Sunday, 27 March 2016

The potential pitfalls and positives of the 'walking talking' mock

Last year, in the whirl of final exam preparation, the 'walking talking' mock (WTM) first began to appear on my timeline. The sometimes cult-like prophets of PiXL extolled its virtues as a way of improving exam technique and raising student achievement. Kristian Still's 2015 blog post does a fantastic job of capturing the erstwhile hype from when this approach was first mooted.

For the uninitiated, it's a mock exam... but not as you know it. Rather than students battling their way through an entire paper in one blast, they instead engage in a somewhat stop/start process of teacher explanation followed by timed completion of each question.

Having suffered the pain of disappointing results last year my leadership mantra this year has been 'let's do things differently'. Enter the WTM stage left. We knew we had two specific issues in relation to underachievement in AQA GCSE English Language:
1) students failing to stick to the clear timings required for each question
2) students not fully understanding what was required in each question.

The WTM seemed like a good way to support students in understand the quantity they were able to write in the time allowed and to guide them through the nuances of the assessment criteria. However, concerned about the idea of holding court with 150 students for 3+ hours - and, if I'm honest, yet to be convinced it was worth the bother - I decided to trial the WTM with two target groups on days when our students otherwise would've been at home.

The trial
I thought it would be a hard sell to convince students to attend but, as they so often do, our students did me proud and I ended up with a cohort of thirtyish Higher tier students on day one, and the same for Foundation tier on day two, for a 4 hour trial WTM. 

Free bacon butties booked for the halfway point were an important aid to stamina and I'd encourage any of you undertaking a WTM to remember it's a marathon for all involved and sustenance for teachers and students alike will be well appreciated!

Judging by my wholly unscientific student voice exit evaluation, students felt more confident and informed after the trial.

After the ‘walking talking’ mock exam I felt…

…more confident.

…the same.

…less confident.

Higher tier




Foundation tier




‘I feel I have a clearer understanding of what I need to do to achieve my target grade.’


Partially/ somewhat


Higher tier




Foundation tier




I would like to repeat the ‘walking talking’ mock exam before my June exam.


Not sure


Higher tier




Foundation tier




More pleasingly, after marking their papers, it was clear that it had led to evident gains in their achievement. The combination of these two factors launched me to action, rolling the WTM out to the rest of the cohort as soon as I was physically able.

The trial turned out to be a really important process in itself in that it taught me some important lessons about how to ensure the sessions were effective. I'll attempt to distil some of these below, but I strongly urge anyone with a large cohort to try it out in this way first.
The logistics
Organising a WTM is like being a scout: you need to be prepared. You'll want to keep everything you can as similar as possible to the conditions in which students will sit the final exam. So, it's time to apologise to your Head of PE and get the Sports Hall/Gym booked.

We were also supported by our superb Exams Officer and hardworking team of invigilators whose support was invaluable in establishing the necessary entrance routines for phones, bags, coats etc. Thanks to them, exam desks were set up as they usually are with students' laminated name cards with their exam codes and a strictly regulated seating plan. Interestingly, the invigilators found it hard to adjust to the idea of us talking to students in the exam hall and it's well worth explaining what a WTM entails prior to starting so you're all comfortable with one another's role.

Additionally, tech support is invaluable. The first of the trial sessions, for Higher tier, I did without a Powerpoint or projector - the impact of which can arguably seen in the evaluation table above. Don't make my mistake: a few short bulletpoints on a slide is important visual reinforcement for students of the key messages.

After day two of the trial I'd also, unsurprisingly, lost my voice. To ensure you're still able to teach the next day, invest in a £7 wireless mic from Amazon and blag an amp from the Music department.

Also, consider filming your WTM as a revision reference for students. If you're up for this added challenge, you'll need a camcorder or your phone, tripod, and charger. I found it was easy to place this to avoid filming students, but give yourself some to set it up prior to them entering.

And, finally, to avoid shivering students, do remind the caretakers to put the heaters on(!)

The instructions
It can be harder than you think solely to comment on exam technique and not give any specific guidance about the content to be included in students' answers. I'd go so far as to advise not reading the exact exam paper students have in front of them so you're simply not able to give them advice on the content to include.

It's also really important that the guidance you are giving is already consistently embedded across the teaching in your Faculty before the WTM. We've worked hard this year to ensure that the messages we're giving our students is consistent across classes and revision sessions. I think it's really important that we all agree on what is required in the exam based on sound advice from current examiners and more experienced colleagues. To support this, I produced an A3 guide to each tier of the exam for my teachers and tiered work book for students that reinforces key messages in a similar format.

The follow-up
As with any mock exam, the marking and feedback that teachers provide to students is key ensuring its a powerful tool for improvement. Students' papers should inform lesson planning, remembering that if students can't do something under WTM conditions then, quite frankly, swift, sharp intervention is needed.

Whilst it's easy to get swept up in improved outcomes, it's clearly important not to rely on the grades generated by WTM for forecast data. They are not an accurate portrayal of students' ability to respond when left to their own devices, as they will be in final exams. It's therefore important to book in a 'proper' mock exam swiftly afterwards both to reinforce exam technique and to gauge the impact of the WTM. Ours is after Easter and I for one will be waiting with bated breath to see whether the positive impact I'm expecting has actually been achieved.


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