5 Tips To Boost GCSE & A-Level Mock Exam Performance

Months of school closures have caused huge disruption and pressure on students. All schools are now required by the government to hold formal mock exams for years 11 and 13. The results are likely to be used in the case of further disruption. In this article we provide 5 tips to boost GCSE and A-Level mock exam performance.

Mock exams have suddenly never been so important. Months of sporadic teaching and learning, school closures and self-isolation have caused huge disruption to students. Many parents and pupils understandably feel anxious and apprehensive about how exactly they will be assessed next year and mock exams.

Recent political announcements have also increased the pressure on already nervous cohorts in years 11 and 13. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson recently announced that all schools are required to hold mock exams for these year groups in controlled conditions, with exam-style invigilation, marking and grading.

Teachers have always advised students to treat mock exams as if they were the ‘real thing,’ but now this feels particularly apt: their results could actually be the real thing.

The Department for Education said that these mock exam grades could be used to assess results in regions or schools where pupils’ exam preparations have been severely disrupted by COVID outbreaks, or in the event of them being unable to sit their exams next summer.

A return to teacher-awarded grades seems even more likely now that Wales have cancelled GCSEs and A-Level examinations next year. The government is under enormous pressure to re-evaluate their decision to continue with formal exams as normal, and it is not too late for them to do a U-turn; no-one wants a repeat of the mutant algorithm fiasco this summer.

Many parents will be wondering how to best support their children through this difficult transitional period, and many students will be equally wondering how to stay motivated in a world full of social, technological, cultural and political distractions and how to best revise for mock exams.


1. Organisation is key to success

Organisation is key to success; tutors, parents and pupils need to work together to formulate a realistic revision timetable.  This can be a daunting exercise, but it is an important tool for staying motivated and keeping the end goal in sight. Our advice would be:

Step 1 – Work out how much time you have to revise before your mock exams. As soon as you have your mock timetable you can work backwards, making sure that you take into account any days you can’t or won’t be able to work (for example, Christmas Day).

Step 2 – Break down subjects into different topics. For example, if you were studying A-level English Literature, you would want to break it down into Poetry, Prose and Drama, and then into your different texts.

Step 3 – Prioritise your different subjects and topics using a traffic light system: topics you feel most confident about are green, topics you feel relatively sure of are orange, and topics that need the most work are red.

Step 4 – Allocate revision time slots, each between 30 and 40 minutes long (any longer and concentration will suffer). Try to find a balance between green and red topics during the day, so that you never feel overwhelmed by too many difficult modules.

Step 5 – Ensure you plan plenty of breaks. Physical and mental wellbeing is important as well, and it will also boost productivity. Reward yourself with plenty of exercise and other activities that you find relaxing.

2. Variety is the spice of life

Revision literally means looking back at something again, and therefore is inherently repetitive. To combat potential monotony, make sure that you use a variety of strategies when consolidating your class notes: for example, mind maps, flash cards, study groups, mnemonics, post-it notes, quizzes and other visual aids.

Research has proven that revision should be active rather than passive as much as possible. Activities such as reading, highlighting and copying may be tempting, but they are actually testing your skills of recognition rather than recall. Furthermore, it is important to remember that active revision implies a real effort to understand what you are learning, rather than just memorising by rote.

If you are stuck in a revision rut, there are lots of fantastic resources online that can help. For GCSEs, try YouTube channels such as Mr Bruff and The English Teacher for Language and Literature, CGP Maths Tutor and Maths520, as well as Mr I and Chris Thornton for sciences. Crash Course and TedEd also offer a variety of informative and engaging videos on a wide range of subjects.

3. It’s a marathon not a sprint

To put it simply, cramming is ineffective. Not only is it a short-term solution to a long-term problem, but it also significantly raises students’ stress levels, which can have a detrimental impact on sleep cycles and ability to concentrate.

As GCSEs and A-levels are now linear rather than modular, it’s even more important that students practice applying knowledge and skills over time, rather than looking for quick fixes. When revising you should apply the principle of ‘spaced learning’: digesting information in short time frames, but repeating it multiple times.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by how much content you have to cover, then spend some time condensing your ideas into manageable and digestible notes before attempting past papers. Try to approach your mocks by visualising them as the next step along a path rather than an enormous hurdle you have to overcome with no practice.

To work yourself up to doing your own miniature mock exam, start by answering questions in your own time using your notes. Then, try in timed conditions but with the notes still in front of you. Finally, do exam questions with no notes and in timed conditions. The more familiar you are with the process, the less daunting the real event will seem.

4. Find out what the examiners want

 As well as looking at past papers and mark schemes, make sure you also look at examiners’ reports. Every year exam boards publish reports in which they go through past papers answer by answer, saying what candidates did well and how they could have improved their responses.

The documents are free to download and are immensely helpful for several reasons. Firstly, they can help you to avoid obvious traps, pitfalls or mistakes that students have made in previous years. Secondly, they let you know in detail what examiners are looking for in each question, and often break down the allocation of marks and the terminology used in more detail than a mark scheme. Thirdly, they give you strategic hints on how to achieve the highest grades by giving examples of successful candidates’ work.

However, do make sure you know what exam board and specification you are doing for each subject, and ask your teacher if you are unsure – exact specifications change quite regularly so you want to be certain!

5. Remember to ask for help if needed

Finally, try to keep a positive growth mindset; remember that talents are developed rather than fixed, so rather than saying, “I can’t do it”, say, “I just can’t do it yet.” If you are unsure about anything, make sure you ask for help sooner rather than later. It can be very tempting for students to stay in their comfort zone and stick with what they already know, but denial can be counterproductive; you need to be prepared for your least favourite questions to come up as well as your favourite.

Private tutoring can also help students to unlock their true potential, regardless of their ability. Tutors can help to stretch and challenge the most able students, and can also support students who may struggle with organisation or certain subjects. Lots of students may feel reticent about asking questions in a large class environment, and so having an objective mentor to talk to offers a safe space in which students can learn, grow in confidence, and receive regular, personalised feedback.

Tutoring works because it is a blend of teaching and mentoring: tutors can offer empathy, emotional support and pastoral guidance, which can be invaluable to students during this stressful time. Simply Learning Tuition introduce tutors who take a holistic approach and understand that a student’s achievements are about more than just academics; they can provide a personalised service that focuses on wellbeing, resilience and independence too. Just as little as a few hours per subject with a tutor can make a small difference now, which could be a huge difference later.

If you have any comments or questions about this Advice Page, we would be delighted to answer them.

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