In the last two weeks, I have sat two mock exams alongside Y11. I sat one in the gym with the year-group and the second just with my own class, for 45 minutes, in the classroom. The first was an AQA style English Language paper 1, the second was one question from an AQA English Literature paper 2 modern prose and drama (specifically, An Inspector Calls). I know this is really common practice and that many hundreds of teachers do this on a weekly basis. I used to do it for the old-old-legacy specification but somehow, I’ve fallen out of the habit. Here, I give some reflections on my experiences.
Here’s what I learnt:
The importance (and hindrance) of planning
I planned for all the longer answers. I really, really needed the plans for Q5 of P1 and also the AIC response. As a teacher undertaking this, arrogance bubbled within me; I thought, ‘I don’t need plans! I’ve been teaching An Inspector Calls since the day dot!’ I needed my plans, though. They were vital to my essay structure. When it came to the end of the literature exam, I then felt a fleeting pang of regret, spending a full 10 minutes on the plan – I’d not managed to include my final point. My plan included some key quotations and when I do this again, I’m going to spend five minutes on the plan and 40 on the writing.
Message to the students: Always plan but plan efficiently. Don’t write out quotations. Include a prompt if you think you’ll forget them. Don’t bother with any full sentences. Be strict with your timings here.
Mind blanks/blocks/what is happening to my brain?!
I forgot Sheila’s name. Sheila. A main character in An Inspector Calls. Shelley? Sarah? (no, that’s me) Sh… Sh… I thought I was going to cry. It came back to me but not until I’d become sufficiently worked up to think it was all over. I don’t think it’s my age (I hope it’s not my age, at 38). It reminded me of my GCSE exams – true story – I forgot how to spell ‘blue.’ Evidently it came back to me, or I got round it somehow, but we need to recognise that this is a problem that our students may face. Adrenaline and cortisol can impact negatively on the working memory. It’s easy to get impatient with kids and accuse them of failing to revise properly when this happens in mocks. For some of them, this amnesia could be a side effect of stress.
Message to the students: Have a strategy to remember your key quotations or devices. I’ve blogged here about using the exam hall for quotation learning.
Paints a picture in the reader’s mind and other such nonsense
More than ever before, this process brought home the need to explicitly teach ways of explaining the effect of a device or technique. Put on the spot, in an exam hall, I fully appreciated why some students resort to ‘this has an effect on the reader’ without explaining the effect. I don’t think this is a case of a lack of analytical understanding. This is a case of being utterly lost for words, in a gym, with nothing around you but the backs of heads and seeing 150 other pens flowing across paper with apparent fluidity and ease. The structure question (P1, Q3) caught me off guard. Each paragraph moves the reader on – yes, got that – which makes the reader… what?! Again, I took a deep breath and had a word with myself.
Message to students: practise, practise, practise the questions that require you to comment on the effect. Build up an understanding of the various ways different devices can affect the reader or our understanding of events. This can be learnt as subject content.
In both English Language exams, Q5 is worth 40 marks out of a total of 80. By this point, my hand ached. I wanted to get up and stretch. I have always dismissed students telling me that it’s a struggle to keep writing after an hour. I stand corrected. However, I still feel that Q5 is best left until the end. Section A reminded me of what ‘good’ writing looks like and prompted some thought for how to structure my responses.
Message to students: come hell or high water, start Q5 when you have 50 minutes remaining.
My pen ran out
It really did. How mortifying. My colleague Hannah (@hannahjgale) was there to give me a spare. The kids often see this as a bit of an urban myth – they roll their eyes when we remind them to take a spare pen (and, it seems, so did I). Lesson learnt.
Message to students: no pen is invincible. Bring 4.
Riklef, W. (2010) – Effects of acute psychosocial stress on working memory related brain activity in men. Human Brain Mapping Issue 31