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Purpura Receives Prestigious Award in Language Testing

James E. Purpura, Assistant Professor of Language and Education, recently received the ILTA (International Language Testing Association) Award for the "Best Paper Published in Language Testing." The award was presented in Vancouver, Canada, in mid-March for the paper, "An Analysis of the Relationships Between Test Takers' Cognitive and Metacognitive Strategy Use and Second Language Test Performance," which appeared in the journal Language Learning.

The ILTA committee, in announcing the award, said, "There has been considerable assertion in applied linguistics regarding cognitive strategies and their relationship to language performance, but regrettably little empirical research. This issue is of crucial importance in language testing as both theorists and practitioners need to understand the relationship between linguistic variables and general cognitive abilities. Purpura addresses this complex issue with much needed empirical research. This is groundbreaking research in that Purpura has taken the first steps towards addressing a fundamental and very complex issue crucial to the development of our field."

According to Purpura there is a considerable amount of research on the relationships between learner strategy use and second language acquisition but little on the use of sophisticated statistical methods to investigate the relationship between the test takers' reported strategy use and performance on second language tests. His research added the dimension of "powerful statistical analyses."

"Since the 1970s," Purpura explained, "there is research that looked at the relationship between how people say what they think about and what they do and their actual performance on tests. I administered an 80-item Cognitive and Metacognitive Strategy Questionnaire and a 70-item standardized language test to 1,660 high school students in 17 centers all over Turkey, the Czech Republic and Spain. Then I analyzed the relationships between what people said they do and how they actually performed. I used a statistical technique-structural equation modeling-that allowed me to look at a number of variables and their effect on performance."

Purpura added, "A lot of people used to say, ‘if you planned more you'd do better on tests.' Other people said, ‘You didn't check your work, if you had you would have done better on tests.'"

"What I found," Purpura said, "was that you don't do better on tests if you just plan. Planning needs to be associated with a number of specific strategies-doing strategies. It's very complex. It's thinking and doing and that interaction-when you do certain ones for certain tasks it's effective when you do others it's not effective."

Purpura also found that the notion that smart learners have a lot of metacognitive strategies and weak learners don't have them is not true. "Everybody uses metacognitive strategies. Everybody thinks, in other words. But the problem is when people think and don't do or when people do and don't think. Or, when people think and do but they are thinking and doing the wrong things. All of this is logical but I've shown it by looking at these different relationships."

How does Purpura see his research applied? "I'm interested in the patterns of behavior of large numbers of people. For example, in a school, if you see test scores are poor maybe it's because of the strategies used in these tests were not the most effective. I believe that you can actually train students to be more strategic in the way they approach a test."

Responding to the question about how he felt about receiving the ILTA award, Purpura said, "I was totally speechless. It's nice to have your work recognized. I felt humbled. When I heard my name I wanted to slip out of the room."

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