All you need to know for practice exams (2019 edition)

Jul 23, 2019Careers and University, NCEA, Parent advice, Study Tips

As term three approaches, practice exams draw closer. Unfortunately, the benefit of practice exams go unclaimed as often students don’t take them seriously. Your child may not understand the importance of ‘mock exams’, or they might not know the right study techniques to learn from the experience and set themselves up for the real deal in term four.

We’ve created an extended guide so you can help your child get the most out of their practice exams.

Why are practice exams important?

Before diving into exam tips, it’s important to know why practice exams are important.

Your child might have heard a version of why practice exams exist from their teachers, but it may help to create a tangible example.

Practice exams are like playing a video game. Sure, they may have an extra life, however, that shouldn’t stop them from aiming to excel the first time around because the harder they try the first time, the more likely they’ll reach their goal when push comes to shove.

Your child should prepare for practise exams like they’re the real thing, but they shouldn’t fret if they don’t get the perfect results this time round as they have a second chance coming in their end of year examinations.

Strategy #1: Practice like you play.



When you play sport, you’re often told to practice like you play. When we’re under pressure, our brain’s default to what’s called “automatic thinking”, meaning we read situations with the same habitual mental strategies that we use during our practiced repetitions.

What this means is that if your child practices at 70% focus and intensity for their exams, they’re more likely to perform at 70% focus and intensity during their exams.

Our mental performance will always default back to what it’s accustomed to when the pressure’s on – there’s no way of magically boosting your capacity when it matters.

The same idea goes for practice exams.

Your child should use practice exams as a trial run to get into a regular, balanced routine of study, exercise, relaxation and sleep.

Strategy #2: Find out what you do and don’t know.


While an average learner will spend hours rehashing things they already know and ignoring everything that they don’t, an effective learner will quickly evaluate the concepts they’re struggling with and spend time overcoming their weaknesses before perfecting their strengths.

Get your child to think of all the exam content that they don’t know like a big, smelly pile of laundry. It’s gross, it seems like a huge task, and they’d much rather leave it to fester somewhere out of sight than deal with it tonight. But suddenly it’s too late to do a wash and they have to make do with all the clean clothes they have (the exam content they are already confident with). They may have some clothes for their trip, but you’re missing crucial items like socks and undies. It’s important to avoid this by addressing concepts they’re struggling with, as well as reinforcing the concepts they already know.

Practical steps you and your child can take to put this into practice:

  • Download a checklist from the NCEA website covering what they need to know for their topic of study (Checklists can also be found from StudyTime).
  • Get your child to test themselves on each point on the checklist by writing a short explanation of the concept or answering a few quiz-style questions surrounding the topic.
  • Then, get them to rate their knowledge of each concept on the checklist on a scale of 1-5: 1 not knowing anything and 5 being super confident.
  • From here, they should focus their time on the lowest-rated concepts first so that you have a sound general knowledge of everything – you’ll thank yourself later.

Strategy #3: Study in short sprints.



Studying in small, focused ‘sprints’ followed by small breaks can help promote more intense focus. This study technique allows your brain time to process and consolidate the information you’ve just learned rather than overwhelming it with too much information in one sitting.

Rather than getting your child to study for an hour, start out small.  Ask them to try 15 minute bursts followed by one 10 minute break, then slowly increase the length of the sprints (and the breaks) over time. Make sure the breaks aren’t too long – 20 minutes max – so that they don’t completely lose their ‘flow’ between sprints.

How to put this into practice:

  1. Set a timer for 15 minutes.
  2. Put in some solid study until the timer goes off, making sure they’re spending every minute working with no distractions.
  3. Allow them to have a ten minute break to check their phone, walk around, stretch, etc.
  4. Repeat.

Strategy #4: Experiment with new study strategies.



Use this practice round as a chance to encourage your child to get creative with their study methods. Rereading notes may provide short-term relief because it’s straightforward, but time and time again strategies like these have experimentally proven ineffective. They can even have fun making their notes colourful and appealing – so long as they’re applying smart methods to process the information their writing down.

Here are some links to useful, effective techniques your child can try out for their practice exams:

How to put this into practice:

  • Get your child to pick one study technique from the list above
  • Get them to try the technique for a few study sessions (study sprints)
  • Ask your child how they found that study technique- test what they’ve learnt and get them to rate whether they think it was effective
  • If they like the technique they can continue to use it, if not they can try another technique from the list.
  • Remember, study techniques are only useful if they’re used correctly. Get your child to really think about if they’re implementing the study technique as best as they could.

Strategy #5: Use ‘failure first’ learning when studying.



There’s a widespread myth that getting an answer wrong is a bad thing. However, recent research has suggested that attempting an answer and getting it wrong first actually helps you to remember the right answer – and fosters a deeper understanding of why it’s right.

At Inspiration Education, we call this “fail first learning,” – and it works. Researchers are the University of California have recently hypothesised that by guessing an answer before we know it, our brains become ‘activated’ – and this activation helps us register the correct answer more powerfully.

How to put this into practice:

  1. Get your child to try and complete a textbook/workbook/exam question without looking at the answers or having any notes open. If they aren’t sure or have no idea, encourage them to give it a guess anyway.
  2. Then they should find out the right answer and compare this against the answer they wrote.
  3. From here they’ll know where they need practise and can spend a few study ‘sprints’ on these parts of the question .
  4. Once they feel more confident they should give the question another go.
  5. If they get stuck, they can do more study sprints.
  6. Next they should try another question based on the same concept to check that they definitely understand the concept.

Strategy #6: Do past exam papers under timed/exam conditions.



It’s hard to explain to your child how scribbling frantically for 2-3 hours non-stop can accurately demonstrate their knowledge of a subject. However, for all its flaws, there are some benefits in sitting them.

Try and explain that exams are an opportunity to practice using and applying knowledge under pressure. Phrase it in a bigger context, throughout our lives, there are many times we have to use initiative, fast-thinking and time management to communicate information under pressure. Exam-taking is a skill, and like any other skill, it gets easier with practice.

The more study your child completes under exam conditions, the less daunting exams become. When they’re studying, make sure they conduct some under exam conditions (timed and without their notes).

Even if the first time that they try this is a disaster, they should remember that there are no consequences of a poor result when practising!

How to put this into practice:


  • Use the NCEA website to find past exam papers- print this off for your child.
  • They should put their notes away and set a timer for however long the exam is. For example, if the exam is made up of 3 questions and they have 60 minutes to complete it, they might like to do one question for 20 minutes then have a break.
  • Once the time is up. You might like to go over their answer together. Use their notes, textbooks, and the assessment report resources on the NZQA website to assess how well they answered the question.
  • Once this feedback has been gathered, get them to do the next question and change alter their approach to see if they get a better result.
  • If they really want to they can keep a record of how long it took to complete each exam and the grade you received. This is an easy way to visualise improvement and evaluate how their exam strategies are working.


Strategy #7: Reflect on exam mistakes.


When looking at past exams, most students will just look at the question, copy the answer from the marking schedule, and move on to the next question.

This formula is one we’ve seen time and time again throughout our tutoring sessions however, it doesn’t work. If your child actually wants to retain any information, they need to put in the work to actively learn the content.


To help, we’ve made a table that your child can use to document their progress with past practice exams.

The table asks for the year, question, grade, topic, what your child did wrong, and steps they’ll take to avoid making the same mistake.

Print off this template, and work with your child to fill it out when they’re attempting practice papers. It could help if they keep this the table to the top of their study notes so they have a constant visual reminder of their progress. If they can get into an organised habit of reflection and strategizing they’ll be working towards Merit or Excellence.




Practice exams are only a small aspect of your child’s overall school experience, but they do have value. Your role as a parent is to help them see that value. Despite seeming like a waste of time to some students, they provide an opportunity for your child to test new study strategies, refine their exam techniques, and have a trial run before their final exams.

Once the practise exams are over, help your child review their experiences and their results. Once you’ve established what they did well and where they could improve, work with them to form a study plan for their end of year exams. Hopefully, the second time around, the exam process will seem less daunting for your child and they’ll have all the techniques they need to walk into their exams with confidence.

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