Mock exams 2020: 5 ways to prepare

Mock exams have never felt more high-stakes, says Amy Forrester, so it is important that the process is managed carefully this year
19th October 2020, 12:00pm


Mock exams 2020: 5 ways to prepare
Mock Exams 2020

Mock exams have never felt more high-stakes than they do this year. Students are acutely aware of the national picture of uncertainty during the pandemic. They witnessed all the last-minute U-turns around the 2020 exam series. And while the clarity provided by the recent announcement that exams will go ahead this year is very welcome, there is nevertheless still a feeling of unpredictability for students and teachers.

How can we be sure that there won't be another U-turn? How can we be sure that mock exams won't end up counting for more than usual? The short answer is: we can't.

Preparing for mock exams 

Now, more than ever, we need to make sure that our plans regarding mock exams are secure and robust.

Here are five things that we need to consider.

1. Craft the narrative

Students know that mocks became retrospectively high-stakes for last years' students; they are bound to worry that the same thing might happen to them. As a result, stress around mocks is likely to be worse than usual. I'm seeing this already in school.

We have a duty of care towards our students to make sure that our language around mocks is carefully controlled. Students need to know they're important, of course they do. But they also need some reassurance and a calm approach to help them balance the inevitable stress that will be a new layer of worry for them this year.

This needs to be made explicit to staff. Create a whole-school principle around how you will pitch the exams to students and try to detach emotions from this as much as possible. If we create a system whereby students feel that failure at this stage will seal their fate, we are setting them up for negative self-fulfilling prophecies.

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2. Make it manageable

Just as we can craft our narrative around mocks, we can also design how we run them in such a way that students do not become overwhelmed by them. Work with your exams officer to make sure that the exam schedule doesn't have multiple writing-heavy exams on the same day. For instance, English literature and history should not fall on the same day!

We need to give students an experience that they can feel successful in. So, put the longer, more writing-heavy exams in the morning and the shorter, less writing-intensive exams in the afternoon.

3. Contingency planning

It feels somehow inevitable that there will be increasing absences during the mock-exam period. It's therefore vital that schools build in resit periods, so that all students have the provision to sit their mocks in controlled conditions.

4. Whole-school approach

It's fair to say that across schools, approaches to mocks differ wildly. Some schools will want accuracy above all else, some will want flexibility to send a message through the results, some will want to use in-house papers. But this year, we're all thinking the same thing: "what if"? What if these marks do end up as part of another CAG nightmare? What if our actions now disadvantage students in the future?

More than ever, this needs a whole-school approach and requires all staff to be following it. It seems pertinent to ensure that accuracy is key this year, and that there is an agreement not to use the mock grades to boost students' confidence or give them a kick up the backside. We've all done it, but this year we need to think very carefully about this. Where possible, anonymous marking will help remedy any inherent bias. Schools need to think about this in advance and take steps to prepare mocks in a way that allows department leads to use this approach with marking in their department.

5. Proactive support

Despite our best efforts, some students will find this all too much. We are already seeing stress levels increasing in the current exam year students. Pastoral teams need to plan ahead for this, ensuring that there are measures in place to proactively support students who are beginning to struggle.

Communication with parents is key here; they need to understand the national picture and what this experience is like for students. Parents have a vital role to play in helping students to get the most out of their mocks. Consider sending out a communication to parents which gives them all the information they need about the exams, but also about managing stress and anxiety in the home. Now, more than ever, we need to ensure that we are working together with them to ensure that they know what effective revision looks like at home, and how to help maintain a healthy balance between this, socialising and taking breaks to help support students' mental health.

As with a lot of things in school, this year has provided us with an opportunity to review how we do things, to clarify our "why" and to re-articulate our values. Mock exams are no exception. Our students need to feel safe, secure and supported in their experience. We need to craft the conditions in which they can feel, and be, successful, whilst maintaining our integrity in our chosen approaches to mock exams.

Amy Forrester is an English teacher and director of pastoral care (key stage 4) at Cockermouth School in Cumbria. Views expressed are her own, and not necessarily that of her employer

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