No matter how many years I spent at the chalkface, I remained unconvinced as to the value of dissecting children’s Mock papers in class. While there was always an urge to pore over mistakes and demonstrate to students exactly what they should have written, I never felt that the process added as much value as I would have liked. Now that I am separated from the classroom, it is perhaps easier to reflect on why that might be.
Even if students have already received their overall grades (my old school used to dish them out in enevelopes to give them the “full experience” of receiving their results), the class in which students first gain sight of their papers in the one where they see how they performed in the separate papers of each exam. In most schools, they may also have just been told their overall grade by the teacher. This, to me, is the problem. Ever since Black and Wiliam first published their seminal work on assessment for learning (a concept they now wish they had named “responsive teaching”), the authors observed that students take significantly less notice of feedback if there is a grade attached to it, rendering the process of feedback close to pointless. This should not surprise us greatly: it is a natural response to be fixated on how you performed overall rather than the minutiae of why that result has come to pass, especially when the overall performance grade is high-stakes. It is very difficult for students to let go of their emotional response to their grade (whether it be good or bad) and concentrate on the feedback offered. This goes especially for students who are shocked and/or upset by their result, and thus calls into question the wisdom of the entire process.
It is difficult for classroom teachers to know what to do for the best. Every instinct drives any good teacher to provide detailed feedback to individual students and to the class, but to do this effectively can be close to impossible for a variety of reasons. Imagine a class in which some students have performed superbly, others have truly bombed. The inevitable emotional response from students to their performance will make the class in which feedback takes place highly-charged and potentially difficult to manage. Moreover, students who perform most poorly will probably benefit the least from the process, which leads me to conclude that there is little point in doing it at all. To not do so, on the other hand, can feel like letting those students down and failing to explain to them where they went wrong. It would take an immense amount of self-belief and confidence.
Yet let us consider the point of feedback. If students are not shown explicitly how they can improve their grade next time round, it is inherently pointless. This may well mean that the traditional “going through the paper” is close to irrelavant to those students who performed badly in it, since they will gain little to nothing from the process of being shown the correct answers. With my own tutees I am giving them headline information about their performance by telling them the areas they need to focus on and/or the types of questions we need to practise. We will then practise other questions of the same type. This is much more effective than smoking over the smouldering embers of their cataclysmic performance under pressure – a process which is simply too threatening and disheartening to be of value.
I am more and more coming to the conclusion that Mock exams should be there to inform the teacher what the students don’t know, affording them the opportunity to focus their teaching time on those particular areas in the remaining weeks of the academic year. Mocks are not something which most students can successfully analyse or diagnose their own problems. The pressure on teachers to “go through” the Mocks at a granular level is huge, but really the process has limited – if any – value to students. We need to trust teachers to provide and guide the learning curve that students should go through, based on how they performed.