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When to do past practice papers

With the stakes so high in the English and Welsh exam system teachers obviously want students to be as well prepared as possible. With this in mind I would assume that all teachers use past exam papers to help their students succeed. But when and how should they be used?

If students have to do a "mock" or trial exam in December or January, what the French call an "examen blanc", it makes sense to use a past paper and possibly one before the paper for practice. I say "possibly" mainly because past papers take away time for more interesting, communicative work, but students like to have the reassurance of having seen the exam format.

It is possible to concoct an exam paper similar in style to a past paper, but made easier to reflect the students' stage of progress. However, there is a lot to be said for letting students have a sight of the final goal, both for motivation and to make sure they are realistic about where they stand. It can provide a needed kick up the rear (whilst also being demotivating for the weakest students).

After mock exams I would personally leave past papers alone until quite late in the day, say after Easter. I'll explain why.

Firstly, do we want to keep students in a permanent stage of exam stress? Secondly, are past papers, in methodological terms, the best practice to be doing? Their content is often bland and exercise types not always the best to maximise motivation and acquisition. Thirdly, is it not better to have students engaged with communicative, stimulating, target language material as much as possible? Lastly, once you begin past papers in earnest after Easter (often after orals are out of the way), you can really focus on technique and build a momentum as students take on numerous papers and, usually, see improvements in scores.

Students enjoy this repetition, seeing results improve whilst benefitting from short term reinforcement of effective technique. A real momentum can be generated. Students can become greedy for more. Furthermore, in the summer term they may be highly motivated to perform well on exam-style tasks.

I have heard it argued that it is a good idea to use individual questions from papers at various points of the year, but I would not favour this approach. Why? Well, once again, exam material is often dull, and if you do occasional practice in this form, technique develops less effectively. I would not rule it out, especially if there happens to be an excellent text which supports the topic you are studying at the time.

If we move to a two year linear A-level from September 2016, it will be possible to leave past papers quite late. I welcome that. Schools may still choose, as they often did in the past, to set a past paper at the end of Lower Sixth and for a mock exam in January of the Upper Sixth. On balance, I would prefer to set a non past paper in Lower Sixth, since students are not really ready for it.


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