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One potato, two potatoes, three potatoes, mock

Question: Abbie does her school homework on her computer in her own room. Explain why her parents do not allow this computer to connect to the internet.

*Answer: Because they’re mean?

This was a student’s response to a Year 11 mock exam question sat in December 2010 for the (now redundant) GCSE ICT course. Although they didn’t receive any marks because the question required a response linked to the issues of internet access, I still admire the simplicity, or should that be the naivety of their answer.

This student’s response is also an indicator of why mock exams are such useful resources for teachers and their students. A teacher reading this response will automatically ask themselves a series of questions about the student’s exam technique. For example, was this an attempt at humour? If so, was this displaying contempt for the subject or the exam or was it an attempt to deflect from a lack of revision? Does this display an inability to interpret an exam question? Does this student struggle with matching knowledge to context? Does this response differ greatly from their responses in class? Would this student benefit from more time to process the content of the question?

Clearly, a single response to a single mock exam question is only a very small part of the bigger image of a student’s ability that their teacher forms over time but it could be enough to trigger a response that may prove invaluable in allowing the student to be successful in future exams.

When I entered the teaching profession over 30 years ago as a maths teacher, mock exams were typically hand written as typewriters didn’t have the keys to replicate maths symbols and the few available computers required command-line inputs (coding) and lacked any word processing or publishing facilities. As a result, students were completely at the mercy of their teacher’s decision on exam content and of course their handwriting ability. Imagine a GP’s scrawl if you’re of a certain age ...

The quality and relevance of the mock exams I saw during my first decade of teaching varied widely as there was no standardisation process or any demand for one. When I was recruited to teach maths in a London comprehensive, the head teacher confided in me that she was very concerned about the poor A-level results students kept attaining despite the high results they had obtained in their earlier maths mock exams.

A few weeks later, I was given a copy of the last mock exam paper set for the students. It was a challenging paper with the level of the questions being appropriate and the quantity of questions being similar to those seen in past A-level papers.

A weakness in the paper was immediately apparent - it was dominated by a field in maths that the author of the exam paper had specialised in at university. This bias in itself would compromise the suitability of the paper as a good judgement of future performances. However, the biggest flaw in the paper was that this particular field of mathematics had been dropped from the exam board’s syllabus several years earlier. Not only was the mock exam paper not fit for purpose but the students had missed the opportunity to study relevant topics because a colleague had not kept abreast of the changes in syllabus.

Thankfully, today’s mock exams are far more suited to purpose. Many of the exam boards and private publishers provide online facilities that allow teachers to create mock exams using past exam questions or questions from exemplar material. These same facilities will also produce mark schemes for the exam questions mimicking those used by the exam boards. The heads of subject departments will often be required by their line managers to demonstrate that the mock exam papers used are relevant, of a suitable challenge and that the marking is standardised. Grades will generally be based on the historical grade boundaries used by the exam boards and reflect the content of study covered by the students to date.

As a general trend, in their “real” exams, students tend to match or surpass their mock exam grade for a number of factors including interventions from teachers, students and their families and of course sheer blind panic when mocks haven’t gone so well. Because of the more rigorous approach applied to short term and long term assessment by educators, mock exam results are now more valued and generally more valid than they ever were.

This is why it was initially suggested that this summer's A level students could use their mock exam results to appeal their grades if they were unhappy with the grade generated by Ofqual’s algorithm. Clear evidence that the Department for Education recognises that the modern mock exam remains a very good indicator of future performances. In the light of possible school closures or exams not proceeding as planned next summer, I would advise all students to take advantage of any available resources to try and perform to the best of their ability in their mock exams. As my final example (from the same mock paper) below shows, humour is not always the best substitute for revision, sound exam techniques and a good subject knowledge:

Question (i): A branch of a medical company still uses a dial-up connection along ordinary telephone lines to access the information stored on the head office’s network. State one additional hardware device that this branch must have to make a dial-up connection.

*Answer: A potatoe

Question (ii): Why is this device needed when using dial-up connections?

*Answer: Wow I think I spelt potatoe wrong.

Mock exam results formed a key element for the estimated grades used by teachers to award this year’s GCSE and A-level results. Why not contact Tutor Doctor Bristol West for a free and no obligation consultation to see how they can help you or your child prepare for success in this year’s mock exams?

Written by Leroy, Education Consultant at Tutor Doctor Bristol West

Photograph by TJ Evans of Pixabay

*Genuine responses to a mock exam paper