‘Mock Exam Season’ is upon us! In some schools, Year 11 students might have already completed them. Many will be about to sit them before Christmas. At the very least, students and teachers will be well into the throes of preparation for their appearance on the school calendar in January

Mock exams themselves are a bit of an enigma. Every school does them but schools up and down the country approach them quite differently. The timing of mock exams is a perennial issue for school leaders. November, December and January are the most common months for scheduling them, but whether you do them early or late, there are pros and cons for both.

Very few schools would claim they have got everything to do with the running of mock exams absolutely right. But, as a teacher, how do you make the most of the mocks?

Here are some tips…

  1. Do them properly

As a teacher, the final decision of when mock exams are timetabled on the busy school calendar is likely be out of your hands. Department leaders might have been consulted. It’s typical to hear conversations arguing the case for mocks to be timetabled late, because of a specific unit that still needs to be taught in that subject. Other subjects, meanwhile, will want them earlier.

The truth is there are merits for timetabling mocks very early in the year and merits for scheduling them quite late. There are downsides too and the simple fact that is that you won’t be able to please all the people all of the time!

But whether mocks run in early October or late February, the key thing is that they are ‘done properly.’

Of course, one of the key benefits of mock exams is that it re-creates the environment that students will face for ‘the real thing’ the following summer. Therefore, using the same exam spaces and making the whole experience as much like it will be in the summer is important. The ‘exam period ‘of mid-May to late June can’t be replicated exactly. No school can afford to have Year 11 off normal timetable for so long in the Autumn Term as well!

However, squeezing 2 exams (or even 3!) into as tightly condensed period of time as humanly possible to ‘minimise disruption’ is likely to be counter-productive. Students won’t be able to perform to the best of their abilities on such a relentless treadmill of exams. As a teacher you won’t get a true reflection of where your students are at.

  1. Make it real!

It’s ‘as above’ really in terms of making the mock exam experience as real as possible – but it’s also important that the exam papers themselves that students sit are as real as possible.

In the current climate of examination reform, it might not be appropriate to use last summer’s actual exam in a subject – it’s likely it will be a different specification. Equally, in some subjects, it might not be practical to get students to sit the full papers they will face in the summer – some units might not have been taught yet! But cobbling together a mish-mash of questions to ‘give them something to sit’ should be approached with extreme caution. It will produce skewed results and a progress picture that could be misleading.

  1. Mark them yourself!

It’s never a great feeling filling your car boot with your class’ mock papers from two exams. (And, if you’re an English teacher, unlucky – it will be FOUR this time around.) However, it is always best to mark the papers of the students you teach yourself.

Some schools adopt an approach where teachers swap their own class’ papers with each other. The idea is that by taking personal knowledge of a student out of the equation, a somehow more accurate mark will be awarded. Some schools even do it to guard against ‘grade inflation’.

I would argue that teachers should actually be trusted more than that! Yes, some departmental moderation is always a good idea; but at the end of the day these are your students that you teach so you need to know how they are doing.

There are many professionals offering ‘mock exam marking services’.  This sounds great – and schools that are willing to fund it to reduce the work load burden of teachers should be commended for that. But, it’s false economy.

As a teacher, if a student I taught achieved a ‘9’ for a particular question, that itself is fairly useless information. I want to know specifically how they got the ‘9’, why it wasn’t an ‘8’ or a ’10’… and what the student needs to do to get themselves closer to the ’14’ they are targeted.

The only way I can do this is by marking the answer myself!

  1. Diagnose

Some exam boards do now offer mock exams analysis services. As a time-saver, or if you’re not naturally inclined to analysis, this is an excellent idea – but the numerical data of performance: question by question, or class by class – although very useful in highlighting issues, trends and informing planning and interventions  – is no substitute for a forensic diagnosis of your own class’ performance.

Forget grades, targets – even marks awarded – and focus on the skills. What is it exactly that your students are struggling with? That is what you need to focus on.

  1. Manage your students carefully

Handle with care! Mock exams mean different things to different students. Some will approach them as though they were their final exams. They might buckle under the pressure they put themselves under – especially if things don’t go as well as expected.

Others, inevitably, will take the ‘What’s the point? These aren’t the real thing. I’ll try properly in the summer’ attitude. Dangerous – and very frustrating as a teacher – but there’s not a lot you can do about it!

It’s about striking a balance between emphasising just how important the mock exams are and not scaring students completely out of their minds.

How students handle their results needs some skill as well. From those who outperform expectations and suddenly become arrogant and super-confident to those who lose all hope and motivation because they tried really hard and failed – all will need carefully handling and managing.