The problem with mocks

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I have just finished marking my mocks.  It is a bit depressing if I am honest.  It would seem very little of my teaching or advice about the exams has stuck.

It is ok, I tell myself.  This is a diagnostic process, it is not about pass or fail. The cohort and class performance will help me analyse what topics and skills need more work.  I can use this to help plan targeted intervention and action plans.  This is a diagnostic snapshot to help me tweak my lesson planning for the rest of the year.  This is a diagnostic snapshot to help students reflect on their own learning and analyse their own strengths and weaknesses.

It is also important for students to experience the process, students need to get a feel for what the real exams are like.  We make everything real, the layout, the external invigilators, the rules & regulations, the rickety exam desk, the invigilator with the clicking heels, the little cards with their names on.  It is an exact replica of what will happen in the summer series.  I know this dry run is important for them to acclimatise but it is what they have produced which worries me.

The mock exams went very well, all the students turned up, they followed the procedures and seemed to take them quite seriously.  No one took in a mobile phone or an apple watch and everyone remembered to write their name at the top of the paper.  But why do I feel such despair about the whole enterprise?

I guess part of me wonders whether with such disappointing results was it really worth the effort?  It occurs to me that many (although not all) of my students had not really bothered to revise much.  They may have done the odd spider diagram but their preparation had none of the blood, sweat and tears that come with the summer series.  At best, I think the mocks reflect how much they could remember from their autumn term classes.  Therefore, I wonder what they really tell me.  How valid is this exercise?

We must also consider the opportunity cost of a mock series.  You lose a whole weeks teaching time, it has taken two days of my holiday to mark and our department time will be taken with standardisation.  Now, I am not saying any of these things is bad of its own accord, but I am left with a disappointing set of mocks wondering how I can retrieve a win from what feels like a defeat.

It seems like a phoney war which has been scripted long ago.  Next week, the students and I will sing a familiar song about working harder and focusing on the question.  We both know these dance steps like the back of our hands.  I will put their examples answers on the board and they will nod in the right places.  On the surface, it looks like engagement with learning but there is also a sense that we are doing it for the camera.  We both know it was a phoney war.  There is a sense of collusion here as I chose a paper that was goldilocks, not too difficult, not too easy, it was just pitched right for them to show off their skills.

I guess what frustrates me the most is that they are refusing to put the car into top gear until the real race.  Maybe they are right, perhaps you should save the fuel until the final lap but how will you know how fast it can go unless you give it a spin, take a risk and nudge it into top.  Why would you not give this your best shot?  Why would you not want to show off what you can do?

Why indeed, this is a good question that wants exploring.  Why would you want to risk failure half way through a course if you cannot achieve a grade that you think you are worth, that your parents would be happy with?  In the half-hearted attempt and withdrawal from the race, one protects the more vulnerable parts of oneself.

However, I should not overlook the emotional content of this phenomenon.  Feeling the despair may have its uses as well.  It feels too hard, too much to do with not enough time.  I am not sure how I will get it all done.  I am pretty sure this emotion does not originate in me, there is a transference of this anxiety.  The reality of only being half-way through a course and not quite getting it all, not being able to make the connections, not seeing the bigger picture can at times make one feel in despair.

Perhaps these mocks are not just an academic snapshot but also a means of taking the emotional temperature of the young people I work with.  The real task here is to help contain some of these feelings and help hold onto the painful experience that is learning.  The real task here is to turn this despair into something more hopeful.  This will involve digging into the mark schemes and looking at where we went wrong but it will also need me to be aware of the emotional factors in teaching and learning.

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