Sunday 23 November 2014

Not just a dress rehearsal: how you can learn from the Mocks

The trial exams are always a useful exercise, but students and parents shouldn't overreact to the results.

Published 29/01/2014 | 02:30

Testing times: Cillian Fahy, who scored seven As in his Leaving Certificate in 2010, insists that students can use the mocks to find out their weaknesses. Martin Maher

For the private company Examcraft, it is a major logistical operation. In the coming days, they will deliver up to 600,000 exam papers to schools around the country in time for the mock exams.

Nerve levels are rising by a few notches in households as families prepare for the exams, seen as dress rehearsals for the Junior and Leaving Cert.

For many, this will be the first time that real anxiety over exams kicks in. In some cases, the students will be more stressed out by the mocks than the real thing. Most will take it in their stride.

The future of these tests remains uncertain because there will be less emphasis on terminal exams in the new Junior Cycle Student Award as it is phased in from next year.

In most schools, the mock exams take place in the weeks before and after the mid-term break in the middle of next month.

Many schools buy in mock papers from private companies.

The correcting of the exams may also be farmed out.

The advantage of the external test is that it is an independent process and the teacher cannot pack the exam with questions that have been well covered in class.

A disadvantage of farming out the papers is that a mock exam is held at different times in different schools, but the same paper may be passed between pupils.

Many teachers like to correct the mock exam papers themselves, so that they can get a better idea of the progress among individuals in their classroom.

Philip O'Callaghan, the former teacher who runs Examcraft, says: "About 40pc of papers come back to us for correction.

"What is useful about the mocks is that they mirror the entire process of the summer exams.

"The students may have little experience of the intensity of three-hour exams over a few days.

"It matches the workload that is required in the June exams.

"It teaches students the importance of timing during the exams and how to make sure they allocate the right amount of time to questions."

Mr O'Callaghan, formerly a teacher at Naas CBS, advises students to take the mocks seriously and approach them like the exams in June.

"You should have an intimate knowledge of the exam papers, and how they are laid out. If you do that, there should be very few surprises in the real thing in June.

The response from students to the experience is likely to be everything from complacent over-confidence to ill-founded despair.

Students and parents need a sense of proportion when the results come in, according to one school principal.

"A student may get a D in the mocks, but that does not mean they will get the same result in the exam," says the Dublin head.

"If there is still ground to be covered in a course, a D may not always be a bad grade, and the student should not be disheartened.''

There is no formula for working out from the mocks how well you will do in the real exams.

In 2010, Cillian Fahy scored seven straight As in his Leaving Cert and came to national attention when he sold his notes on eBay for €3,000.

He is now involved in the website, onlinegrinds.ie.

Now a student at Trinity College, he says he learned a lot from the mocks, and his grades in at least one subject improved dramatically.

"In my Physics exams, I scored only 46 pc, but in the actual Leaving Cert, I was up to 96pc. So it shows that you can find out where your weaknesses are and improve."

Cillian advises students to plan the order in which they answer the questions.

"You should find the questions where you are likely to perform most strongly and prioritise those. I would also check back over questions quickly, particularly when you are doing a Maths paper."

Students and parents are advised not to make rash decisions about dropping down from Higher Level when the results come. This should be done in close consultation with the teacher.

Peter Keaney, a Science teacher at Wilson's Hospital, Co Westmeath says: "You shouldn't read too much into the grades because in some subjects the courses may not even have finished. But they can be a useful wake-up call."

Eamonn Maguire, author of the study guide Less Stress More Success: Irish, likens the mocks to a GAA season.

"It is like playing in the National Football League before the All-Ireland championships have started. You learn a lot just from playing, but the Sam Maguire is the real thing.''

Useful tips from straight-A students

*  Schedule your revision. Set aside time for studying all the subjects and not just those at the start.

*  Avoid finding out about what's on the paper. Remember it's a learning exercise and the purpose is not to impress teachers and parents, but to discover your strengths and weaknesses. So make it genuine.

* Go over topics that you covered in fifth year. It may be more than a year since you looked at them.

* You can learn from the mocks how important it is to get the timing right during exams. Plan how you answer questions, so you don't run out of time.

* It may be a good idea to study with a friend, because it can help to get you started. However, a larger group can lead to distractions.

* Study past papers closely and what marks are given. Try questions from sample papers in the time you would have in an exam.

* Analyse the questions closely. Make sure your answers are relevant to the question.

* Scrutinise the marking schemes on the State Examination Commission's website (examinations.ie). It helps give you an idea what examiners are looking for in an exam answer.

* Learn from your mistakes and don't be disheartened by them. Analyse your grades and focus on those topics that need to be improved.

Irish Independent

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