Preparing your students for their first external QCE exams

Isabella Wood

Marketing Specialist at Atomi


min read

The road from OP to ATAR was always going to be paved with twists and turns. In the process of rolling out QLD’s first external exams in almost fifty years, delays and confusion were arguably more of a probability than a possibility. On top of that, 2020 has unleashed a whole new dimension of chaos unto our schools including a stint of remote learning and the looming threat of a runaway pandemic. Together, you and your students have shared one of the most uncertain years on record. And now, with the finish line in sight, you’d be forgiven for being thankful it’s almost over.

Yet here you are, reading an article about how to best prepare your class for their first external exams. And that dedication is exactly what you need to instil in your students. A drive to reclaim 2020, to finish their schooling careers with the satisfaction that comes from persevering no matter the odds. From resilience to academic excellence, your guidance over this last chapter will see your students emerge from their QCE with an education more well rounded than the pre-pandemic world could have promised. As your students enter the home straight to graduation, we’ve created some key resources you can share to give them that all-important final push.

How to help students mentally prepare for external exams

1. Set your own boundaries.

Just like your students, make sure you protect yourself from burnout in the lead up to exams. This means avoiding spreading yourself too thin by setting unachievable expectations about your availability. Use the questions below as a starting point, then email the answers through to both your students and their parents so everyone’s on the same page.

  • Can students schedule one-on-one sessions?
  • Will you hold extra revision classes after school?
  • What time slots are you free during the school day for questions?
  • What hours will you be answering emails?
  • How many practice essays will you review?
  • Will you mark practice papers?
  • What timeframe will you aim to give feedback within?

Be as open with your students as you can in this initial phase. For one, because it will reassure them that they’ve got your support. But it will also gently remind them (and their parents) that you’re not at their every panicked beck and call. Once you’ve got these boundaries in place, do your best to protect them.

2. Encourage healthy study habits

Stress management

Moderate stress levels can actually help your students perform better come exam day. But if these levels get out of hand, not only could they trip up mid-exam, but stress could be interfering with their ability to absorb, retain and retrieve information while studying. It’s important to guide your students to be able to recognise when stress stops working in their favour, and equip them with circuit breakers to reset. You can assign your class our video on relaxation rituals from our study skills course in which we cover practical advice like breathing techniques, meditation and mindfulness, and boosting endorphins and serotonin levels through movement.

Mid-exam anxiety busters

Prepare your students for the mental gymnastics required if anxiety strikes mid-exam. Make sure they’re equipped with strategies to tackle the physical symptoms and challenge anxious thoughts. Deep breathing techniques are effective circuit breakers and can help students release physical tension during exams. Run through the box breathing technique, where you breathe in, hold, then breathe out, hold, all for the same period of time. They can also try progressive muscle relaxation; tensing and relaxing different muscle groups right from their desk. Likewise, help your students identify and disarm unhelpful thoughts by questioning them and offering alternatives. Like, ‘what’s the evidence for that thought?’ and ‘what would I tell a friend if they had this thought?’. This is a skill that takes some practice but will stand them in good stead well after the final exam is turned in.

The importance of good sleep

The cognitive benefits of a good night's sleep are a massive advantage when it comes to studying and exam performance. We’ve created a video on it here, but essentially sleep helps in two ways; boosting memory and refreshing focus. Explain to your students that pulling an all-nighter to play video games, scroll through their social media or even study, will interfere with the hard work they’ve put in during the day. Their revision will all be for nothing because without a good night’s sleep their brain won’t have the chance to shift knowledge they’ve learnt into their long-term memory. By the same token, without sleep, they won’t be able to focus enough to work through their revision in the first place.

How to help students academically prepare for external exams

1. Set them up with study plans & timetables

Having a solid roadmap will help your students feel confident and prepared come exam day. Ideally, they’ll have their notes ready to go six weeks out from exams. From then on, encourage them to cover all of the content in each subject every fortnight. To make that achievable, our expert content team have created QCE subject-specific timetables and study plans which you can download from this article. Essentially, we’ve broken down the six weeks prior into three blocks covering revision and practice exam questions. As they complete the Atomi quizzes hyperlinked within the plans, you’ll both have better insights into which topics they’re excelling in, and which they need to dedicate more time revising. Encourage them to only be watching videos and fixing notes on topics that they don’t do as well on. When they hit the one month mark, remind your students that they should be testing their ability to interpret questions and recall content.

2. Help them study the actual exams

Unpacking cognitive verbs

If you haven’t already, take some time to run your students through how to unpack the cognitive verbs used in both the syllabus and exam questions. Understanding the six key categories of Bloom’s Taxonomy will save your students time and score them marks in their exams. Not to mention encourage them to actually read the question carefully. You can run through the Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority’s glossary, or assign our Atomi lesson on cognitive verbs.

Grasping time management

Getting a good grasp on time management is essential to mastering external exams. Depending on your subject, tell your students to look for the suggested time allocation on the front page of the question book. This should give them a good indication of how they should be timeboxing their responses. Encourage them to make the most of reading or ‘perusal’ time, using it to make decisions between options where needed, and reading over long or complicated instructions twice so they don’t make mistakes.

The more practice your students have with exam conditions, the better they’ll get at managing their time. This is where completing practice papers comes into play.

3. Give them plenty of practice papers

Your students should have completed so many practice papers by the time the big day rolls around that it doesn’t feel like their first external exam at all. You can access sample assessment resources from the QCAA by navigating to your subject here. There, you’ll find sample question and response books. Your department could even make their own sample papers to give your students even more practice.

Once they’re set up with the papers, guide them through completing them under actual exam conditions on their own time. Meaning no technology, no breaks, using a pen and paper and completing the entire thing within the allocated time frame. After they’ve completed their first one, spend time marking their responses as a class. Not only will this save you time marking, but it will empower your students to take control of their own feedback. They should be taking note of what topics they need to revise and what types of questions they struggle with. That way they can focus their next round of study to fill in any gaps. We’ve written the ultimate guide for doing practice papers, so send them this article to get them on their merry way.


Encourage your students to define themselves as more than the ‘guinea pig cohort’ of Queensland’s changes and challenges in education. With a little guidance and a lot of determination, they have the potential to show the country just what happens when Generation Z is faced with adversity.

Like what you read? There’s more where that came from:

Read: Prepare your students for external exams with Atomi Study Timetables

Watch: Making a Study Plan

Learn: The Atomi Study Skills Subject


Published on

September 15, 2020

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