Why bother with mocks? How to make them useful without taking hours of your life away


It’s mock exam season. The time when teachers spend longer marking test papers than the total time that the students spent revising and sitting the exam itself. Is the time cost worth it?

I believe that teaching a subject that results in a terminal exam comes down to a careful balance of teaching content, how to apply the content to questions and how to complete the exam. In terms of timing, I’d probably go for a 50/40/10% split of curriculum time on these.

Mock exams are one of the only chances where all three of these parts of the exam puzzle come together. I am in no doubt that students need to do mock exams but possibly not in a way that many teachers do them.

What is your mock for?

Teachers need to decide what their mock is for. This will then determine what they will do with it. Alternatives include:

  • Practising timing
  • Practising sitting in a room, in silence, with peers, for a long period of time
  • Seeing the paper as it will look in the real exam
  • Reducing nerves associated with something different and important
  • Recalling all previously taught material
  • Practising exam questions
  • To motivate students
  • To give students a needed ‘wake up’ call
  • To generate a predicted grade (for school data, for college/sixth form application)

Once you decide what it is for, you may not need to mark them all in the same way.

Do mocks from the start

Practice questions should be completed from early on, not left until the end of year 11. Once students have covered some content I choose the easiest way to introduce one type of question. I use a set of rubrics for a successful answer to that question. They have as long as they need (well beyond what they’ll have in the exam). I let them use their notes. It’s a gradual experience that builds confidence. Over the 3 years I then gradually take away the scaffolding. Giving them a set time. Not using notes.

I’m experimenting where possible get students to move from the place they learnt the material when they do the test. See here for why.

At the start it’s about confidence and ‘I can do this’ not throwing them into a full GCSE paper. By the end, it has all come together to a glorious full mock paper.

Don’t leave recall to the end of the year

Some teachers leave recalling content to the end of year exam. Their end of year exam covers ‘everything’ that has been taught that year but has not been recalled or tested until that point. Most students will have limited recall, even with some revision before the test. I get students to recall prior knowledge on an almost lesson by lesson basis either through a quick quiz starter or linking current content or an exam question from previous topics.

If you don’t want to get depressed from their lack of knowledge, don’t leave their first test until the end of the year.

Hours and hours of marking?

As shown in this tweet, fully marking mock papers is seriously time consuming. Unless your school gives you the time to mark them it can be your Christmas holidays gone.

Depending on the reason, teachers do not have to sit and mark every answer of every paper.

What could be done with the mock? Alternatives to teachers marking the whole paper*

  1. The student nominates which answer/s they want the teacher to mark (within guidelines)
  2. The teacher identifies the type of question that the student has been specifically working on previously and only marks that
  3. The teacher only marks part of an answer e.g the introduction,
  4. Give the paper back to the student at a later date. In silence, by themselves, with a mark scheme, they mark it themselves (or parts of it). They can then nominate a set amount to be checked by the teacher
  5. As above, peer marked.
  6. Teacher copies one answer (different questions) from each student. An anonymous copy is then shared around the class alongside a mark scheme and students mark it, identifying what they think has been done well and what is missing.
  7. Teacher copies the same answer from all the students. Students then rank them from ‘best’ to ‘worst’
  8. As above but with staff only. (Commonly known as ‘comparative judgment’)
  9. The teacher gives a ‘perfect’ answer to a question. The students then compare with their own and unpick the similarities and differences.
  10. Make some careful pairings/trios of students based on answers. Get students to work together on one answer.

If your school insists on full paper marking….

  1. Use stampers that highlight common errors/improvements. Expensive but can be used throughout the year and hopefully for a few years with current specs.
  1. Use tick sheets/rubrics to highlight what has been included and what hasn’t
  2. Only write marks not comments. Use whole class feedback when giving back papers

And if you’re going to spend your life marking….*

You must get the students to do something with the marking. Giving them a paper back and then doing nothing about it has to be the biggest waste of your time. Suggestions:

  1. Students improve (add to) one answer (variations – using notes, using a ‘perfect’ exemplar, using a text book, their worst answer, teaching highlights on individual papers which answer to improve)
  2. Students start improvements with the easiest marks to gain
  3. The teacher goes through the most common errors and then the student chooses one of these to implement
  4. Student rewrites a whole answer
  5. Get students to explain what they’ve done to improve their work
  6. Sit students on a table based on what they need to improve. You can then sit with each table and go through the common error/s. Or if you’re tech savvy make a quick screencast for them to watch and then improve their work. Example
  7. Get students to record (I use a quick & easy googleform) how they got on with each question. I can then look at which topics were weakest for students and focus ‘revision’ on those.
  8. Use the above data generated to target which content they need to learn or which questions they need to practise. This will vary from student to student. Set as individual homework.



*these may not be appropriate for your students/context


The same homework for 3 years – how and why


We have a 3 year key stage 4. Students that opt for GCSE Religious Studies have 3 different homeworks that carry through every year. I have blogged previously about some of these (see links in headers) but not as our key stage 4 homework programme as a whole.

  1. Learning keywords

Students are given mini booklets of keywords that they need to know to understand the key beliefs and teachings of the religions studied. They are given these before they have studied their context. The idea is that they learn these ‘off by heart’ and then when we cover them in lesson their meaning and application to the religion becomes clear.

All keyword sheets are available in our classrooms and are always attached on ShowMyHomework when set.

We also have made Quizlet quizzes on all the words here. We also give students index cards to create their own testing set.


The students then have weekly keyword tests. One week they are the ‘current’ keywords that they are learning (one of the pages of words) and the other week are ‘random’ from all previous pages learnt. They complete the test in class and then they peer mark using the correct answers. They get very good at this. In fact from when I give out the sheets for them to write on, they run this part of the lesson themselves.

The basis for these are that retrieval practice is good for long term memory. The second random test allows for spacing of retrieval as they don’t know which words will come up and how often. I am currently editing Dave Paterson’s random generator so I can automatically generate and monitor the frequency of these repetitions.

Scores are recorded out of 20 marks each time. On the current keywords they have to make progress every fortnight. They chose a focus word that they will focus on getting correct next time to slowly increase their score.

2. Writing multiple choice questions


Student feedback on this system is overall positive with the caveat that they’re boring. I don’t care as long as they remember them.

After a few lessons of a new topic I set this homework. Students have to write a minimum of 6 multiple choice questions on the topic.


The rules are clear (see above).

The rationale for this homework is two-fold. Firstly it is really easy to see their misconceptions. If they indicate a correct answer that is in fact incorrect then I can see what they’ve misunderstood. Depending on the frequency and seriousness of the error I will give whole class feedback or individual feedback on that issue. Students then need to rectify their error.

I use their questions for the next homework.

MC template

3. Quizzes

The third type of homework uses the questions they previously wrote. I type them up onto a google form and then set them as a multiple choice quiz. There may be one or many correct answers. They must achieve full marks. Google forms records their scores.


They can actually cheat by doing the quiz once and then keeping the answer tab open. I’ve told them how they can do this! However I don’t care. The point is that the answers are shuffled so they still have to fully engage with the correct/incorrect answers. This exposure is important.


My screencasts on how to create these quizzes is here.

Once we have covered several topics, I can then start to repeat, space and interleave the quizzes. So year 10 currently have  quiz from a couple of weeks ago and one from January or year 9. This repetition supports the idea of retrieving information at spaced gaps of time during the time needed to learn them long term.

We have a class website and I also put a copy of these quizzes on there so any motivated student can go and complete these independently at any time. I’ve put a notification onto those sheets that email me when they’re completed so I can see straight away who has been doing some independent study.

The benefits of only 3 homeworks

  • Students always know what they need to do; it doesn’t change
  • All of these support research from cognitive science on long term memory
  • Parents know what to expect
  • Students can’t ‘get stuck’. There’s no new concepts (the keywords are initially just a memory task)
  • They need few resources: keyword list and a piece of paper to write the MC questions
  • It’s very little work for the teacher. I just check their MC questions which takes max. 15 minutes for a class. The online quizzes mark themselves. I just put the results on the screen. They mark their own keyword tests.
  • All homework set is of the same quality; no last minute rubbish made up by the teacher just because they have to set homework
  • All 3 homeworks feed into important knowledge and skills they need for their exam

The only issues have been if a student cannot access the internet for the online quizzes however, with plenty of time to complete these I always offer break/lunch access using our devices at school. In an extreme case you can print the quizzes but of course they won’t self mark.

I have been doing this for a couple of years now. I think our results show that this is significant in long term memory and consequently performance in their exam. To me, these are so important, I can’t imagine setting any other form of homework at key stage 4 that would make a bigger impact on learning.

In defence of marking


It seems that marking has become the enemy of the teacher. It takes hours, teachers spend their evenings and weekends lugging home huge bags of books and for little or no benefit when compared to other teacher feedback.

I know this may be an unpopular view but I think that a certain form of marking is useful but not for the reason other feedback may be.

To put this in context, last year I taught 19 different classes. Two were year 11 GCSE and one year 9 GCSE. The rest was ks3 and core RE at ks4. This ranges from seeing them 5 times a fortnight to once a fortnight.

My school policy is based around assessment pieces (orange stickers) at least once a half term (ks4 core doesn’t have these). It doesn’t specify other forms of marking except how SPAG marking should be presented. Subject areas fill in the gaps between orange stickers, how they see fit.

This is ONE of many ways I assess, mark, give feedback; whatever you want to call it. I still regularly use a visualiser, give exemplars, do criteria based work, give whole class feedback but I do this as well.

What I do

I read or scan their work. I check they’ve done the basics: title, date, underlined. I then check whatever it is they’ve done; always for SPAG errors, in pink, using squiggle and code.. If they’ve not done anything they should have (except SPAG errors) they come the next day and do it. Even tiny things.

Next lesson they are given 10 minutes at the start to do any SPAG corrections and respond to anything in pink.

Why I do this

It keeps high standards

If I am checking their work I am ensuring they are doing the things they have been told to do. Underline the title. Write what they need to write. If I don’t check that and allow them to get away with it, over a period of time their attitude towards their work/the subject/my class may follow.

It gives individual SPAG feedback

Whilst reading I do a general scan for spellings. Usually all capital letters and subject specific words. Then classic errors. It values literacy. It makes it clear that it’s not just for English lessons.

You’ve got to read it anyway

If I’m reading their work, I can’t imagine it adds much time putting sp/cp/gr/p on their work. I rarely write anything extra. All other methods of ‘not marking’ involve reading the student work. Why not pick up literacy errors?

It gives a message

I am bothered what they do and how they do it. If a teacher doesn’t check work it can give the impression it’s not important.

It values effort

We have an attitude to learning scale. One of the criteria is ‘goes beyond teacher expectations’. This means if they do ‘more than’ I’ve told them, they show an attitude to learning of 1. It shows me they are prepared to go beyond. This is a step towards more independence.

I can check understanding

They don’t have to write loads for this. I keep things minimal. Something that will show if they’ve understood.

It helps build a picture of the student

I have to write a very simple report on every child: their attitude to learning, attitude to homework and progress. (Using codes) Every time I do these checks it helps to build up a mental picture of that student, their understanding, their literacy and importantly their ability to follow instructions.

But who is this all for?

I was asked at #TLT17 if I’d still do what I do if no-one else was to look at it (other than students). I’m not sure you can honestly say what you would/wouldn’t do if there were no policies or people looking at it.

I saw a comment on twitter that marking is for parents. None of our students take their books/folders home and I’ve never had a parent ask. I’m guessing it’s context. The point is, this isn’t for parents.

This also isn’t for school leaders or ‘visitors’ to the classroom. Why would I dictate my marking for a person that might visit my classroom every four years?

If I don’t read student work regularly, how do I know how they are doing in my subject? It’s for me and it’s for them.

How to manage this system

Finally it’s important to share how I manage the workload. It’s a combination of things:

  • My school doesn’t have unrealistic expectations or make us spend time doing things with no/little impact
  • We don’t set work we won’t mark. There are times where in a whole lesson students don’t write anything. Plan these at heavy times.
  • Many lessons are note taking; the marking is checking for quality notes and inclusion of content
  • Core is kept simple. No books. Most lessons have minimal writing e.g two key words
  • Don’t get them regularly writing long long pieces or work. And when they do a long piece either use preprinted criteria or stick to one piece of feedback. Why overload with a whole paragraph of nonsense and expect them to change?
  • Stampers and stickers. I make my own stampers with common issues. I also use a ‘work checked’ so I can keep track what I’ve checked.
  • Do checks in class. A lot of my lessons include a video clip. Whilst watching I check their work and get them to change/add there and then.
  • Repeat expectations over and over. Including the end where I do a verbal checklist “when I check your work I expect to see…..”. This limits the things that will need to be addressed.
  • Do it regularly. I try to do this every lesson that they’ve written at KS3 and for core KS4 RE. On average it takes 10 minutes a set. If I do a set at break that still gives me 15 minutes and at lunch I still have 30minutes.
  • Wherever there is pink pen (mine) there must ALWAYS be a correction/addition/response by the student. I’m not wasting my time doing something if they don’t act upon it. Any uncorrected pink after the lesson is done at a break time.

The important part of this system is it fits our school model. I don’t bring marking home. I don’t mark in the evenings or weekends. I choose to take some break/lunch for it because I value being at home without marking. Others may value chatting with others at break more.

Whatever you want to call this, checking, marking, feedback, I personally think it’s an important part of what I do. It may not fit your model or curriculum. It’s important that people don’t think that we should do anything possible to avoid marking. However it must be valuable at least to the students, and be manageable for the teacher. I believe this model is for us.


There’s only one way to improve exam results…..


…get students to get more marks in exams.

There you go. Simple isn’t it? So why do so many schools that have students that are underachieving do everything but focus on this?

Getting marks in an exam relies on two main things: knowing the subject content needed and having the skill to understand what the question demands*.

(And that they have a teacher that knows both of these and can teach them.)

So if you want to improve exam results, you need to look at what each subject is doing, from day one of GCSE to ensure both of these happen. Everything else is a red herring; lesson plenaries, marking policies, group work, homework, working groups, growth mindset…..

But all of this just sounds like an exam factory. What a horrible place to work.  The kids must be like robots. The interesting thing is, it isn’t. My students and their parents regularly tell me they love my lessons. Whenever someone comes to see my classes and asks them about their learning, it’s positive. We still mess around and have a joke. We discuss real life. I still do things that aren’t on the specification. But it all links to these 2 things. I don’t harp on and on about exams. I rarely use the word ‘test’ but we’re doing it all the time. I’m no robot and neither are they.

There is plenty of school time that isn’t focussed on these things: Tutor time, assemblies, PSHE lessons, core PE, non-examined core RE, lunch clubs, after school clubs, school shows, sports fixtures. With a broad and balanced curriculum and extra-curricular offer, a student has lots of time not focussing on exams.

Isn’t this just teaching to the exam? Of course it is. And? Some leaders seem to do crazy other things to get exam results up such as entering students for random qualifications to add to whole school results, book scrutinies, lesson observations, making staff sit in whole school undifferentiated training and other unmentionable practices that would make you shudder. So why not get your teachers to teach these things? There could be much worse things they might do…..like not teach them how to do the exam. That would be really foolish.

Of course the conditions for this to happen have to be there and this is where it becomes complicated. There are some things that can jeopardise these 2 simple things happening:

  • Student attendance
  • Lack of teachers/subject specialists
  • Behaviour
  • Enforced policies that don’t support these e.g lesson observations that require teachers to jump through hoops that meet a set of criteria that aren’t based on these

But in my opinion these are the responsibility of leaders. They need to work on these so that teachers can teach.

Teacher development should focus on how an individual teacher needs to develop in these two areas. It might involve how they feedback to a student, their routines for embedding knowledge or teacher exposition of how to answer exam questions. Sitting in a hall telling them when/how to mark books is missing the point. The correct answer may be ‘never’ if all their systems and practices in the class support the 2 main ways to improve grades.

So next time you initiate or are initiated into a whole school system designed for classroom practice ask you yourself two questions:

  1. How does this contribute to students knowing what they need to know?
  2. How does this contribute to students being able to apply this knowledge in an exam question?

If it doesn’t answer these, it’s probably not worth the time spent for students or teachers.


*I am well aware of issues surrounding exam board marking but have put these to one side in this blog.



Why knowing keywords is essential for learning


Since I started teaching, I have always given my GCSE students lists of keywords. This was initially because the spec that I’ve taught, includes a keyword definition questions, totalling 10% of the marks. Students needed to know (ideally the exam board) definitions to answer the simple questions at the start. It would have been foolish for me not to get them to learn them. Over the years, I’ve begun to realise that learning these key words means much more than answering these questions in the exam.

Whenever I’ve taught in one teaching room I’ve had a special shelf for these sheets. Students know where they are and come in to collect when they need them. There is a list for every topic (some might call these a knowledge organiser), all colour coded. At any time my students could help themselves to another sheet. However, at the start of my career, I didn’t do anything with them; I just expected them to learn them.

A few years later, I started all GCSE lessons with a quick quiz at the start of the lesson, mainly due to timing (I saw them once a fortnight) I needed to get them back into the topic but I also wanted to test them on some of the key terms.

This evolved into keyword tests every fortnight, based on the keywords from the current topic. I set this as ‘perma-homework’; it’s a permanent homework alongside other set homework. This lead to this poster going up in my room:

Students needed to understand that learning the keywords wasn’t just for the test on a Tuesday but were for long term learning. They seemed to gradually understand this. Unexpectedly they asked for more tests. This was at the same time I was reading about spacing and interleaving. So the alternate test became a random selection from previous topics. This meant that students were having to recall keywords from previous topics but didn’t know which ones. One week they ‘know’ which words they’ll be asked as it’s the current topic and on the second week they don’t. I publicly take in their scores on a spreadsheet on the whiteboard. They don’t seem to mind. I’ve not had any complaints yet. With the current topic they are in a challenge with themselves as they must always improve their score (except if full marks) to show me they’ve learnt their ‘target word’ identified from the last test. If they don’t improve, I help them learn their focus word at a break time.

In recent years I’ve also spent time explaining to student how and why they need to learn them using the usual research references. I’m lucky enough to be able to issue students with index cards and it is strongly recommended to create a set of cards per topic.

Why learning keywords is important

  1. They can answer the keyword questions

  2. They know what questions are referencing when keywords are used. For example,if they know the keyword ‘crucifixion’ and there is a question asking to evaluate ‘The crucifixion is the most important event for Christians’, they will know what event it’s referencing,

  3. It reduces the need for working memory. They can access their long term memory of the definition of crucifixion and then work on evaluating if it’s the most important event, accessing other keywords in long term memory such as incarnation or resurrection.

  4. It gives students confidence as they can do 1-3

I make students learn keywords before they study the topic. They are learning the definition without understanding them. However as we go through the topic, the keywords are then used, explained and put into context. They’ve already learnt the definition and then they attach an understanding and can link these to other keywords. I think this is better than waiting for us to learn and understand them before memorising them.

This strategy was proved to be useful for a few students in their end of year test in July. I asked the question ‘Give the roles of two angels in Islam’. I knew they could answer and get half marks using Jibril but we hadn’t studied any other angels in detail. Several students clearly drew on their keyword knowledge and answered with Mika’il and wrote the definition above. They had clearly learnt the definition and could use it to their advantage to get marks even though we haven’t studied Mika’il in class yet. This is confirmation for me that despite the time they take and the tests being ‘boring’ they are essential to student learning. I believe that every teacher in every subject should consider carefully how they can use keywords to support wider learning.

From their point of view, every year, I ask students about different aspects of their learning. These answers are representative of answers every year.

Things to consider…..

  • How are you using keywords with your students?
  • What words do they need to know?
  • How are you ensuring they learn them?
  • How do you know if they’ve learnt them long term?

20 ways to widen the ‘gap’ in your classroom 



  1. Make homework optional
  2. Create resources for different levels/grades of students
  3. Only teach certain groups of students the tough stuff
  4. Take under achieving students out of one subject to catch up with other subjects
  5. Allow absence without any action
  6. Don’t make students catch up with work when absent
  7. Make judgments/decisions using student data/hearsay, before you’ve met them & seen what they can do
  8. Treat PP/LAC students differently (marking their books first won’t close a gap)
  9. Think that an SEN student cannot learn the same and in the same way as non-SEN (in the majority of cases)
  10. Don’t check students’ work regularly and hold them to account for incomplete/unsatisfactory standard or work/presentation
  11. Use marks/grades/levels on student work
  12. Talk about attainment instead of improvement
  13. Leave a piece of work unimproved by the student
  14. Tell them they’re weak/lesser/in a bottom set
  15. Assume they know how and what to learn
  16. Assume that if you’ve said something once, it’s enough
  17. Have discussions about groups of children instead of individuals
  18. Don’t follow through things you say you will do with students
  19. Don’t follow school systems with a student/s because they’re a ‘special case’
  20. Don’t ever contact home or involve them in the student’s learning.

Are we wasting time on lesson plenaries?


I’ll be honest. Most of my lessons end with ‘that’s all we’ve got time for, pack away’. But a call for plenaries that show progress on a teacher forum got me thinking.

Are we wasting time on lesson plenaries?

In the days of lesson observation and the demand for teachers to show ‘progress’ every 20 minutes, plenaries were perfect. You could start the lesson with an activity that showed they knew nothing about the topic, teach them and then at the end get them to do the same activity. Usefully, but possibly predictably, their responses would change so the assumption is that they’ve made progress. The problem with this is that whilst they could do that in the time frame given, if you gave them the same task a couple of weeks later, they wouldn’t have a clue. They were a temporary measure and without any sort of strategic spacing  in consequent lessons/weeks, that lesson might as well have been a write off.

Having looked at some of the research on memory and learning, I believe that the use of time in lesson should come down to two things: learning new stuff and repeating already learnt stuff to support long term retention. Everything else isn’t needed. So can the plenary fit that model?

Firstly, it could be part of the first time to get students to recall their learning from that lesson. Here it might be the 1st/2nd recall:


After that lesson, the next time you teach them, you need to get them to recall the previous learning. For most it will be a matter of days between lessons. If more than that, a homework might be appropriate for being the 1/2/6 days recall.

In my opinion the best, quickest, shortest way of recalling prior learning is a quick 1-10 at the start of the lesson. After several lessons this will need to include content from the last lesson and then previous lessons with increasing gaps.  The plenary of the lesson can then be the recap of that lesson. However a plenary doesn’t always need to be a separate part of the lesson at the end. The way I teach I am constantly making links and embedding that I naturally repeat the content throughout the lesson. I tend to talk quite a lot then apply it through a video clip. There is a natural repetition which is why I don’t plan plenaries.

So, I don’t necessarily think that plenaries are a waste of time. They have a function in long term learning. However I do think the days of using plenaries to ‘prove’ progress in lessons needs to be scrapped. If you really want to try to see progress during a lesson observation, doing a 1-10 starter which includes content from months ago is a better indicator, otherwise we’re just playing a silly game of ‘pretend they’ve learnt stuff’ when we all know it doesn’t really work like that.