - 12 year olds to sit down quietly for an hour and listen to you talk and expect them to be better exam takers as a result. Younger learners need to be engaged, and the best way to engage them is by getting them to participate in hands-on and minds-on activities that are fun, interesting and motivating. I also don't believe in emphasising too much of this 'exam thing' in primary schools. At primary level, children need to be taught skills. To some extend, I think this over-emphases on examination-oriented activities (answering technique talk is definitely one of them) is getting out of hand, and I do believe that in some way they hamper students progress in language acquisition.

    I used to do a lot of talks when I was younger too. :-) And just like you, now I enjoy talking to teachers more. But if I still have to do it for students, I would insist on a focused workshop instead of a talk. I conducted a few writing workshops (not answering technique workshops) last year and I think they're more fruitful and productive - the children had more fun and they learn more.

    1. I agree with you Cindy! Unsuitable for primary children indeed. In my opinion if you teach to improve proficiency rather than teach to the test, you will achieve more at the end of the day. Once your students are proficient, they can answer any tests or exams. You can polish their exam techniques in the classroom while teaching. What we need to do is to teach for proficiency. Do something that has an impact rather than routine programmes that leave little impact.


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