What’s the point of mock* exams?


Recently I had to invigilate our year 10 mock exams and whilst walking up and down the aisles, started to think about the purpose of doing mock exams. So I thought I’d pull together some ideas on what are the different purposes for them and the possible pros and cons. You may think it is obvious but from talking to students and teachers, we can have different opinions on their purpose.

I think that the purpose of mock exams is important. It is important because it affects how students respond to them, how they’re run and the implications of what students do in them. If staff/students are at cross-purposes with mocks, it can cause issues. Also, students will naturally assume that all subjects are using mocks in the same way. In my experience, many will be using them differently and I think we should make it clear to students how they’re being used in our own subject.

I personally couldn’t care less about grades. A mock is not there to create a number which is generally meaningless throughout the course. The only grade that matters to me is the real GCSE. I think mocks are about the experience for the students, where a student is ‘at’ with the content and for the feedback that is given. Over the different mocks, this then feeds into preparation for the real exam – in class and out of class. I also think it is important to consider what is on a mock. Why give a pre-written past paper? I think that it depends on the subject/cohort/timing/situation as to what you put into a mock exam. For example, with maths I’m not sure giving a past paper makes any difference because students are practising core maths skills. With other subjects past papers are specific content/case studies/themes that won’t be repeated. They are useful for practise throughout the course but might a mock require a more selective, thought-out paper? We have a year 9 exam, a year 10 exam and two year 11 exams. In RS we use these differently, so this influences what content we select, how they’re run. We don’t use past papers. On the whole we write our own papers to suit the purpose of the exam. I appreciate that this is more complex for some subjects than others however I have convinced another head of subject to give it a go after being initially sceptical! If a question has already been asked it is highly unlikely that it will be asked again. Writing your own mock papers means you have to have a good knowledge of the specification and how assessment works. It also creates a good opportunity to work together as a subject; writing a mark scheme together highlights what you have/haven’t taught well and can therefore influence future teaching . It’s more work for colleagues but I think it is worth it in the long run. It also means that no child can know what is on the mock in advance as they cannot access the paper as they can with previous papers.

To add to my thoughts I did an informal survey of some of the year 10 students and have included their purposes in italics next to each header.

*if you don’t like the term ‘mock’ then interchange with your preference. I think it’s probably just semantics.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

Retrieval Practice

So that we know what to revise for

To help us get into the habit of revision

To get good practice

keep topics we may have learnt a while ago fresh in our minds

If you are going to encourage students to ‘revise’ (I have many issues with this term) prior to an exam then this is an opportunity to teach them retrieval practice skills and strategies. I personally think that this shouldn’t be done in the run up to an exam but from day 1 on a regular basis, but some teachers/schools still do this kind of revision for exam rather than revision for retrieval/learning. Either way the mocks give students a trial run of this process before they sit external exams.

Some may use the exam itself as retrieval practice for learning rather than for assessment. For example, question topics are chosen specifically to get students to retrieve to help with long term memory rather than for knowing what the students do/don’t know.

Mock exams might be the first time that retrieval practice goes from low-stakes to high-stakes. We do regular retrieval practice in lessons, often without even seeing how students get on. Mocks (depending on how they are marked and then that mark used) steps up the stakes. This gradual process of mock exams, supports students in managing the whole experience of real exams.

Summative assessment

Gives teachers and you how you are doing in the subject

helps us see where we are in a subject/what we need to improve on

to see how good you are at subjects

I suspect that mock exams have been and still are, an opportunity for people to make judgements about student learning, in a high stakes manner. This might include:

  • to allocate grades
  • predict future performance for applications
  • to allocate resources/intervention
  • to decide setting/level of paper

If this is the case, I think we need to be clear with students on this well before the exam happens. They need to know the high stakes nature of the outcome.

Also, some schools may also use it as a tool to judge teachers. The results of the mocks may be used to monitor the ‘performance’ of a teacher. Again, teachers should be well aware of this way before the exams. How will the data be used? Will it be discussed with staff? Is a staff member responsible for a grade of a student that joined a group?

Formative assessment – feedback and improving

Gets you ready to prepare how to improve before real GCSEs

to see what you need to learn

to see where we are all at with learning and what points we’re struggling with

Surely mocks are a great opportunity to identify gaps in student learning and to act on feedback so that a gap is closed before the real thing? If students are answering exam questions then it seems an ideal time to work out what they do/don’t know or can/can’t do and do something about it. If we RAG rate each question then we can get a nice clear over view of what students and a class can/can’t do?

Interestingly this seems less popular than you think it might be with teachers. It is problematic for three reasons. Firstly, the exam paper doesn’t test students on all the content. It’s just a sample from the domain. It can only tell you about some specific topics. This may not be useful for the real exam if we spend lots of time on a limited number of things. Therefore RAG rating questions won’t necessarily be useful. Secondly, just because a student didn’t answer a question type well on specific content, it doesn’t mean that they don’t know how to answer that type of question. It might have been the content that couldn’t write about. Thirdly, if you use past papers for mocks, in some subjects, it’s highly unlikely that the exact same question will come up again next year. Therefore it’s not worth while spending too much time using it for deciding what they need to focus on to improve.

Using mocks for feedback is a whole blog post in itself so I won’t go into it here but I think it’s a very important consideration overall for a teacher. I personally think that the way we run the mocks in my department the feedback and improvement from them is very important but I suspect that the relative use of mocks for formative assessment depends on the subject and the paper used.

Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash

The Physical Experience

Gets us used to exam conditions

The experience of sitting in a hall/room to complete an exam is an important aspect of mocks (which is why I shudder when senior leaders ask for them to be done in their usual classroom). Most students are used to their usual teaching classroom and complete work there in relative comfort and confidence. The experience of a often large, open room is physically different and we want students to experience this before the real exam as it can be daunting. Alongside this, the students experience other physical aspects that they may not have done so before:

  • hand strain (from writing for a long period)
  • in a different room than they did their learning in (see David Didau’s blog below on this – it’s fascinating)
  • in a room with peers
  • silence for 2 hours
  • cold/hot extremes
  • invigilators walking past
  • sitting at the desk
  • patience – sitting when done

If mocks are about preparation, then we need to include all aspects of that by exposing them to these things at least once before the real thing. Telling students to complete mocks in their usual classroom, with their usual teacher misses the point of a mock, in my opinion (with exceptions e.g. Art). Read David Didau’s blog here on ‘transfer’ and why it is important to consider where students are learning compared to where they sit an exam.

The Mental Experience

So there’s less panic in the real thing

Some students will have an intense 5 weeks of exams in the summer. It will be the biggest amount of pressure they’ve probably had in their lives. It’s the thing that hits the headlines each year and the potential effect on their mental health can be debilitating for some. The mental impact includes:

  • stress
  • preparation and organisational pressure
  • daily pressure from lessons/revision
  • feelings about success
  • feelings about failure
  • motivation

I strongly believe that schools have the power here. The language we use, the preparations we make, the way that teachers are treated with exams by senior leaders (pressure passes down to students), all contributes and I think we can be really smart about this.

Imagine a student that has an assembly in the morning with their head of year talking about the importance of exams and grades, then first lesson their teacher saying how important grades are and then second lesson getting a test back with a grade on and not achieving their target grade and then lesson 3 the teacher talking about their exams and how important it is for them to revise every night for their subject. Lesson 4 the student is given an exam paper to complete and told if they don’t get a certain grade the teacher will contact home and they will re-do it in their own time. Then after school they have a ‘revision class’ for one subject…… We don’t need to do this.

I think this all comes down to curriculum and assessment. If we plan carefully and we assess well, we don’t need to speak to students like this or behave in these ways. I’m not saying that we should pretend that exams aren’t important, they are. But we are the people in charge of what students learn and we have a responsibility to make things as simple as possible for our students. With a well planned curriculum you shouldn’t need to do after school revision classes for all students from Christmas. Mocks should be a gradual introduction to these potential feelings so it’s not a huge shock in the summer.

Real Exam Preparation

So that we can ‘train ourselves’ for our GCSEs

Gets us ready for GCSE exams

to help us understand the conditions we need to work in, teaches us time management

to help us get into the habit of being quiet for hours

To practise for GCSEs

Preparation for structure of GCSE

Prepare us for our GCSE so we won’t be shocked

I’ve put these together as ‘real exam preparation’ because I think that it is important part of mocks for students to have the ‘real experience’ before the summer. I think that mocks are really important for the following:

  • what the paper looks like – I think that mock papers should always be made to look like the real thing, even if you’re not using all the questions. We want students to get used to what they will see.
  • getting stuck – the experience of not knowing the answer, the possibility that a guess may be better than nothing, not letting it demotivate
  • planning and using time effectively – a huge issue especially in subjects with extended writing. Students need to do this by themselves, using the clock in the room. Deciding what to include/miss out if they’re running out of time
  • stationery – coming prepared to the exam, knowing what they need e.g. a calculator, black pen
  • candidate number – getting used to using it and filling in the front of the exam paper
  • one off performance – what it means to have ‘one go’ at something and that’s it (Anecdote – one year, after the GCSE RS exam I saw a student outside of the exam room. He said to me ‘Miss I’ve realised that I didn’t write the right thing for 1b, can I quickly have my paper back to change it?’. He was genuine. He had no understanding that, that was it, there’s no going back!) When else in their lives have they experienced the finality of doing something like this? (remember some will have missed SATS)
  • question types – This really shouldn’t be the first time that a student experiences the different question types. I sincerely hope that all teachers have prepared students for different possibilities and even prepared for curve balls

Choosing the mock exam content

Choosing a mock paper will probably depend on what you think the purpose of a mock is.

I suspect that many subject leads just choose last year’s actual paper for the mock exam. It’s easy as it’s already written, it has a mark scheme, it is balanced in terms of difficulty and you could argue that the grade boundaries belong to that specific paper. The problem with using last year’s paper is that students can get advance access and the content probably won’t be repeated in the real thing (subject dependent). Using last year’s paper supports the purpose of experiencing a ‘real’ paper. However I’m going to suggest that mocks should be a carefully curated set of questions made into a unique mock paper. However, how this is done, all depends on what you think the purpose of the mock is.

A mock to motivate – if you want students to be motivated by the mock you may pick questions that are easier or more difficult. If you want to motivate students that lack confidence then use some easier questions and if you need to motivate students that are over-confident in doing no preparation, use more difficult questions

A mock to predict – A GCSE specification’s content has to be covered during the lifetime of the specification which means that if you’re several years through it you can find topics that have never been asked before and create questions based on these. This works better in some subjects compared to others. The benefit of this mock is that students get to practise questions that are likely to come up. It’s a dangerous strategy only if you tell students to only revise these things. Otherwise it’s just another paper.

A mock to practise weaker topics – If you know that students have struggled on certain topics you might include them in the mock. This isn’t to set them up to fail but it is a good way to revise. They experience a question on a tricky topic, you go through it in feedback and then get them to practise it again a a later date.

A mock to show off – If you’re using the mock paper as evidence of student performance for entry to further education you may want it to be a paper that shows off what they can do. Choosing topics that you know they will do well on may be useful.

How to write your own mock

Some exam boards have the facility for you to use previous questions to compile a new paper using questions from different papers. Unfortunately they don’t all do this for all subjects so you may need to do it manually. You need a copy of all the previous papers (and specimen papers for reference) to see what has already been asked. Then choose questions to compile your paper.

Writing your own exam questions

Having looked at what questions can be asked from the specification it is possible to write your own questions. This can be a useful CPD exercise in itself, especially if the specification is new to you. You need to make sure you know the command words that can be used, the balance of assessment objectives and the specific subject ‘rules’ of the paper. I strongly feel that mock papers should be presented in the exact same way that the real paper will be presented (as far as possible) because the visual experience of a paper is part of the practice. So, use the same number of answer lines, where appropriate.

If you work in a department with a few people you can do this process together to ensure balance. You can then all take a copy of the paper, and write notes on how you’d answer the question and create a simple mark scheme of possible answers. As with all mark schemes, students can be credited with different approaches but if you agree the main possible answers/approaches then it makes marking easier

Using analogies

I use and have probably stolen the analogy of a marathon for GCSE exams. Mocks are part of the training. They may not do the whole thing but they are part of the training that can help us diagnose certain things and help us work out what’s left to do before the final thing. Someone else on Twitter used a football analogy (gotta think of the boys….) where mocks are the pre-season warm ups. It doesn’t matter what you use but I do think that (if the analogy is a good one) then we can use it with the students IF we use the analogy from the start. I tell my students that their first homework IS part of the preparation. That every lesson IS the training. The issue of leaving the analogy to the final stages is that it could add to the psychological pressure not help to relieve it. Start the analogy in year 7.

Questions for teachers

  • Do you know the purpose of mocks in your school/subject?
  • Have you made it clear to students what the purpose of the mock is in your subject?
  • Have you explained the rationale behind it?
  • What questions have you included? What paper have you used Why?
  • Have you considered writing an exam paper for the mock? pros and cons?

Questions for school leaders

  • Are all subjects using mocks for the same purpose? Does it matter? Why?
  • Do students know the purpose of mocks? Does it matter? Why?
  • Have you asked them?
  • Do you know how subjects leads have decided what paper/s to use and why?
Links & further reading



2 thoughts on “What’s the point of mock* exams?

  1. Re: What’s the point of mock exams.

    “The only grade that matters to me is the real GCSE.”

    But what is that “real” grade?

    According to the evidence given to the Education Select Committee on 2 September 2020 by Ofqual’s then Chief Regulator, Dame Glenys Stacey, GCSE, AS and A level grades are “reliable to one grade either way”. So that grade 7 for GCSE Geography, as shown on your certificate, isn’t “real” at all – for the grade you truly merit might be a 6. Or an 8. No-one knows…. Nor can you ever find out. This happens even if there are no “marking errors”, so a “review of marking” will not enable a re-mark by a senior examiner.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s