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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

December 24, 2010

Testwiseness- the Educational Soul of Japan?

My wife's pretty smart. She's always done well at school at every level, despite having no family background of anyone going beyond high school (as with yours truly), and having grown up in a very rural part of Japan (so much so that when she first came to Miyazaki city to sit for the university entrance exams it seemed like Metropolis Central to her, with elevators, escalators and...and everything!)

But more than just being smart (she whips my butt at math and sciences, although she must bow down before my infinitely superior wisdom in history, philosophy, and geo-politics) she is a very, very good test taker. She got into a very good high school, med school at a national Univ., got a national med license, a specialist med license, and most recently, a special operator license- all on the first try. And in Japan, where it seems that you have to take a test for anything more complex than pounding mochi- and pay big yen for the dubious privilege- them's no small dice.

Most yobiko/juku (prep schools), and some classes at regular high schools, are not as concerned with 'educating' per se as they are with achieving such results- most specifically placing students in ranking universities. Thus, their main focus is not teaching the subject per se but developing testwiseness in students. This is taught, or rather inculcated, so that you can get the highest possible score on an entrance exam in spite of whatever knowledge or skill limitations you may have on the subject.

I've learned a lot about this from my wife, myself having been spawned from a less test-conscious, less competitive system. The initial focus of developing testwiseness is based upon scrutinizing old tests (kakomon). Juku/yobiko/certain HS teachers are probably more familiar with the past formats and contents of tests for any institution they want their students to enter than they are about the names of prominent members of their own households. They chart what has been covered recently, subtle changes, emphases and directional movements, and therefore, what is/isn't likely to be covered again on the next test. Students are then given 'mogi shiken' practice exams which mimic the expected format/content, with their strengths and weaknesses subsequently exposed and analyzed. Students will then be given a menu of what they have to work on, much like someone suffering from lifestyle sicknesses might receive a strict daily diet/exercise regimen from a doctor.

Most interestingly for the Uni-files, 'on test' skills are also dealt with. For example, testwise students are taught to sniff out wrong answers on a (poorly made?) multiple choice Q without even reading the relevant text closely. Here's how:
1. Rule out any item that is viscerally different from the others in category, style or length.
2. Note two items that are similar in appearance. One will be the main distracter and one will be the answer. Scan the relevant section in the text to rule out the distracter. Bingo- you have your answer. And without understanding or really soaking in the text.
(Of course this means that the skillful test-maker will avoid these design flaws but not all test-makers are skillful testmakers)

And, if the task means offering a lengthy written response (production) then be sure to repeat a few of the text's keywords. Quote a small bit of text (directly or by paraphrase) to make it look like you've absorbed it deeply. Expand by referring in some general way to the topic/subject of the test. Have a set opening and closing phrase ready- templates are offered. Presto! You's gots yourself an essay!

My wife's univ. entrance exam also included a personal interview. And of course, you can anticipate certain questions safely. (Sidebar- I used to have a part-time gig as a scout for an NHL (that's the National Hockey League, for the Canada-culturally challenged among you) team. Although I was low man on the scouting totem pole I was able to attend the draft sessions a few times and participated in the pre-draft interviews. These involved all team scouts and officials grilling prospects that we were interested in. These days, young players are very media savvy and trained by agents and lifestyle gurus to manage these interviews. They know what to expect and are very polished, if a little dull. The trick then is to throw out a few idiosyncratic curve ball questions to see how they respond without a scripted answer. Then you get a better feel for the player's psyche). For the university entrance interview, my wife prepared some set answers for the 'sure thing' questions and then read up on the university brochures and digested certain suitable quotes that sounded 'appropriate for just about anything that might be asked' and held these at her disposal. As you now know, she succeeded.

At the National Medical Licensing Examination held each Feb. it gets even hairier. The exams take place over two days, during which any out-of-town examinees are sequestered in the same few hotels. The testwiseness peddlers, whose services most students have availed themselves of, are all over these venues. Even on the 2nd morning of exams they are stuffing reams of last-minute notes (based upon all night follow-up sessions of the Q's and tasks asked on the previous days' exams) under examinees' hotel doors. They even ride a bus to the test venue with students. These guys work hard and they are pros.

But is it good education? I suspect that most readers would be harbouring doubts at this point. It's hard to deny that such success can be based upon a certain of pedagogical subterfuge as opposed to real skill or knowledge. Test-passing and being educated are two very different things and the gap widens with testwiseness scenarios so prevalent. Moreover, students with less access (geographically, relationally, or financially) to the test-preppers are at a disadvantage; thus the meritocracy element becomes questionable.

On the other hand, testwiseness is still a skill, if not a purely 'academic' one. It does reflect a certain type of intelligence. Generally speaking the smarter and/or the more studious students are the ones who do get in. And it's not really just a Japanese phenomenon. We all try to prepare for the form of any test we face, to anticipate the challenges, tasks and questions to some degree. And we might even feel cheated when they aren't what we expect.

This is an aspect of testing theory called 'face validity'- the notion that the validity of a test to some degree lies in it meeting the expectations of the test-taker. Imagine if, for a fitness test, you know that in the past it has always involved a 10KM run plus a combination of sit-ups/push-ups. So you train body and mind accordingly only to find out on test day that the regimen has been changed to a long distance swim and rope climbing. You would be right to think that maybe this test is not going to be entirely indicative of your actual fitness level (especially if you swim as poorly as I do). Therefore, it is expected to a certain degree that set or standardized tests maintain somewhat established, predictable formats.

The real problems occur when the test becomes too predictable, too set and complacent, too easy for examinees to manipulate. When your tests become like that you are no longer testing the subject at hand but rather, testwiseness. And that is altogether a different matter.

Any thoughts on this matter?

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