Ah, nostalgia…it isn’t what it used to be.
It’s an old joke – one of my dad’s favourites, and I now use it on my own kids – but it lays bare an educational truism: when in doubt, we look back to what we know best; back to the certainty of times gone past.
In teaching, this generally means past papers – especially amidst the stress and challenge of a global pandemic, when we are looking for ways to engage students remotely.
For what better way to hone a student’s exam technique, or prepare them for the rigours of exam assessment, than to give them a practice run, using a genuine paper? All the certainties are there: the content will reflect the course, there will be a variety of question types, the layout of the paper will be identical to the one they will ultimately sit. You even get a mark scheme.
Perfect preparation, right?
Well, yes and no.
While past papers and mock exams are an integral part of exam preparation, they are just that: a part of your approach, not the be-all and end-all.
Making students endlessly sit past papers and expecting them to get better is like sitting a teenager in a car and making them repeat the driving test until they pass: without specific, targeted teaching and effective feedback, students won’t gain the skills they need to improve. Indeed, the process of repeatedly sitting past papers could actually engrain bad habits, impeding their development and destroying their confidence.
So how can you use past papers effectively? How can you make them part of a formative, developmental exercise that does more than simply replicate previous outcomes?
A phased approach to exam technique
One of the many mantras I used with my students was, ‘exams are not a test of what you know, they are a test of what you can prove that you know’. It’s a crucial difference. The examiner doesn’t know you or what knowledge you possess. They only see what the you put down on paper.
Viewed in this way, exam technique is worth easily as much as subject knowledge and must be approached as a skill in its own right – one that needs to be built up slowly, to pave the way for future success.
Consider the two factors that make exams difficult in the first place: time and access to information. As a teacher, you can control these variables to build your students’ skills and confidence. To begin with, students should be given practice questions (rather than entire papers), and asked to complete them without time restriction, and with full access to their notes. This gives them the opportunity to practise implementing the skills required without the pressure of time or having to remember the subject matter.
As their skills and confidence grow, you can – one at a time – remove their notes and introduce time restraints. Once they have mastered what they need to do, you can move to assessing them in true exam conditions, and then build up towards setting full exam papers.
The key is setting up students to be successful rather than asking too much too soon.
Data analysis: what are the results telling you?
When students sit a practice paper, you need to make sure that you extract from their performance all the information you need to help them improve. Data analysis is key here. This doesn’t just mean looking at the total scores achieved by all students in your class or year group and rank ordering them to find the high flyers and the underperformers (though this can be a useful exercise in its own right); it’s about interrogating students’ marks to highlight areas of strength and weakness – both at an individual and cohort level.
What elements of the course are proving difficult? What topics have they not understood? Do they struggle with particular question types or Assessment Objectives? A simple spreadsheet should be enough to break down student results into quantifiable data that gives you a priceless insight into student performance.
What this means is that the work done between practice papers becomes crucial. Some say honing exam technique is an art; I disagree, I think it’s a science. You work out what needs improving and focus your efforts (and those of your students) on the areas where the largest gains can be made.
One way to do this is to look at the questions where students underperformed in their most recent attempt. What mistakes did they make? Can they identify these mistakes? What would a better answer look like?
Which brings me neatly to my next suggestion…
As teachers, we often talk the talk when it comes to exam questions, how often do we walk the walk?
One highly effective approach to teaching exam technique is to answer the question yourself, ‘live’ in the classroom. Display the question for the class to see, explain how much time they should allocate to it in an exam, get out your board pen, start the clock and demonstrate how it should be done.
Crucially, don’t just ‘do’ the question. Talk them through your thinking in real time. Let them know what’s going on inside the head of a candidate who is constructing a top-mark response, so they can transpose this approach to questions that test the same skill in a different context. ‘Out loud’ modelling is vital to improving exam technique because it shows not just how to answer that specific question but how to answer all questions like that.
Make them the examiner
Exam questions are often quite generic, with a format that is replicated year on year. This is known as ‘good predictability’. It means students aren’t surprised by how the exam paper is presented or how individual questions are constructed. Only the precise subject matter or context will be new.
As students get more and more exposure to exam questions, they begin to recognise these consistencies and can tailor their responses accordingly to the needs of various question types. As a teacher, you can reinforce this process by getting students to write their own questions.
Exactly how you do this will vary between subjects, but the general principle is to ask students to create an exam question that tests a particular topic or skill. You can set parameters if you like (how many marks, question format, etc). You could even set it as a class activity: ask pairs of students to come up with a question relating to a different part of the curriculum. Put them all together and you have a self-created class mock exam ready to go. Each pair can then be responsible for providing the feedback for their individual question.
And the best part is, you can keep that mock paper to use with future classes!
Practice makes perfect – if it’s done right
As I said earlier, I’m not for a second saying that you shouldn’t use past papers in your classroom or conduct mock exams. But students need to go into those mock exams confident that they know both what to do, and how to do it. A more structured, skills-based approach to exam technique not only means they will get more out of a mock exam, but that they are more likely to be successful in the real exam.
Jamie Kirkaldy is Head of Teaching and Learning Support for Oxford International AQA Examinations. Before joining OxfordAQA, Jamie was Head of English at one of the largest secondary schools in Oxford, UK, and a member of the school’s Senior Leadership Team.