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TOEFL Tip #158: Why “Smart” High School Students Have A Hard Time With TOEFL

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on June 17, 2012

We at Strictly English have been repeatedly surprised that very bright high school students struggle with taking the TOEFL exam.

Although these students come from a wide range of high schools, we have noticed a common pattern in their educational experiences: high school students are typically rewarded for contributing to class, regardless of the accuracy or the critical acumen of what they say. There are many pedagogical reasons for this, including countering student apathy, keeping bright students engaged in classroom discussion, and acknowledging when students overcome their reluctance to speak up.

Of course, not every high school classroom follows this pattern, and many do emphasize the quality of students’ participation instead of its quantity. However, this too-frequent high school-based view of participation translates into TOEFL classes where students begin to say or write the first response that comes to them, instead of thinking carefully about how relevant or accurate their statements are.

BUT, unlike high school, college classes, and therefore TOEFL, will not reward you just for speaking. College classes and the TOEFL exam look for relevant and meaningful contributions that respond intelligently to the topic / discussion.

An egregious example of what happens when high school students are encouraged to think that speaking up in class is the same as being smart occurs when our students come close to word association in their answers. If the prompt is about chemistry, for example, talking about the link between two people in a romantic relationship is quite different from a discussion of an experiment in a lab. This is obvious, but if students just riff on the word “chemistry,” they could go in an entirely different direction than the one intended in the prompt.

But the TOEFL exam will not reward you for just being able to make any random connection between two ideas. It will only reward you if you can articulate – via paraphrasing – the author’s / lecture’s connection between two ideas. In other words: the skills that you have been rewarded for throughout 4 years in high school – stating your opinion about the subject under discussion – will not serve you well in college or on the TOEFL. Instead, you have to think very carefully about the information you’ve been given, and you have to stay true to its message. The harshest way to say this is: the TOEFL exam doesn’t care what you think about the test’s content; it only cares about how well you can understand its content and re-present it.

Participation should be rewarded early in a student’s intellectual growth, but to excel on the TOEFL and in college, that participation must be both accurate and relevant.