How to use Past Papers

Past papers are a classic way to revise for exams - and are one of the most effective ways to do this as well. Stephanie Dain, teacher at Focus School Knockloughrim Campus, said that the most important thing for a student to do when revising was “actually practicing answering exam questions.”

Similarly Miss G. DeLanerolle from Blenheim High School said that students should “do and mark as many past papers as possible.” But how can students ensure they get as much from past papers as possible?

N.B. Past papers, mark schemes and examiners reports can be found on the website for every exam board - just Google “AQA Chemistry Past Papers” or similar and it will come up.

First time run through

Past papers are a great way to identify your weaknesses, especially the first few that you do. When you first go through a practice paper don’t waste lots of time writing out what you would put down in an actual exam.

Instead, go through the paper with the mark scheme open. For every question think about what you would write in an exam, and note down the key parts as bullet points. Then, as you go through the paper, look at the mark scheme and see what you would have got for that answer - and note down what you missed.

Then, when you’ve finished you’ll have a good idea where you would have lost marks in the exam. These should be the first things you focus on in your revision. When you’ve covered all these points, that’s when you should revisit past papers.

A key thing to pay attention to when going through these papers are command words. These are the words in questions which tell you what you need to do to get the marks, such as “describe and explain”. Students often miss command words, and answer a different question to the one they’re being asked - this is where the mark scheme and examiners’ notes come in handy.

Start putting down full answers

You should start doing proper answers for past papers when you’re confident you know most of the required knowledge. At this point, it still probably isn’t worth doing full exam papers. Instead, it’s sensible to answer a question as you would in the exam - and then instantly go to the mark scheme to see where you would have lost marks.

If the answer you gave wouldn’t have got full marks, then write out an answer which you think would have. Therefore, instead of just writing out everything you know (known as summative assessment) you’ll actually be giving yourself feedback, ensuring you learn more while doing it (formative assessment).

This is a good time to pay close attention to the Examiners’ Comments, which can be found for every past paper, often in an “Insight Report” or similar. Read these after you’ve finished the paper, and it will tell you where most students lost marks, and you can see if you made the same mistakes as them, and what to look out for.

Obviously this will take a lot longer than the actual exam would - so use the “pomodoro" technique for time management when doing this.

It’s only when you’re scoring highly doing this that you should move onto doing past papers “blind”.

The final few papers

When exams start getting nearer, it’s worth doing some papers completely blind and marking them afterwards. The best way to do this is as a final run through a few weeks before your exams.

One of the most important things to take from these run throughs is how long you should spend on each question - so it’s crucial that you do these under timed conditions.

You need to make sure you leave enough time to mark these papers afterwards - ideally on the same day. This is because the areas which you struggle with on these papers should inform your final bits of revision.

When you’ve done all of this you should be ready for your exams!

A few more things

If you aren’t sure how well one of your answers would have done in an exam, or you want advice on how to improve it, remember that you can ask your teachers for help. As long as you give them enough warning they’ll be happy to help - remember, how you do in your exams is important to them as well, so it’s in their interests to help as well!

You need to also be prepared for surprises in the exam. Often, the question will be something you do know the answer to, but put in a different setting. For example, students often learn about osmosis in potatoes - but in 2018, the exam asked about osmosis in carrots. The answer and work needed was exactly the same as if it had been for potatoes, but lots of students panicked and lost marks. If you see something you aren’t expecting, take a few seconds and think about what you’ve studied that’s similar.

And that’s it - good luck!


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