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ELT News, May 2009

Strategies For Successful Test Performance

One of the projects presently being carried out at the Research Centre in English Language Teaching, Testing and Assessment (RCeL) has to do with test-taking strategies; i.e., the techniques or 'tricks' consciously used by test takers so that they can respond to test requirements (cf. Cohen 1998a/1998b). The first two phases of the Test-taking Strategies Research Project (henceforth TSRP)-are already completed and the findings may be of interest to those concerned with the use of strategies in the field of language testing because field data in the area are rather limited. In fact, unlike research regarding learning strategies that is rather extensive, research in test-taking strategies has been neglected.

The purpose of the TSRP is to investigate the strategies used by candidates in each of the four test papers of The KPG Exams
: Module 1 (Reading Comprehension and Language Awareness), Module 2 (Writing and written mediation), Module 3 (Listening comprehension), and Module 4 (Speaking and oral mediation). The research focuses specifically in those strategies which lead to successful test performance and one of the crucial questions posed during the investigation process is whether or not students can be trained to use 'strategies for success', with a view to helping prospective candidates in special exam preparation classes.

Questionnaires are the basic tools designed especially for this project, and their development was a complicated procedure involving different groups of research participants at various stages of the research process, including the research subjects.  The first group of subjects consisted of sixty (60) university students attending two experimental courses. These courses, planned by RCeL staff, with the intent to prepare interested parties to sit for the KPG exams, were offered in the Spring and Autumn of 2008, just before the May and November exam administrations of the same year.

Before the programme ran each time, it was advertised to students of the University of Athens and, on the basis of a placement test in English, thirty (30) applicants were selected on both occasions and placed in either a B2 level or a C1 level class that was not meant to teach students English but to prepare them for one of the two the two KPG exams.

The conditions and the research subjects were ideal. An exceptionally motivated and a highly literate group of under- or post-graduate students from a variety of University Departments was chosen especially, so that they could play a part in articulating the strategies used when performing the KPG test tasks aiming to test reading, listening, writing and speaking. 

The classes were intensive and they ran for approximately ten weeks. The students, fifteen (15) in each class every time, were prepared for the exam by doing work in class primarily, and by consistently discussing what they were actually doing, every step of the way. These discussions served a double purpose. On the one hand, they aimed at collecting information for questionnaire design and, on the other, they served the purpose of awareness-raising regarding test taking strategies. Useful and ineffectual strategies for the test papers were the subject of discussion between students, their instructors and the researchers -four for every class- and occasionally between students themselves.

It was this process during the first phase of the TRSP that proved especially useful in formulating and reformulating open and closed questionnaires designed to find out which strategies the course participants use for the activities of each test paper frequently and which of these strategies seem to work best.

The aim of the second phase of the project, which coincided with the second experimental class, was to substantiate if indeed training plays a decisive role in strategy use and can actually enhance prospective candidates' performance. Specifically, the analysis of the results led us to believe that when prospective candidates are provided with guidance and sustained practice, they begin using test-taking strategies which have proved to be operative for the KPG exams, such as the ones below:

  • While reading/ listening:

  • linking new information with previous knowledge

  • inferring the meaning of unknown words based on context

  • underlining information useful for responding to specific questions

  • guessing what follows each chunk of text

  • Before writing, speaking and/or mediating:

  • considering the purpose of the text to be produced

  • asking for clarification in order to gain some time to think

  • While writing, speaking and/or mediating:

  • organizing ideas into a written plan

  • paraphrasing the source text

The fact that the majority of the participants in the prep courses performed successfully in the actual exam (95% passed it) seems to confirm the claim that candidates trained to use test-taking strategies are more likely to succeed in the KPG exams. This and some other findings of the first two phases have been tabulated and discussed at length at a number of events. Moreover, test-taking strategies for writing and written mediation in particular will be included in the September 2009 issue of the e-journal Directions in English Language Teaching and Testing, also to appear in printed form (see Stathopoulou 2009).  Findings from other aspects of the TSRP, regarding reading and listening comprehension as well as speaking and oral mediation strategies will be reported in future issues of Directions, which is an RCeL publication.

As the TRSP is an ongoing project, two teams of researchers have already undertaken additional work (a) to tabulate and interpret data derived from 2500 closed questionnaires filled in by candidates who actually sat for the KPG exam at the November 2008 administration, (b) to adapt the questionnaires used with university students so that they can be used with younger students at fifteen (15) state school classes in different parts of the country -classes being prepared for The KPG Exams



Cohen, A. D. 1998a. Strategies in Learning and Using a Second Language. New York: Addison Wesley Longman.

Cohen, A. D. 1998b. 'Strategies and processes in test-taking and SLA'. In Bachman, L. F. and Cohen, A. D. 1998. Interfaces between second language acquisition and language testing research. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 90-111

Stathopoulou, Maria. 2009. 'Exploring the test-taking strategies used for the KPG writing tasks'. Directions in English Language Teaching and Testing. Vol 1. Athens: RCeL Publications.


The authors

Bessie Dendrinos is Professor of the Faculty of English Studies, Director of the RCeL as well as of the TRSP project, and academically responsible for The KPG Exams
. Maria Stathopoulou has just completed her MA degree in Applied Linguistics at the Faculty of English Studies of the University of Athens and is currently a research assistant at the RCeL.

Bessie Dendrinos & Maria Stathopoulou

The RCeL is a unit of the Faculty of English Studies, University of Athens. Established in 2003-04, it has the responsibility of preparing The KPG Exams
. Its basic aim is to provide support to various projects and programmes of English language teaching, testing and assessment of the University of Athens and of other educational settings, research centres and/or institutions in Greece and other E.U. member states. Information about the RCeL is available at www.uoa.gr/english/rcel.

Directed by Prof. Bessie Dendrinos, the TSRP has involved a team of 27 people, working at different stages of its realization; i.e., to design different tools for data collection, to disseminate question­naires, hold interviews, analyze and interpret data.

Stathopoulou, Maria & Nikaki, Doriana. 2009. "Investigating the use of test-taking strategies by KPG candidates". Paper presented in the 19th International Symposium on Theoretical and Applied Linguistics. Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.


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