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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 6; Issue 2; March 04

Short Article

Coping with Exam Stress- a sequel

Judy Churchill, France

( Editorial note: Judy published her first article on coping with exam stress in HLT Yr 5 Issue 5, September . This sequel is in response to a reader's letter published in the Nov 03 issue. )

I read with interest the letter HLT published from Uschi Schoeder-Maxwell in the November 03 issue on my article Coping with Exam Stress. Before replying to Uschi's comments I would just like to set the record straight concerning my professional status. Uschi states that I work for an examination board which is in fact not entirely correct and wonders why I would "want to work organising such events".

I am in fact a self-employed language trainer, translator and interpreter based in the South of France. I run my own language consultancy and am employed by no-one but myself. One of my contracts is to train and assist people in my region on behalf of ETS to enable their tests to be carried out under the best possible circumstances while respecting ETS norms and standards of quality and fairness. I consider that this puts me in an ideal position to voice a valid opinion and offer advice on the pitfalls of the testing environment. It is precisely because I am so "acutely aware of the extreme downsides of exams" that I do my utmost to make sure that anyone who has to undergo this potentially stressful ordeal, does so in the best possible circumstances. Uschi raises an interesting question: "Why do we put people through events as monstrous as exams…?"

Exams, tests, assessments, evaluations, call them what you will, are, have been and probably always will be an inevitable and on-going feature in most of our lives. I am well placed to understand the woes of test takers having undergone not only school and university exams, but three different post grad teacher training courses complete with practical and written exams, translating exams and numerous languages tests in various foreign languages, hence my interest in helping others "produce a good performance" in the testing arena.

Many of us would like to think that we could get through life without having to go through the "monstrous" testing process but unfortunately this is neither realistic nor advisable. Every time I set foot in the doctor's surgery I have to admit to a great sense of relief that someone has tested this person's competence before they are let loose on my body. It took me three attempts to pass my driving test but the world is probably a safer place for it! Had I been let loose alone with a car before I had reached the required level of competence and confidence, someone would probably have ended up in hospital or worse! In the same way, language test results are of utmost importance to the potential employer before he decides to recruit someone and let them loose at the negotiating table to represent the company in a finely tuned, negotiated deal, important company contract or licensing agreement where errors of comprehension and lack of linguistic competence could cost the company millions. The employer needs to be sure the person has the required level of competence for whatever mission they need to accomplish.

Tests such as the TOEIC and TFI are used to measure an individual's language level for purposes such as recruitment, access to technical or language training courses, motivation, certification and do not automatically have to be a negative experience. Tests are not there to "make it hard for people to enjoy the language they are using". We all need feedback and validation of our competence at every level both personal and professional. Whether it be in sport by achieving a performance in a faster time or over a greater distance or in a linguistic context by obtaining a higher score or result. Therefore let us not adopt a fatalistic attitude towards the testing experience and say "if people are not enjoying being in English it is unlikely they will produce a good performance" but rather say, if we cannot always "enjoy" the testing experience, let us see what we can do to prepare ourselves for battle as it were with the appropriate arms. Forewarned is forearmed! Know the enemy..etc

The good news is that it is actually human nature to want to perform well, achieve and succeed and there are very many people who do just that. My article was aimed at those of us who have the potential to produce a "good performance" but who, handicapped by exam stress, are unable to produce this performance at the given moment. I suggest that we seek not so much to abandon tests and exams but rather seek solutions to improve the test taking environment and enhance our students' performance by using the stress busters suggested in my article. That way tests will be perceived by the takers as less of a negative ordeal and more of a positive challenge .

I would welcome other readers' opinions on this matter.

Judy Churchill

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