I have a mock exam tomorrow, and I can’t bring myself to care much about it.
A utilitarian approach
Consider this: The consequences of doing well in a mock exam are recognition from your Director of Studies / professor, possibly recognition from your peers and smug self-satisfaction. The consequences of doing poorly are the opposite, which don’t really matter unless you are incredibly keen, need good standing with your professor to negotiate for placements or will be given extra work as a result (unlikely). None of these seem to be true for me at the moment. Competing with the mock are other time-sensitive issues that do matter, such as job applications and the politics and history essays due next week. This is the problem: that there is an opportunity cost to studying for the mock, and it is unclear why, based solely on mock-exclusive outcomes, the mock takes priority over any of the other things I mentioned.
Of course it is unfair to base the utility of the mock wholly on its face result and the consequences of that – the whole point of the mock is to test how well you know the material and through so doing encourage you to learn more of it. Understanding the material better then helps you make the most of the next stage of learning (because you won’t be completely lost), prepare for the end-of-year exam and understand more about your subject and the world. These, however, can be achieved by studying independently after the mock. Whether or not you will do that is a different question. Having mocks does push you to study at least a little more than if there were no mocks, and for that reason I am grateful we have one.
Two other often understated benefits are identifying what you don’t understand and simulating exam conditions. Often you may think you know something, but you don’t. Reading about the radius of the Earth and going ‘ah, yes of course I know it’s 6400km’ doesn’t mean you actually know it. Visually recognising something is not the same as being able to recall the information, much less use it. Exams help identify the concepts that you’re struggling with, and identifying them early on has more than proportional benefits especially in subjects such as maths and economics where ideas are built on and with other ideas. If you don’t understand how adding fractions works, you will not fare well with more advanced algebra. The second benefit – simulating exam conditions – is seemingly more specific, but is still important and widely applicable. The pressures of working to time in a relatively strict environment need specific preparation. Many people screw up critical assessments because they are stressed, myself included. Although mocks are clearly not as pressurising, they give you a better idea physically and emotionally what the exam will be like. The closer the simulation, the better it will prepare you for the real thing. That’s why musicians rehearse performances in their head in as much detail as possible.
Note, however, that you get these benefits even if you don’t study much for the mock. In a way, if you don’t study as much, you are likely to simulate dealing with stress better as long as you don’t just give up. The only downside is that the number of things you don’t understand will most likely be large enough for the information to be unhelpful, and you may dismiss it because you know you didn’t really study anyway so y’know, you would’ve known it if you’d studied and you’ll study when it really matters, so you’re fine.
Low-stakes mock exams are, in a way, a step towards the ideal exam: one that does not have consequences so great that it causes stress, but pushes people to dig deeper and gives them feedback on what they do and don’t understand. They also give more realistic assessments of how well people understand the material. People who understand the material will do well. As for those who don’t know it because they didn’t revise – they didn’t know it well enough in the first place. Contrast this with what usually happens with school exams: students often cram in the week prior, get ridiculously stressed because the stakes are high, and forget most things after because they didn’t learn it properly and because there is no follow up. Of course, the usefulness of knowing the material is debatable (it still is at university, especially if you’re not going into that subject area), but that’s for another post. Going further in this direction seems to point towards having more regular low-stakes assessments instead of a final exam. This has problems of its own, but on surface it seems to be a much better way of accurately assessing people’s performance and, more importantly, helping people learn better. Sounds good to me.
 Here I mean it doesn’t matter functionally. Respect and responsibility is treated separately. A responsible student should prepare for a mock regardless because studying for and attempting the exam is part of the student’s job.
 The extent to which these matter all depend on how much you care about your degree and what result you’re happy with.