With mock exams playing an especially important role this year, Simon (a qualified Maths teacher and Owl Tutor) offers some useful guidelines for students gearing up for mock exams in the next few months.
Mock exams aren’t designed to be an extra ordeal prior to the “main event” of GCSEs or A Levels in the summer. They can be immensely helpful and, approached the right way, actually ease the pressure in the months between the mock papers and the summer exams. Aside from the feedback you’ll receive, preparing for mocks is itself the first stage of preparation for the real thing. Get your mock preparation right, and your revision proper will already be well underway.
What’s more, with teacher-assessment playing such a key role in the determination of grades this year after the disruption of the last twelve months, mock exams are a great opportunity for you to show your teachers that the hopes they have for you are realistic as well as aspirational.
So, from my twenty years’ experience preparing students for public examinations of one kind or another, here are some guidelines to making the most of the lead-up to the mock papers.
It’s hard to overestimate the importance of having a broad but clear overview of the structure of your course and how it fits together. So if you’re a bit hazy on this, then an ideal time to take stock is in your preparation for the mocks. Not only will this help you recognise your current strengths and weaknesses and so target your revision time effectively, but it will also give you the confidence that however challenging the papers, at the very least you’ll know where those challenges will come from and broadly what they’ll look like.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the exam board’s official specification for such a review (since these documents can be intimidating and confusing). Something as simple as the contents page of a textbook or revision guide, or a course outline provided by your school, would be ideal. Look at each of the headings and sub-headings and, even if you’re some way from mastering the content, ask yourself: do I at least know what this means? If not, find out, as it may be a topic you’ve overlooked.
With an overview of the syllabus in your mind, check how much of it has been covered so far in class – by now, the majority, presumably – and which (if any) bits of it are going to be covered after the mocks. This leads naturally to another important task, namely to…
It’s important to know well in advance how the exams are designed. Do you know how many papers you’ll have to sit in the summer, and what the differences are between them? If you don’t know already, find out which parts of the syllabus are covered in each paper, how many questions you can expect, and how long you’ll have for each exam. What equipment (such as a dictionary, calculator, etc.) will be required or permitted?
With a clear understanding of the structure of the exam, you should then ask yourself the same questions about the mock exams. It’s likely that coverage of the syllabus is still incomplete by this time, so how will the mock papers reflect this? Will they be complete papers regardless, or edited versions of the same, or something else designed internally for your class? In many instances, teachers will have given guidance on the format of the mock exams, but if not, they’ll be pleased if you take the initiative to request this information from them. Again, clarity on this isn’t only important in focusing your revision time, but for your own confidence.
Once you have a reasonable overview of the syllabus and of the exams you’ll be sitting in both the mock and summer sessions, this is an excellent time to revisit and, where necessary, re-organise your course notes to reflect this. Even the neatest and most meticulous of note-takers and file-keepers will benefit from doing so at this point; for the rest of us, it’s invaluable.
Aim to arrange your notes according to the organisation of the syllabus itself, rather than chronologically. If this is impractical, or if your notes are in exercise books rather than files, drawing up an index or contents page, and adding new headings where necessary, will serve the same purpose. Such a “light review” of your course materials isn’t a substitute for detailed revision and practice, but it will begin to call back to your mind the classes in which various topics were covered in light of their place in the course overall. Don’t be afraid to throw away accumulated “junk” in your files at this point. But before you classify anything as junk, ensure you know what it is and why it isn’t needed.
If it’s only that it’s illegible or incoherent, that may be because you didn’t understand this topic well at the time – itself a useful prompt that it might need revision later.
Spending hours drawing up a detailed, colour-coded revision timetable, which then goes through successive redrafts as the exams creep closer whilst you beat yourself up for not sticking to the last one, is something of a comedy cliché. In fact, as with most things in life, it’s wise to avoid extremes: in this case, either under-planning or over-planning your revision. If you “take stock” properly as I recommend above, it’s likely that a programme of revision will take shape in your mind as you do so, at least in outline. Drawing up a revision timetable is then just a way of working out what’s manageable, and committing to it.
Consider all the claims on your time, academic and otherwise, and decide which hours during a typical week you can commit to revision. Then, on a day-by-day or week-by-week basis, decide which task you’ll allocate to each day, which might be reviewing a specific topic, or completing or reviewing a practice paper (or part of one). They’ll be times when life gets in the way, but stick as far as possible to the timings you’ve laid down. Let your family know your intentions if it’s likely they can be supportive in helping you stick to them. But be prepared to be more flexible in your allocation of tasks to time available, as revision will tend to shape itself naturally as it unfolds. Colour-coded charts work terrifically for some, but are strictly optional!
In my next post, for the mathematicians among you, we’ll look at the nitty-gritty of what effective mock revision entails once you sit down to it…