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