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Getting the most out of TOEFL Practice Tests by Ingrid Wisniewska PhD

Doing practice tests is a great way for students to measure their progress, become familiar with the test format and estimate the amount of time to spend on each section of the test. To get the most out of practice tests, it can also be helpful to build in some structured reflection that will encourage students to develop a reflective routine and help build their confidence. 

Develop self-evaluation skills

Help students to develop a positive mindset towards evaluating their answers. You might advise them to start by looking at what they did well and where they improved. Then select one or two areas for improvement. Alternatively, students could work in pairs to share what they did best and give each other advice on how to improve. For speaking and writing tasks, ask students to apply the test evaluation criteria to their work and identify their weak points. These self-evaluative skills will help them become more independent as learners and enable them to make better use of their practice tests going forward. 

Collins' Skills for the TOEFL iBT Test provides detailed descriptions of the various question types and include helpful analyses of sample test questions, explaining why answer options are correct or incorrect. In addition, there are helpful checklists for students to evaluate spoken and written own work. 

Classroom activity: Select two or three sample student answers from the writing section and have students work in groups to evaluate them using the test criteria. Set a time limit for groups to evaluate each one before passing it on to the next group. Compare answers and have students write advice on how to improve their score. 

Keep a test-taker's journal

Keeping a journal can also help to establish a routine of detailed and constructive reflection. Students can record how they approached each section of the test, what problems they encountered and how they dealt with them. This will make it easier to set goals for improvement. Remind students that it is just as important to focus on their achievements as it is to identify weak points. 

Some ideas for structuring journal entries include:

  • Setting reflection questions for homework after each test (which section of the exam was your best and what contributed to your success?)
  • Providing headings (Strategies, Time Management, Goals for Improvement)
  • Creating a checklist (e.g. Did I make a plan before starting the writing tasks?)
  • Providing sentence stems (e.g. 'I felt anxious about the listening section because..., I thought this section would be too difficult, but...')

Classroom activity: To motivate your students, you may want to ask each of them to choose one positive comment from their journal and write it on a strip of paper. Paste all the comments from the class onto a motivational poster, or do a walkaround activity, where students tell each other of one achievement and ask questions about how they achieved it. 

Explore different test-taking strategies

Students already have their own test-taking strategies but may not have put them into words. One way to develop awareness of these strategies is to talk through one of the test sections and verbalize each step of your approach. For example: 'First I'm going to read the title. Then I'll read all the questions, but not the answer options.'

Classroom activity: Ask students to work together to write a questionnaire about test-taking strategies. This could take the form of a multiple-choice, a yes/no, or open-ended question format. The process of writing the questionnaire will encourage students to see that there are various possible strategies to tackling the test questions and not just one strategy that works for everyone. Groups can exchange their questionnaires and compare their ideas. 

Encourage students to try out new strategies on a smaller scale to find out how effective they are. Collins' Vocabulary and Grammar for the TOEFL Test provides short reading and listening texts with tasks that replicate the test questions. As well as practicing useful academic vocabulary and grammar, these tasks are ideal for preparing test-taking strategies before doing a full-length practice test. They might identify one or two techniques that they will try out on their next practice test. 

Finally, a note on dealing with exam stress. Although a little stress can be beneficial, too much stress can have the opposite effect. Before starting a mock test with your class, consider spending a few minute on calming techniques and positive visualization. Encourage students to use these techniques when they do practice tests at home as well. 

Actively encouraging a positive approach to structure reflection can help students to develop their ability to learn independently and make progress in their academic skills, as well as in their test-taking performance.

The author of this blog post, Ingrid Wisniewska, studied languages at Oxford University and has a PhD in language education. She has taught academic English and TOEFL preparation classes in Japan, Europe, and the U.S. and has written a wide range of ELT materials for students and teachers.

Find out more about the Collins English for the TOEFL Test range and other English for Exams materials here.