Practice exams: why students don't do them and how to get them doing more

Practice papers. The 2 most important words for Year 12. Our research shows that practice papers are the single most significant thing a student can do to increase their performance in their final year. The research is unequivocal. The top students do more practice papers than other students. Indeed, the number one variable for accurately forecasting a student’s performance in Year 12 is the number of practice exams they do. But this isn’t rocket science. It won’t come as a surprise to any teacher or student. The question is then: if it is so obvious, why doesn’t everyone do more practice exams?


Welcome to instalment 2 of our series “What students get wrong about exam preparation”. Last time we looked at the first of the big problems students make when it comes to exams, which was that the majority of students lack a recipe for exam preparation. That is, they don’t understand what they should be doing to be properly prepared, or when they should be doing it, leading them to start their preparation too late and prioritise the wrong work. As you will recall, we solved this problem through the use of exam planners (download your examples here). The beauty of structured use of an exam planner is that it turns your students into master project planners, meaning they give themselves adequate time to prepare. It also ensures the right amount of time is being spent on the 3 key tasks of exam preparation: finishing notes, memorising notes and doing practice exams.

In this article we address the next challenge for schools: once you have your students freeing up time to spend on practice papers, how do you actually get them to do them? As mentioned above, the news that the top students do more practice exams than other students certainly doesn’t come as a shock to anyone, yet most students don’t do them. As we noted in our last instalment, only a minority of students (36%) spend any meaningful time on practice exams, meaning that 64% of students are spending their time on work that won’t have a major impact on their marks in the most crucial time of the year. Even amongst the students who are doing practice exams, the majority of students are limited to just one or two. Why?



Why don’t students do practice exams?


There are 3 key reasons why students don’t do practice exams, or a sufficient number for them to be meaningful:

  • They run out of time (which we addressed in instalment one);

  • They become overwhelmed and stress out;

  • They find them too hard.

Let’s explore the last two factors in a bit more depth.


The overwhelmed factor


Students make one key mistake when they do practice exams. They believe the purpose of practice exams is to practice being in the exam room under exam conditions. At first glance, that answer seems completely intuitive since we call them “practice” exams. However, this is not the primary reason that students should be doing them, and indeed, the very act of seeing practice exams as a simulated test acts as a disincentive for students. As soon as students think “simulated exam”, they think “I need to have everything perfectly memorised, I need to sit still for 3 hours and I need to have the perfect answer”, at which point they begin to stress out. All of a sudden, it becomes far more attractive to revert back to rote-learning their notes rather than doing something challenging and stressful.


Being able to mimic exam room conditions is not the primary reason students should be doing practice exams. Instead, they should be doing them to:

  • Practice applying knowledge. When we use the word “practice” in “practice exams” this is really what we are referring to. As we all know, exams are not a test of what students know, or how much they can remember. Instead, an exam tests how students can apply their knowledge or memorized context to a problem or a scenario. The process of getting comfortable with using and applying knowledge to a question takes time, which is why it’s the key reason they should be doing practice exams.

  • Contextual understanding and memorisation: Most students use rote learning as their primary means of memorising their notes before an exam. The key problem with rote-learning is that it is linear. A student memorises where information sits in a list or a specific order, as opposed to how one bullet point in their notes relates to another. Practice exams are a critical activity then, as they take students beyond knowing what is in their notes, and moves them to understanding how it all fits together. Also, by providing additional memory hooks, it has the added benefit of improving long-term memory.

These two points are critical, because it acts as a guide to how students should be doing practice exams. That is, they don’t need to think of them as a “simulated exam”. They don’t need to have a timer. They don’t need to do them without reference to their notes or textbook, and they don’t even need to have memorised their notes. Instead, students are better off doing snippets of practice exams, not timing themselves, doing them open book, and even, as we will see below, doing them without having fully memorised their notes. Re-conceptualising practice exams in this way has the major advantage of making it far less stressful and daunting to get started.

Practice exams are hard


The second reason that students put off doing practice exams is that they are hard. A student needs to think while doing a practice exam, which is more difficult than rote learning. The fact that they need to sit still and focus for long periods of time is a deterrent for them. They need to write. They get hand cramps. Finally, they also tend to realise that they don’t actually know as much as they thought they did about the subject or a given topic, which undermines their confidence. As such, it is easier to kick the can down the road and leave practice exams for later.

How are schools getting around these problems?


Over the last few years, we have seen schools introduce a number of strategies that are dedicated to overcoming the problems outlined above. They are:

IDEA 1. Exam Days: This is one of the strategies we have been sharing with schools for over a decade, and one that has produced amazing results for the schools that have used them. Students at a client school in the UK actually rated their Exam Day as the program which had the biggest impact on both their marks and confidence in their final years.



The idea behind an Exam Day is simple. It acts as a circuit breaker to get students around their reluctance of doing practice exams. The process is equally simple. At the start of the school day, students go to the school hall, which is laid out in exam format. At the front of the room they find a pile of practice exams laid out subject by subject. They choose one, they find their seat and they do the practice exam according to the tips below:


  • They don’t do it under exam conditions (even though they are in the exam room)

  • They don’t need to time themselves

  • They do them open book, accompanied by their textbooks and notes should they need refer to them

  • They don’t need to do the entire paper, but can instead do parts of the paper

  • Ideally, each subject has teachers on hand across the day so that if students are stuck or have questions they have someone to consult


Other than that, students stick to the normal school day routine. Break at recess and lunch, after which students return to the hall and resume the practice papers. If possible, students also have option of submitting their exam paper to get feedback (more on this in a future post).


Exam days are very simple to organise and have the following benefits:


  • It gets students started on practice exams. Like most things in life, the first step in doing practice exams is always the hardest. Once students get started and realise that they aren’t so daunting, it is much easier for them to continue to do them.

  • At the bare minimum, you can guarantee that 100% of your students have done at least 1-3 practice exams by the end of the day, in effect tripling the number of students who would normally do this in preparation for their final exam..

  • It reduces some of the anxiety of the exam room itself. A significant amount of exam room nerves are caused by the novelty of the room itself. By spending time in the examination room, in a low stakes and low stress manner, some of the novelty is removed - even if the practice exams themselves haven’t been done under exam room conditions.


If you are unable to free up an entire day, then why not run “Exam Afternoons” as one of our client schools in Sydney does. They were unable to find the time to block out an entire day, so instead freed up one afternoon each week after school. On a rotating basis, each department hosted an after-school exam session for 2-hours. In the first week Maths would host the session, then the English department the week after, and so on, and students could opt to stay after school if they wished. The added advantage of this process is that it actually gets students starting on practice papers before exam preparation even begins, helping to condition the belief and habit that practice papers should be done all year round, not just before exams.

IDEA 2: PRACTICE PAPER GAMIFICATION



A teacher at one of our client schools in Sydney introduced us to this idea a few years ago. They were searching for ways to increase the number of practice exams that students did across the year, and decided to lean on “gamification”. Gamification refers to a series of neuroscience and psychology techniques used in the design of computer games that help make games more compelling and engage a player’s competitive instincts. In this case, they decided to borrow the idea of “badges”, whereby players earn a badge for completing a task. Within the field of gamification, a badge serves two purposes:


  1. It helps to define a goal (i.e. perform task A to receive a reward), which helps to trigger the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that provides one with a sense of determination to stick with a task regardless of its difficulty;

  2. It provides someone with an incentive (the reward for performing the task), which when received, triggers the release of endorphins. This not only creates a sense of happiness and achievement, but also becomes addictive, so that one seeks to perform the task again in order to receive the reward.

Proving that you don’t need a multi-million dollar budget and lots of technology to apply gamification, our client adopted the badge system in the classroom through a piece of cardboard and a series of star stickers. (we know this sounds like a trick to motivate Year 1 students and not Year 12 students, but give us the benefit of doubt here - we promise the payoff will be worth it!) On the cardboard, the teacher drew up a column in which he put all the names of the students in their class, and then stuck the cardboard poster on the wall.


Then, in the next class, the teacher told everyone that each time they did a practice exam, and submitted it, they would receive a star next to their name. At first it was a bit of a joke amongst the students. However, slowly but surely, a small group of students started to hand in practice exams, and in return, they received stickers next to their name. This did two very interesting things:

  • Firstly, it acted as social validation for the rest of the class. Most Year 12 students don’t spend a lot of time bragging, publicising or even discussing what study they are doing, leading most students to believe that everyone else is taking things easy. By actually having a small group of students publicly proclaim that they were not only doing practice exams, but were doing them well before exams, other students began to realise they were being left behind, and that they too needed to get started. All of a sudden, the number of students doing practice exams started to rapidly grow.

  • Secondly, as the number of students playing the game increased, the sense of friendly competition increased. A student would see that their friend or rival had received two additional stickers, which would motivate them to increase the number of practice exams that they were doing in order to level up or overtake them. This sense of competition served to speed up the dopamine-endorphin feedback loop, which continued to spur on the levels of competition, and most importantly, the number of practice papers being completed.

We love this idea, as our client managed to do something very difficult: create a culture within the class whereby it was acceptable to study and be prepared. Even more impressively, it was done in a very simple way. No technology. No large budget. Just a piece of cardboard and some stickers. Even more impressively though, the Exam Paper Game took on a life of its own after the Trial HSC. After marking for their subject had been finalised, the teacher was flicking through their students’ exam papers prior to handing them back, and noticed something: the top performing student in the subject had done the most practice exams, and subsequently, had the most stars on the poster. They then looked at the student who had come second, and noticed that they were placed second in the Exam Paper Game. They worked their way from third down to seventh and found the exact same thing. Between positions 1 to 7, each students’ position was perfectly correlated to the number of practice exams they had done. Once the teacher pointed this out to the class, helping students to buy into the process even more, the level of student buy-in to the process increased even more significantly.


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Now it is time for our asks!


1. If you found this useful, please share it! We want to get these tips out to as many teachers as possible, so if you found it beneficial, feel free to share it via social media or forward it to a colleague. We appreciate your help in spreading the word.


2. If you want to look at ways that you can improve your students exam preparation game, don’t hesitate to contact us. With our subject-specific exam preparation programs for 18 VCE & 6 HSC subjects, we have a way to not only get your students ready for exams, but more importantly, get them hitting their exam home run! If you want to discuss ideas then don’t hesitate to contact Lina at lina@elevateeducation.com or go to our contact us page here.

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