Thursday 12 December 2019

Don't knock the mocks, and don't keel over with shock

It's a dress rehearsal for the big exams, but students should not read too much into results, reports Kim Bielenberg

Nerve levels will be rising a few notches in households across the country over the coming weeks as up to 100,000 students sit their Junior Cert and Leaving Cert mock exams.

For many this will be the first time that real anxiety over exams kicks in. It's not the real thing, but it is the dress rehearsal.

The reaction 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," said 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.''

Teachers advise that mocks are useful for the whole experience. Students learn how to handle the pressure of a quick burst of exams.

The organisation of the mocks varies from school to school, with the timing varying from late January to early March.

Many schools buy in mock Leaving Cert exam papers from private companies. The correcting of the papers may also be farmed out.

The advantage of the private exam is that it is an independent process and the teacher cannot pack the test 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 in different schools.

Some teachers also believe the quality of marking of external mocks is variable.

Eileen Scanlan, a retired maths teacher and ASTI convenor, said: "Teachers can find out from the papers what needs to be covered again in class.

"If they see a lot of mistakes on the same question, they can go over that topic again."

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.''

Mr Maguire says students studying for the mocks should learn the importance of the three Ps – Preparation, Perseverance and Presentation.

Mocks can be used to put into practice study skills such as the proper way to plan the writing of an essay, according to Mr Maguire.

"I advise students in an exam to spend 10pc of the allotted time laying out what they are going to write in an essay, 80pc on writing and 10pc on checking back what they have written.''

It is tempting to believe that there is some kind of magic formula that enables students to predict their Leaving results from the marks in the mock.

According to this fairytale, you simply add 10pc to gauge the actual Leaving Cert result.

But there are no hard and fast rules. Some teachers might mark a bright student harshly in order to stop complacency, while others mark leniently to give weaker pupils encouragement.

"Really, it is better and fairer for teachers to give pupils a straight mark without tilting it either way,'' says Mr Maguire.

"Then they know where they really stand. I would say that in 90pc of cases the performance improves by the time of the Leaving Cert.''

Students and parents are advised to treat grades in externally-marked mock exams with a certain scepticism. It is unlikely that they will be marked with the same thoroughness as the Leaving Cert.

Eileen Scanlon says there is a danger with mocks that students peak at the wrong time.

"There is a real danger with complacency if a student does well, and that can be lethal," she says. "When you are looking at the grades, you cannot compare the mocks with the real thing.

"On the other hand, they certainly add to stress levels. There is a danger that a student will panic and give up doing a subject at honours level.''

A Galway Irish and English teacher advises students to use the mocks to perfect their timing and to ensure that they read the questions extremely carefully.

"It may seem obvious, but many students do not answer the right number of questions, or they spend too much time over one question and not enough on another.

"They should ensure that they allocate more time to those questions with high marks.

"One of the most important pieces of advice I give is that students should make sure their answers are relevant to the question.

"There is no point in reeling off reams of facts if they are not relevant. If necessary, you have to improvise so that your answer is relevant."

Other teachers advise students to follow the advertising slogan for a well known brand of wood varnish: "It does exactly what it says on the tin."

In other words, do exactly what the exam paper asks you to do.

Irish Independent

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