What to do when a student writes nothing in their exam

What to do when a student writes nothing in their exam

We all know how important exams are, so what do you do in this situation? If a student hands in a blank page during a mock exam, here are some tips for giving support.

After all the hard work, all the practice, you see that a student has simply written nothing. It’s a heart-stopping moment, made more pertinent by the knowledge that the disruption of the past few years has made mock exams more important than ever in helping to decide those all-important final grades.

So what can a you do to help the student who has written nothing?

Offer support, not punishment 

It’s about ensuring that steps are taken so that this doesn’t happen in the next formal assessment. Communication with the student and their parents is key here – the importance of mocks can’t be underestimated for college or sixth-form places in the face of continuing uncertainty around whether teacher-assessed grades will be used again. You need to explain this clearly, and then start a dialogue about why the student felt they weren’t able to write anything. Identifying that reason is the only way to ensure that the barrier can be removed. Was it timing? A knowledge gap? A feeling of being overwhelmed?

Focus on feedback

While it might seem like a good idea to simply say “have another go”, this is likely to be a waste of time: as mentioned above, they obviously didn’t attempt this question for a reason. So don’t make them repeat the experience immediately.

One important part of this is showing what “good” answers look like. This can be done in several ways. However, simply providing the good answer isn’t enough – you need to break down the process by which the answer was reached. A simple, visual approach is to provide colour-coded phrases in the example answer against the mark scheme. A visualiser is a godsend for physically annotating a good answer, too. All of this helps to take away the “mystery” of how to climb up the mark scheme.

Make it automatic

The only way that students are going to truly overcome the fear of the blank page is by building automaticity into their answers. You need to integrate regular, timed practice into lessons. This doesn’t only mean practising full answers but also the process of retrieving the necessary information to develop an answer.

This needn’t be a lengthy exercise each time – a quickfire quiz on, say, “Paper 1, question 4” can be a five-minute starter activity that will keep students revisiting the material and help to build familiarity with the process.


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