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The mock exam as a low cost, high return revision exercise

You might think that running a mock exam inevitably entails a lot of extra marking that is ultimately not assessed. Not so. I have successfully used the following exercise for five years, without it entailing any additional marking. Attendance has been close to 100% and the ex post comment of students overwhelmingly positive.


  1. To help familiarise students with the examination process and techniques, so that the actual event is less intimidating and a more reliable guide to students' abilities.
  2. To give students a clearer idea of what good answers are like and how they are assessed.
  3. To help students initiate the task of consolidating and revising material covered on a particular course.
  4. To stimulate discussion and mutual help among students in the consolidation, revision and examination preparation process.

The first aim is particularly important for students for whom the exam is a new experience or one being repeated after a long interval, and the second for examinations based on open-ended essay questions. I developed the technique specifically for a 'capstone' exam that assesses students across a whole programme of study, and therefore required more explanation than an exam clearly embedded within a particular unit.


The exercise requires at least three hours of continuous contact time a couple of weeks before the actual exam. I have used it primarily as preparation for a three hour exam in which students are required to answer three out of nine essay-type questions. The sequence of activities is as follows.

In advance

Students are given no prior warning as to how the mock exam session will be structured: they just know it is a mock exam and timetabled for three hours. However, they receive a couple of past papers well beforehand and I spend a few minutes going through with them how the actual exam is structured.

Step 1 (45 minutes)

Students enter the room "under exam conditions", leaving bags at the front and occupying desks set out with an answer sheet and the mock question paper (adapted from an old paper they had not seen in advance). As mock examination officer I then instruct them NOT to write full answers but to prepare outline or plan answers to three questions. I point out they have 15 minutes to do each. I also explain that they will not be required to show these plans to anybody else, but that they will be discussing what they wrote with others. They proceed to do this under examination conditions.

Step 2 (30 minutes)

When the mock exam proper has finished, I immediately find out (by show of hands) how many people answered each question and write the results up on the board for all to see. There is usually some open and informative discussion at this stage of why people went for different questions. I then break all the students up into groups - one for each question that was answered by at least two people, adjusting numbers and size of groups according to the total number present. The best technique for large groups is to get students to sign themselves up for a question on the blackboard at the front of the room, stipulating only that they should sign up for a question for which they prepared a plan. Some amicable negotiation is then needed to persuade a few people to transfer to another group so as to balance out the groups.

Step 3 (45 minutes)

Students then disperse to compare and discuss their answers to their group's question. They are instructed to consolidate their outlines into one single outline, covering a single transparency, and to nominate one person to go through it on an OHP when the groups reconvene.

Step 4 (minimum 60 minutes)

Groups now take it in turn to present their OHP outline back to the whole class. I time the presentations carefully to allow at least as much time for open discussion of their presentation and to ensure each group has an equal allocation of time. Thus if six groups have been formed to discuss six of the nine questions then an hour is sufficient for an average of five minutes presentation and five minutes of discussion per group. Discussion includes clarifications from other members of that group, questions from other class members and usually a final commentary from me on their outline answer. My comments may cover good and bad points they made, points they missed, and also general tips (clarify or even challenge the question, define terms, making sure all parts of the question are explicitly answered and so on). For jointly set papers, more than one staff member can join in this final session and there is a chance for them to learn from each other as well.

Overall, the activity makes for an intensive, but varied and stimulating three hours, with very little preparation required. The real exam follows two weeks later - with enhanced performance!

See also: Case Study: How to get better essays while reducing your work and plagiarism

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