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Cambridge Assessment English
Why choose us?
Exams and tests
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Edmund Jones & Sian Morgan, Research Managers, Research and Thought Leadership Group, Cambridge Assessment English
Cambridge English Qualifications are in-depth level-based exams that are like the steps of a ladder. Each exam corresponds to a meaningful improvement in language competence, and when a learner passes an exam, the next one is always within reach and never daunting. Learners always know what the next goals are, and this should give them the motivation and confidence to continue their studies.
Cambridge English Qualifications are closely aligned with the Common European Framework for Reference (CEFR), a set of internationally recognized criteria for measuring ability in second or foreign languages. The CEFR specifies what a person “can do”, or should be able to do, at each of six levels. For example, at level B2 a person “can make notes while someone is talking, or write a letter including non-standard requests”, and B2 First asks the test-taker to perform precisely these tasks to see whether they have achieved level B2 in their writing skills.
The CEFR level descriptors follow a sequence of natural targets for language-learners.[1, 2] Progressing through the six levels can therefore be highly motivating for learners. They can see where they stand in terms of international standards, what they need to do in order to reach the next level, and the value of the abilities that the exams are testing. As many as 75% of young learners sitting A2 Key for Schools in Beijing said following clear and meaningful targets had increased their motivation to study.
The importance of meaningful goals is backed up by research in educational psychology. The study of how people are motivated was pioneered in the post-war years by John Atkinson at the University of Michigan. In his book Motivation and Achievement, Atkinson argued that motivation is increased when there is an attainable goal in an activity that is highly valued. One such goal is the ability to use English in today’s internationalized professional and educational communities. John Hattie and Helen Timperley of the University of Auckland, in their 2007 work on self-monitoring and goal-setting, presented three important questions for learners: what are the goals, what progress am I making towards them, and what activities are needed to make better progress? Using exams which are based on manageable meaningful targets which address the four language skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking, would support learners to explore these key questions.
In research specifically on the learning of foreign languages, the most influential theory of motivation has been the “motivational self” concept proposed by Zoltán Dörnyei, of Nottingham University. Learners imagine themselves when they are fluent in the language, and these images of themselves in the future encourage and motivate them in their studies.
Cambridge English Qualifications are based on a model of communicative language ability that emphasizes the importance of real-life conversation and interaction, in line with the theory proposed by Michael Canale and Merrill Swain in their landmark 1980 paper on communicative competence. This encourages and motivates learners because the skills they need for the exams are the same as the skills they need and use outside the classroom.
In this way, our exams are designed to have a positive effect on teaching and learning - what Nick Saville calls “impact by design”. This reduces the phenomenon of teaching to the test, where teachers find themselves training the students in skills that will help them pass the test, but are not useful beyond the test. At Cambridge we also consult key stakeholders, such as test-takers, parents, and institutions. That way, we stay in touch with real life needs as well as keeping up with theory and best practices.
Cambridge English exams are also highly valuable in peoples’ lives and careers because they are used by many institutions and governments as gate-openers for higher education, migration, and professional purposes. One Cambridge English study, in Madrid in 2011, found that improving career prospects was among the top factors that motivated students to learn English. This is a further motivation for learners to structure their language learning using Cambridge products. In this way our exams promote extrinsic motivation, which comes from outside the individual, as well as intrinsic motivation, which comes from personal satisfaction alone.
With Cambridge English exams, the results provided to learners do not just describe the learner’s overall language level; they also provide information on their level in individual skills such as reading or speaking. These scores can be used flexibly to create skill-specific profiles suitable for different pathways—for example, admission to higher education courses or professional training courses.
This diagnostic information also enables learners to take action on problem areas, set new goals, and monitor their own progress. In this way they can become actively involved in their own learning and gain linguistic self-confidence as they move to the next level.[10, 11]
Cambridge Assessment research with school students has shown that self-confidence has a positive effect on future achievement in several academic subjects. In the same way, the self-confidence generated by Cambridge exam success can increase learners’ self-efficacy, in other words, in their belief in their ability to achieve goals, and lead to future academic success. As one Italian student put it after she had passed her C2 Proficiency exam: “You will see your self-esteem and confidence increase by leaps and bounds, and everything will finally be worth it.”
Cambridge English exams are produced and administered in secure conditions and according to rigorous standards, to guarantee fairness and accuracy for learners in all countries. They are also recognized by institutions and authorities around the world. Research suggests that this can be highly motivating, as it means that learners’ scores are an independent and objective assessment of their language ability. One teacher commented that “Parents are quite fond of these exams because they are from the University of Cambridge and it is not the teacher that assess[es] them.”
Cambridge English carries out regular studies to learn more about how its exams work in practice. Recent studies have taken place in Mexico, Spain, Egypt, Malaysia, Vietnam, and China. Questionnaires and interviews from these provide insights into the importance of motivation and the highly motivating nature of Cambridge English exams.
The Madrid study mentioned above involved 28 primary and secondary schools. It found that the top factors that motivated students to learn English and Cambridge English exams were: being able to communicate when travelling, improving career prospects, the importance and universality of the English language, and the influence of their parents. Motivation is important not just for students, but also for teachers, and 53% of teachers said they had become more motivated to teach English as a result of introducing Cambridge English exams; none said they had become less motivated.
Another study was carried out in Taiwan in 2012, using the Cambridge English tests for young learners. Students felt positively about the exam: 41% said they liked it and only 14% disliked it, and 36% said they wanted to study English harder after the exam whereas only 15% said they did not. Comparing the Cambridge English test to their usual school English tests, 79% said the Cambridge test was harder but 66% said they liked it more. Difficult exams are not necessarily off-putting, even for young children. Teachers said the feedback from their students about the exam was mostly positive, especially among the stronger students. One commented that the students did not find the test as difficult as they had expected. This is important, as exams for young children need to be encouraging rather than challenging.
Another Spanish study was carried out by Ruth Breeze and Hanne Roothooft, researchers at the University of Navarra. This found that “students are usually highly motivated to do the Cambridge English tests for young learners, and this has a good effect on their attitude and behaviour.” The researchers also wrote that “Any apprehension [the teachers] might have felt when starting out with these exams was usually dispelled once they had discovered the wealth of material available and experienced the positive effects on student motivation.”