How to make a Difficult English Test, the Easy Way

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Make your Tests Difficult. Here's How
Make your English tests difficult! Here’s how

I know, I know, it’s not really a bad problem too have, but I have too many good students. Because I have to grade on a curve, it can be very difficult to decide who gets the A and who gets the B. Keep on reading to find out what I do.

Ummm…all my Students are Good!

I teach the English majors at my university in South Korea, which means that a lot of them (more actually!) are really good at English and many of them have lived or studied abroad before. Like, they’re actually kind of fluent in English in many cases.

This is the problem that’s not really a real problem, except when it comes to grading because I have to use a curve and there are a limited numbers of “A’s” and “B’s” available.  So, I have to make my tests quite difficult in order to do this.

Speaking Tests: Subjective 

I hate making speaking tests too difficult because the grading on them is so subjective. I generally give out pretty high scores to everyone who makes a decent effort at it. By decent effort, I mean that it’s obvious they’ve studied and are using the material well that we covered in class.

To be too picky is to invite disaster on student evaluations. And it can also lead to a lot of complaints. Because I don’t record speaking tests, this can become a very difficult problem to deal with.

Learn More about Assessing Speaking for English Learners

The main takeaway? It’s not that easy to do!

Want a Difficult English test? Here’s the Easy Way

Instead, I make the written grammar and vocabulary tests very difficult. I use them to separate the top students from the rest of them.

I do this by making each question all or nothing. If my test is worth 15%, I’ll have only 15 questions. However, each question will have between 3 and 6 parts.  For example, 5 vocabulary matching things, or 3 fill in the blank with the correct verb form.

If the student gets even one part wrong, the entire question is wrong and they don’t get the point. I don’t give 1/2 points-it’s all or nothing.

Results: Scores are 20-30% lower than normal

The result is that student’s scores are probably 20-30% lower than if I assigned 1/2 points because most students only get 1/4 blanks wrong, or 2/4 matching things incorrect and almost everybody would get at least 1/2 points for every question, instead of just nothing.

One More Bonus

Another bonus? Grading is far easier and quicker too because who really wants to add up all those 1/4 and 1/2 points. Nobody, that’s who! Instead of taking 2 minutes per paper, it takes me 30 seconds to a minute to grade.

What do the students think? Initially they think it’s kind of mean. But, I explain that I grade the same way for everybody and I also that I usually give the maximum allowable percentage of A’s and B’s for each class so they’re not really losing out on anything. This seems to satisfy them!

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What do the Students Think?

Is it fair? I think so, but what about the students?  Nobody got 100% on my latest midterm exam, but quite a few students got 13/15 or 14/15 so it really is possible to score highly. But, they truly had to know their stuff and it was almost impossible to fake or luck your way into this kind of top score.

Most students got around 9-11/15, which is what I wanted because that’s a “D” or “C” grade, of which I can give an unlimited amount. And those that are either terrible at English, or just didn’t study got scores in the range of 3-5/15, which is actually what they deserve. If I had given out 1/2 points, these really low-level students would have passed.

Have your Say about Making Very Difficult English Exams

What’s your technique for when you’re grading on a curve and have a lot of top students? Leave a comment below and share your wisdom with us.

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