By Mark Richards,
We are firmly within mock exam season right now and there can be nothing more disheartening for a teacher than coming across a pupil’s exam script which has a completely blank page.
After all the preparation and practice and hard work, you find that a pupil’s response to a question is a big, fat nothing. It really is demoralising. And, in these Covid times, the importance of mock exams as a factor in potentially awarding a final grade makes the blank page appear more costly than ever. Sod’s law dictates that the gaps are often on higher tariff questions too – the 20-mark task rather than the 1-mark question. It’s the type of omission that is literally going to be the difference between one grade and another – or even worse.
So, what you a teacher do to support the student who has written absolutely nothing?
Pick-me-up not punishment
Of course, the initial response that a teacher feels when they see the blank page could well be one of frustration. Other pupils have answered the question, why hasn’t this one? Although it is perfectly understandable for a teacher to feel frustrated, it is vital that this frustration is not communicated to the pupil.
If coming across a blank page and the realisation that a pupil hasn’t even attempted a question is disheartening and demoralising for the teacher, just imagine how it feels for the pupil. It is imperative that the pupil is offered support, not punishment.
It is worthwhile emphasising to both the pupils and parents the importance of mock exams. For example, in terms of offers of sixth-form or college places – and the uncertainty around Covid and how teacher-assessed grades might be needed again this year. However, the focus really needs to be on starting a dialogue with the student to determine why they felt unable to write anything at all. The only way of removing the barrier that exists in the pupil’s mind around a question is to identify the reasons why it’s there in the first place. It could be that it was simply a timing issue. Maybe the pupil feels that they have a gap in their knowledge. The student could have just felt overwhelmed by the whole experience.
The importance of giving feedback
The focus with all aspects of mock exam performance should be on feedback. To the student who hasn’t written anything, there is the temptation to simply give them another opportunity to have another go
on the question. Not to put too finer a point on it, this will be a complete waste of time. After all, there was obviously a reason of some sort why the pupil didn’t answer the question in the first place.
The best way forward is to focus on giving quality feedback to the whole class.
It is a good idea to share examples of good answers, but this is not enough on its own. The process behind answering a particular question must be explained, clarified – and fully understood by all pupils.
Provide a structure to answer the question
Following on from this, it’s worth remembering that there is a formula to answer all types of questions – certainly at GCSE level. Although models and templates can be limiting at the top end of the ability range, for those of middle to low ability, such structures can offer a necessary lifeline. If you give pupils a straightforward structure to follow, it can take away the fear of the blank page. Getting over that first hurdle is all-important.
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2. How to keep students motivated and confident about their exams
3. How to prepare students for exams
4. Should Gifted Students Be Taught in a Different Way?
5. How to Ask Students for Their Feedback
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