When preparing for standardized tests, people are often forced to struggle with bad study tools. Books and courses often contain inaccurate questions. People teaching those tests also struggle with this problem, obviously.
To nudge publishers and course designers in the right direction as they update their books for the revised TOEFL test, I recently teamed up with Jaimie Miller to analyze existing samples of the new TOEFL writing question and produce some guidelines for good question creation. The results of our work follow.
How to Write “Authentic” Academic Discussion Prompts for the new TOEFL iBT Writing Test
If you are producing sample activities for TOEFL iBT test-takers who need to prepare for the Academic Discussion portion of the new TOEFL iBT Writing test (added to the test starting July 26, 2023) we strongly encourage you to base your activities on the analysis that we have done of the sample activities that ETS has made available. By doing so, you’re creating material that test-takers are likely to recommend to their friends.
Test-takers have this view of the information when it is time to write their Academic Discussion response:
(You may also want to download this side-by-side comparison and breakdown of the 3 samples that ETS has released so far as a reference to guide)
Section One: Instructions
Section 1 contains the instructions, which are always the same. Only the academic department (sociology, business, political science, etc) changes. Subjects in the liberal arts seem most common, but anything could be used as long as the question is accessible. The questions are unlikely to require any specific technical knowledge. For instance, there are likely to be questions about the use of social media (which most people are broadly familiar with) but questions about something like genetically modified plants (which some people aren’t familiar with) are unlikely. There is an image of the professor.
Section Two: The Question
Section 2 includes the actual question, and some context. In sample questions now available, it ranges from 39 to 56 words. It establishes the general theme of the question and provides background information to activate schemata and give the test-taker time to adjust. There is commonly a reference to “the discussion board” to make it look realistic.
After a clear line break, the professor presents 1 or 2 questions that are visually set apart in a block. The questions are academic in tone, but not challenging. Just a slight step up from the banality of the Independent writing task. Nothing technical, nothing complicated, nothing culturally or demographically inaccessible.
When they ask an open-ended question (“What do you think is the most significant effect…?” or “Which issue would you argue is more important…?”), they follow with a simple “Why?” question that encourages the test-taker to dig into reasons and examples.
When they ask a YES/NO question (“Is advertising just a way of manipulating people…?”), they follow with a second YES/NO question that takes an opposing perspective (“… or is it an important source of information…?”).
It’s common to find a comparative or superlative adjective in the question. For examples, review ETS’s 3 samples here.
The total word count for the questions ranges from 19 to 30 words in the samples currently available.
The total word count for Section 2 probably ranges from 69 to 75 words total in the samples currently available.
Section 3: The First Response
In Section 3, the first student responds to the question. Responses in the currently available samples are 39 to 59 words. In samples currently published by ETS, the first student’s responses seem to have the following characteristics:
✅ contractions (“don’t” as opposed to “do not”) occur with limited frequency
✅ “I know / I don’t think / I think”
❌ limited use of personal examples or personal stories
❌ no abbreviations (“television” not “TV”)
✅ 1 example with a generalization that is based on EITHER:
blending plausible 2nd Person generalizations with 3rd Person generalizations (“When you are watching television, you are not moving around or exercising. This is especially true for children. When children spend a lot of time watching television, they have a greater tendency to be overweight”)
OR plausible statistics with specific details and multiple numbers (“I read that in just one year, from 2018 to 2019, the number of computers, tablets and mobile phones using ad blockers increased from 142 million to 615 million”)
✅ realistic use of capital letters for emphasis in strategic places (“I think the REAL question is…”)
(The above features may or may not appear in other items of this type)
Section Four: The Second Response
In Section 4, the second student responds to the question in 53 to 59 words. In open-ended questions (“What do you think is the most significant effect…” or “Which issue would you argue is more important…?”), they mention a new idea that Student #1 didn’t mention. For YES/NO questions (“Is advertising just manipulation… or is it a source of information?”), Student #2 argues against whatever Student #1 said.
In samples currently published by ETS, student #2’s responses seem to have the following characteristics:
✅ “I think / I disagree with…”
✅ contractions (“I’m” and “There’s” as opposed to “I am” and “There is”) occur with limited frequency
❌ abbreviations (“television” not “TV”)
✅ occasional use of adverbs (“actually”)
✅ 1 example with a generalization that is based on EITHER:
blending plausible 2nd Person generalizations with 1st Person personal stories (“Think of all the different places in the world you can experience through television! Last night, I watched a program about life in Antarctica, and it was fascinating!”)
OR plausible statistics with specific details and multiple numbers (“People can find out a lot about products from advertising. There’s plenty of evidence that people usually begin the process of making a big purchase by looking at ads and reviews… I’m going to post later about an advertisement that gave me a lot of useful information.”)
(Again, note that the above features appear in the materials currently published. They may or may not appear in future items of this type.)
The total number of words that test-takers are exposed to is probably in the range of 165 to 193.
Section Five: Participants
Section 5 is simply to note that one student is male and one student is female. Images of each student are presented along with their responses.
Section 6: The Test-Taker’s Response
The test-taker’s response is typed in Section 6. A word count is displayed on the screen.
If you use these guidelines to create your own content, I will be happy to link to it here. So far, decent questions can be found at: