It’s already November and my well-organised Grade 12 students have asked for the mock exam schedule. Unfortunately, I haven’t prepared it yet, but before reaching for my spreadsheet, it is worth pausing to reflect on mock exams, how teachers and students prepare for them, and how we can leverage them for learning.
The purpose of mock exams
It’s easy to confuse ‘mock’ exams with ‘mockery’ – forcing students to leave their winter hibernation to sit in a bare room and show us what they know, working against the clock. In my international school environment, I prefer the term ‘practice examinations’ because our aim is to simulate the conditions that the students will experience in the May or November exam sessions. There is no IB requirement to run practice exams, although the IB expects teachers to provide predicted grades based on an accurate application of the grade descriptors and informed by evidence. The IB uses data on each school’s historic performance in the external exams to regulate and limit predicted grades, so schools often need to use convincing evidence to support their predictions. Mock exams can provide part of this evidence base. However, the main purpose of the mocks is to support teaching and learning.
Scheduling the exams
We are a northern hemisphere school and run the practice exams in January, immediately after the students return from their winter break. The exams are scheduled over 9-10 days and include all the assessments (papers) that the students will take in the final exams. There are advantages and disadvantages to this timing. From August to December of Grade 12, we focus on the coursework assignments (Internal Assessments, Extended Essays etc.) so that the second part of the year can be devoted to exam preparation.
By running the mock exams in January, the students have three months to reflect on performance and to take action. A possible disadvantage of running the mocks in January is that not all students are at peak performance after the winter break, which might explain why some schools run the mocks in December or later in the new year. Teachers of content-heavy subjects are sometimes concerned that the students haven’t covered enough of the syllabus before mock exams in January.
Designing suitable assessment tasks
Sufficient syllabus coverage, level of difficulty and exam security are some of the considerations faced by teachers when designing mock exam assessments. Using complete sets of past papers is a way of ensuring that the whole subject guide (syllabus) is assessed using appropriately challenging tasks formatted in an IB style. The schools can acquire the mark schemes for the assessments and teachers can grade them with a high level of confidence.
Students are often able to access past papers and mark schemes, however, so it is important to maintain a level of unpredictability to ensure that the mock exams are a valid assessment of learning. A solution could be to use a combination of past exam papers from different years. It is possible for teachers to design their own assessment tasks, but this is often too time-consuming. Ideally, subject departments should discuss their approach to mock exams during collaborative planning time. Our school has designed a cover sheet for the exams, listing the equipment required, time allowed and the students taking standard level or higher level.
Helping students to prepare for the mocks
For the IB, it is important to develop “assessment-capable” learners (IBO, 2021b, p. 9) who have acquired “test-wiseness” (Baird et al, 2016, cited in IBO,2021, p.27). Teachers can help their students to become more assessment-capable by sharing the IB’s assessment criteria and helping learners to internalise these success criteria before the mocks. Students should be made aware of the possible range of topics from the subject guide and teachers can provide guidance on how to develop an individual revision schedule. Later this month, we will deliver a mini-workshop on time-management and note-taking to our Grade 12 students.
We will also introduce students to the Study & Revision environment included in ManageBac Passport, offering flashcards, notes and video explanations to support a number of DP subjects. Students can rate their understanding of each topic to inform their exam preparation before the mocks and leading up to the final exams. Teachers can use flashcards and videos to provide alternative explanations or to ‘flip the classroom’ and use valuable lesson time for more collaborative learning.
We aim to integrate students’ preparation for the mock exams into a wider whole-school strategy for developing approaches to learning. For example, learning how to interpret the key command terms (describe, analyse, evaluate etc.) is an important thinking skill and learning how to write clearly for a specific audience in a limited time is a key communication skill. The MYP Command Terms posters (Goodwin, 2022), available free from ManageBac, are an engaging way of making the command terms visible to the students.
Promoting student wellbeing
The 2023 cohort will be the first students to take IB Diploma exams in a ‘post-covid’ environment. The IB has reintroduced the full range of assessments that were removed in 2021-22 as a covid adjustment. They will readjust the grade boundaries towards the ‘pre-covid’ 2019 levels. However, IB research (IBO, 2020) into previous natural disasters indicates that not all parents and students recover at the same rate and some “may need support long after the disaster is over” (IBO, 2020, p. 5). The IB suggests several factors for mitigating “lost learning”, including building students’ resilience, increasing their sense of autonomy (self-efficacy) and by using goal setting to give “a sense of purpose, hope or meaning” (IBO, 2020, pp. 8-9).
Inviting former students returning from university to speak to our students before the mock exams is our interpretation of Henderson’s (2012) ‘protective factor[s]’ for building students’ resilience at a stressful time. By providing more revision tools for independent learning, we hope to help our students to feel more autonomous, and by encouraging them to set simple goals before and after the mock exams, we intend to make the experience more meaningful for the students. Going forward, we should integrate this mock exams strategy into the design of a whole-school “wellbeing pedagogy” (Balica, 2020, p. 9).
According to the IB (2022), it is essential to maintain “equal and comparable conditions” in all schools running IB examinations. To maintain credibility and trust in its qualifications, the IB will introduce extra measures, including mandatory start times for the 2023 May and November exams. As schools, we can help in this “shared endeavour” by creating a supportive environment, clarifying expectations and recognising the students’ stress and supporting them (IBO, 2022). For example, many students do not understand the rationale behind the requirement not to discuss the content of the exams for at least 24 hours, so it is our job as a school to explain.
By displaying the regulations and relevant posters before the exam season and by holding a dedicated student briefing before the winter break, we aim to use the mock exams for reinforcing the concept of academic integrity. By separating the Internal Assessment season from the written examination season, we aim to provide support and reduce stress during the mock exams. By always following the script in “invigilators’ instructions to candidates”, we aim to ensure that ethical behaviour is a student’s choice instead of a result of not being informed.
Running the mock exams
The January practice examinations are arguably more challenging for the students, teachers and invigilators (proctors) than the final IB assessments. Due to time constraints, we often schedule subjects at the same time (e.g. Physics, Biology and ESS) and we also run our Grade 10 IGCSE mock exams simultaneously. Despite our best efforts, it is always more difficult to distribute photocopied exam papers before a mock exam than it is to open the professionally published and packaged IB exam packets. The teachers invigilating the exams have the extra responsibility of assessing the students’ work, so it is important that we devote our full attention to invigilation, despite outside pressures.
The mock exams are an opportunity to test procedures for setting up the exam room, administering inclusive access arrangements (extra time etc.) and remembering the requirements for each subject (calculators, data booklets etc.). We can support students and their parents by communicating the mock exam schedule and other arrangements clearly, for example via ManageBac.
Marking and grading the mock assessments
The role of the teacher marking and grading the mock exams is arguably different to the work of an IB examiner. Both examiners and teachers need to use the subject’s assessment criteria or mark schemes consistently and to write evidence on the student’s exam script of how they have applied these. However, in contrast to examiners, teachers understand that the students will use these comments as the basis for future learning and they might decide to add more detailed comments. A disadvantage of this approach is that it is more time-consuming for teachers. Subject teachers could use collaborative planning time to discuss departmental approaches to grading the mock exams and providing feedback.
One of the most important tips that I learnt as a teacher was that the grade boundaries (Grade 4, 5 etc.) for each component are listed in the subject reports published on the IB’s Programme Resource Centre (resources.ibo.org). By using these grade boundaries together with the Diploma Programme Grade descriptors, teachers can assess students’ mock exams with a higher level of confidence.
Providing feedback and using the data for learning
Some teachers have criticised the emphasis on mock exams as ‘teaching to the test’ or an emphasis on summative ‘assessment of learning’ at the expense of formative ‘assessment for learning’, which arguably detracts from the values of an IB education. Most of Grade 12 is spent preparing for, practising and completing externally validated assessment tasks and it is worth evaluating whether this is effective. However, the mock exams provide a valuable opportunity for teachers to understand their students’ learning and to provide feedback on “how far they are” and “feedforward” on “how to get there” (IBO, 2021b, p. 10).
The IB draws on research to propose “constructive criticism” and “dialogic interactions” with the students (IBO, 2021b) and we attempt to deliver this following the mock exams. At the beginning of February, or within two weeks of the mock exams, we ask teachers to return the assessed exam scripts to the individual students and to review the exam papers with the students, sharing insights into the assessment tasks that most students found challenging. At the beginning of February, we issue individual reports with targets for improvement using ManageBac. This year, after students receive their report, we will ask them to add a reflection and personal goals to ManageBac before re-publishing the reports. We hope that this new strategy will help the students to internalise the feedback.
We also ask the teachers to discuss the mock exams during programme meetings and collaborative planning time. Our student tracking document gives an insight into which students require extra interventions to pass the IB Diploma or to meet their university requirements. We have developed a teacher reflection form designed to identify students requiring interventions and to establish priorities for the final three months of teaching and learning before the exams. We have used this reflection strategy as evidence that we are meeting the IB’s standards and practices for assessment. Forgoing two weeks of lesson time to conduct mock exams is a significant time investment, so we need to ensure that we use the mock exam data effectively for learning.
Mock exams in a digital age
Our exam infrastructure (rooms, tables and chairs, invigilation, secure storage etc.) is designed to meet the needs of exams written on paper and submitted by courier for external assessment by the IB. There is a suggestion that this will change. Our school has recently become a candidate school for the IB Middle Years Programme and, after gaining authorisation, we intend to enter the students for the MYP certificate as early as in 2026. Instead of sitting traditional examinations, our students will prepare e-portfolios and take on-screen assessments. As teachers, we will need to learn how to create authentic MYP-style assessment tasks including media, graphs and interactive diagrams. Our MYP mock examinations will need to simulate these new assessment conditions. The IB has also announced its intention to reform the Diploma programme to “diversify assessment formats (including using the opportunities presented by digital technology) to enable students to implement and demonstrate their learning in more inclusive, authentic and relevant ways.” (IBO, 2021a, p. 4) In the next few years, we may see pilots of these new assessments.
If you have found this discussion of mock exams useful, you are welcome to participate in a two-part webinar series on Managing DP Mock Exams, hosted by ManageBac in November 2022.