Preparing Students for Mock Exams

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management and The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback).

Mock exams offer an excellent opportunity for teachers and students to assess current knowledge and discover common misconceptions. They (should) provide a rigorous and thorough ‘trial run’ of the finals and may even act as a sharp and frightening wake-up call to some learners. 

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Considering the immense importance placed on mock exams (not least for providing a good basis for making final grade predictions), one would assume that the preparation of students for them should be organised like a well-planned military operation. 

That’s certainly what should happen, and the aim of this article is to cover the ‘battleground’ that your students will need to fight through in order to be well-trained for those all-important practice exams. 

Roger that! Let’s get right into it then!

Go through past-exam papers

These are by far the best revision materials for exam-level students. Rigorous past-paper practice, under timed conditions, offers a number of benefits:

  • Students become used to the ‘style’ of questions that will be asked in the real thing.
  • Frequent exposure to the ‘command terms’ that will be used in the real exam (words like ‘Deduce’, ‘Explain’, ‘Sketch’ etc.).
  • The level of challenge presented by past-paper questions will be at the level expected by students of that age-group. 
  • When taken under timed conditions, students can develop their time-management techniques too (ensuring that they don’t run out of time in the real mock exam – a common problem!).

Giving feedback

Some examination boards share their past papers for free (e.g. Edexcel), whilst others sell them them for a small fee. If you have the money (or if your school has the budget), then they are always worth the spend. Some ideas for saving money when purchasing exam papers include:

  • Keep any spare examination papers that you get sent each year by the exam board, and scan them to pdfs. Within a few years you’ll have a comprehensive bank of exam papers ready to share with your students.
  • Purchase a user account to an exam-board’s question bank and share the account with colleagues.

Make sure your students go through the model answers (mark schemes) when they’re done, and make sure they know how to actually use the mark schemes (Do they know that OWTTE means ‘Or Words to That Extent’, for example? Do they know what M1, M2, etc mean?).

Should your students be strict or lenient when marking past-paper questions? 

Always be strict, because the examiner will strict and the final exams will probably contain questions that the students will never have seen before. If the answer does not match the mark scheme, then mark it wrong.

What about handwriting?

If the examiner cannot read the answers given, then your students will be penalized. Make this point really clear, as it is an issue that does affect many students (especially when rushing under exam conditions – another reason to train students by exposing them to past-papers under timed conditions).

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Go through exam-style questions

These are a little different to past-paper questions and tend to be found within textbooks, on great websites (like BBC Bitesize) and inside revision guides and workbooks (like those made by CGP, for example). 

These provide much of the same benefits as a past-exam paper questions and are often organised by topic, allowing students to reinforce their subject knowledge in stages and target areas of weakness with relative ease. 

Make sure that model answers are provided and that students mark their work strictly (just like with past-papers).

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Provide a topic revision list

An obvious one I know, but worth mentioning. If students don’t know the topics that are going to come up on their mock exams, then how can they possibly prepare?

Share the official syllabus, perhaps through your school’s VLE, MOOC or even by e-mail if you have to. Make sure the students know which topics from the syllabus are going to come up in the mocks. 

Provide topic summaries

Summaries of key topic areas can really help students to grab the essentials in a short space of time. Share these as Mind Maps, bulleted lists, end-of-chapter summaries in textbooks and even, again, revision websites that you recommend.

making plans

Share textbooks

A lot of schools cannot afford physical textbooks for every student. However, we should at least be recommending textbooks that the students can buy themselves if they want to. 

One way to solve the problem of textbook costs is for schools to build their own (e.g. from slide presentations that teachers create), get students to create textbooks for themselves by setting up a learning journals system and even paying for an online subscription through the publisher’s website (which is often cheaper than purchasing physical books).

Recommend revision websites

There are many great websites that offer excellent, free resources for revision. My personal favorites are:

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David Goggins, Can’t Hurt Me: What can Teachers Learn From This Book?

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management and The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback).

Warning! – This blog post contains expletives and graphic language. If you are prone to being offended, triggered or distressed by such language, then please stop reading immediately. 

84kg.

That’s how much I weighed three months ago. I was fat, tired and lazy. Too many things were not proceeding with momentum in my life. I had become ‘soft’. 

After a day of full-blown mediocrity at some point in mid-August (whilst I was still ‘resting’ in my summer vacation from school), I took the time to sit in a Starbucks coffee shop during the late evening and take-stock of my life. I’d woken up late, I felt like crap and I had procrastinated all day long. It was a wasted day, basically. 

What would my students think of me if they knew that I wasn’t ‘practicing what I preach’ to them: to chase your goals, be resilient and to work hard each and every day?

Then, I reflected on who I was as a teenager. Richard James Rogers: the kid version, went to karate class three times a week, absolutely smashed-it at Army Cadets twice a week (and many full weekends and summers on training camps) and never wasted a single second. He put up with some messed-up stuff too (home-life was a bit, well, crazy to say the least), but he didn’t point the finger at other people and blame them for his misfortunes or disadvantages. In fact, he saw his difficult life-situation as a powerful catalyst for self-improvement: he had every reason to just ‘go for it’, and he knew he would end up a total loser if he gave in to life’s relentless cry to ‘give up’. 

That woke me up. 

Army cadet
Me as a 16-year-old Army Cadet, 20 years ago

Sometimes, I believe, we have to look back on those things we’ve done many years ago and ask some very honest questions, such as ‘Am I better now, or am I worse?’. ‘Have I climbed, or did I slide?’ and ‘Am I a loser, or a winner?’

The ‘Goggin’s Video’ was something I had watched a while back, and I thought it was pretty cool. I thought it was time to watch it again that evening. I’ve embedded it below:

I’ve read a lot of great self-improvement books in my time (Awaken the Giant Within, Think and Grow Rich and Outwitting the Devil come to mind instantly). However, reading these books never really spurred me on to take the massive action that would cause big changes in my life. This Goggin’s video, however, with it’s raw honesty inspired me to actually do something about the pervasive mediocrity that seemed to have taken hold in my life.

If you feel that you could do more, or if you have a nagging feeling inside of you somewhere that says ‘you’re not enough’, then watch the video above in full. I think it will resonate with you. 

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In the video, Goggin’s talks about being brutally honest with yourself and taking action to change things. If you’re fat, then blurt it out: ‘I’m fat. Roger that. Now what am I going to do about it?’ 

As a former Navy SEAL (who’s been through Hell Week three times), the 2013 Guinness World Record holder for the most pull-ups in 24 hours (he did 4030) and the Infinitus 88K race winner in 2016 (one of the most brutal races in the world): Goggins knows more than a thing or two about perseverance and pain. His story inspired me to do more. 

I decided to hit the gym every day, running at least 3k each time (I’ve now brought that up to 5.5k) and doing abs and weights on alternate days. Some days it was really hard – I’d get home from school, nap (like a lazy *&^#@$%) and then wake up a few hours before the gym closed (thank God it closes at midnight!). I felt sluggish, but I said to myself ‘Do it now you ‘insert expletive here’).

78.6kg

That’s how much I weigh today. I’ve lost 5.4kg in three months. It’s not an amazing amount of weight, but I feel an amazing difference and my BMI (Body Mass Index) stands at 25.2, which is almost at my target (24.9).

I feel better. I look better. I wake-up better (I don’t feel too zombie-like anymore). This was me last week:

Richard James Rogers lost weight

Interestingly, as well as giving his insights on making massive changes in your life, Goggin’s also shares some really insightful stories from his time as a schoolkid. In his book, ‘Can’t Hurt Me‘ (highly recommended), Goggin’s describes in graphic detail the massive difference between a teacher who actually gave a damn about him, and a teacher who gave up. I’ve included the extracts below:

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In these extracts we see clearly the differences between Ms. D and Sister Katherine, and the profound effect that a teacher’s behavior can have on student self-esteem. Here are the lessons that I drew from Goggin’s experiences:

  • We must take full responsibility and accountability for the progress of our students. We must never ‘give-up’ on a student and take the easy ‘way-out’ by using past academic struggles, Special Educational Needs or emotional problems as excuses not to try. 
  • Students remember the impact a good teacher has on them well into adulthood. Goggins’ fond memories of Sister Katherine show this. Can you remember a good teacher you had at school?
  • Sister Katherine had a ‘no excuses’ mentality, and made her students realize that it is their responsibility to make life happen. How taboo is that mentality these days?
  • A bit of extra time spent helping and mentoring a student can have a massive effect on their sense of self-worth. Does your school have an active and useful mentoring system in-place?
  • As soon as we ‘label’ students we have a choice to make – dedicate more time and effort to help them out, or give-up on them. We have to have the mentality that ‘all students can be helped’. We just need to figure out the best ways to help them. 

I highly recommend Goggins’ book to any teacher who wants to get a brutally honest insight into the life of child who went through hell growing up (it’ll help you get a perspective on the reasons behind some of the behaviors you might see in-class). It’s also a good book for leveling-up in life. 

Purchase Can’t Hurt Me from Amazon here

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Cognitive Sandwiching: A Method for Teaching Difficult Topics

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management and The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback).

Illustrated by Sutthiya Lertyongphati

Memory is the residue of thought

 – Daniel Willingham

This is one of my favorite pedagogical quotes and I’ve found it to be 100% accurate over the years. 

As an International Baccalaureate Diploma chemistry teacher at an international school, I often have to teach topics to my students that are really, really difficult. Furthermore, the students will be examined on these topics at some point in the future, and those grades really mean something: the students will be using them to apply to study at universities all around the world. 

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“An AMAZING Book!”

A key question I often ask myself is how can I get my students to think deeply about the topics they are learning, so that they remember enough details to get excellent grades on their exams?

it integrated

I’ve tried lots of different methods over the years, but I think I’ve finally nailed-down a system that works with every difficult topic I teach:

  • Explore
  • Question
  • Teach
  • Test

Hopefully you’ll see that this is a system that can be applied to your subject area/teaching context too. 

Step 1: Explore (Thinking Intensity 2)

Provide the stuff you want the students to learn in multiple formats. Some that you may wish to use could be:

  • Online videos
  • Websites
  • Simulations
  • Textbooks
  • Podcasts
  • Magazine entries
  • Revision guides

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Get the students to work in groups or pairs to produce some kind of creative, collaborative output. Examples include:

  • Create a Google Slides presentation about…..
  • Create a stop-motion animation about……
  • Create a large infographic about…….
  • Create a digital animation about…..

At the end of this exploration step, the students should present their work to the class in some form. This simple act of articulating what they have learned will cause deep-thinking (and therefore, memory) to take place. 

Step 2: Question (Thinking Intensity 3)

Give the students a series of exam-style, challenging questions on the topic to complete under timed conditions. The students can work together on this if you wish, and may use the resources they have for help. 

When the time-limit is over, provide the model answers (and make sure you actually have model answers available). Students can go through these answers via peer-assessment, self-assessment or even automated assessment (in the case of online teaching systems, like MyMaths and Educake).

Discussing homework

As a teacher, I also like to go through any particularly difficult questions with the students so as to clear up any misconceptions. This is especially true if, for example, nobody in the class can do question 2. 

Step 3: Teach (Thinking Intensity 1)

This acts as an incredibly useful review for students after what has been an intense exploration and self-assessment of stuff that was, essentially, self-taught (with a bit of help from the teacher).

Go through the key points of the topic traditionally, perhaps using a slide-based presentation, video, animation or even notes written and explained on the whiteboard.

Make use of a few learning games to spice things up a bit, especially if key vocabulary needs to be learned. Spend time going through common misconceptions: those things that students get wrong year-after-year. 

Step 4: Test (Thinking Intensity 4)

Test the content covered using the most difficult questions you can find. Don’t go beyond the syllabus or above what’s been taught (obviously), but use past-paper questions that really do get the students to apply what they’ve learned to unusual contexts. 

Prior to the test, you might want to provide questions of similar difficulty (with model answers provided) for the students to go through at home. 

chatting in class

Make sure you go through the test afterwards too. Provide the mark scheme and make it really clear where, and how, marks have been lost.

Fluctuations

By fluctuating the intensity of thinking in this way (2,3,1,4) we’re exercising the brain in a similar way to how we exercise the body – gradual increases in intensity, followed by rest, followed by higher intensity. 

I’ve found that this model works really well for getting students to understand really difficult topics. 

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