How to use Past Papers to ACE YOUR EXAMS!!

The top five most effective ways to get the most out of your revision

After every exam series, the awarding bodies (exam boards) put their past papers online for students and teachers to use. I’ve collected them for you and put them here in one easy-to-find place so you need never go searching again.

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So, now that you’ve got them, what can you do with them that will guarantee a great grade?

It’s tempting to print one with its mark scheme and fill it in, copying from the mark scheme every time you need help. The reason why this is tempting is because it’s easy. It requires very little effort and the only thing you actually need to be able to do is read and write. The average 5 year old could do it with no knowledge of the Science content, which makes the whole exercise a complete waste of time (see The Most Popular Exam Revision Technique is also the Worst!).

Used well, however, past papers can be an amazingly effective revision tool. I’m going to show you my top five ways to use them and give you extra hints/tips along the way. So starting with number five, they are:

5: To predict which questions may be asked.

While this can be extremely beneficial, it is also extremely risky.

Question spotting is the predicting of exam questions based on what has or has not been asked before. It is beneficial because it does allow you to spot patterns in the types of questions asked (see point 4 below), and it may also help to predict which of the required practicals might be covered.

However, there is a huge risk!

You should NEVER focus all of your revision on just one or two topic areas in the hope that they will come up in the exam. Please take note: Just because something was covered last year does not mean it won’t be covered this year. It’s like tossing a coin: Just because you threw a tails last time does not mean the next throw will be heads. Try it and see for yourself.

4: To become familiar with the exam structure and timings.

Every exam paper is different, but for any given exam board or specification they do follow the same general pattern year after year. For example there may always be a question about how to set up a Science practical or you may always be asked to write down an equation or plot a graph. By spotting these patterns you can make sure you spend time practicing these particular skills. By being good at plotting graphs or describing practicals, you are then much more prepared for the exam itself when the time eventually comes.

Another aspect of the paper which stays the same each year is the time allowed. So by completing many past papers you begin to get used to the time taken for each one. Once this happens you can start to plan accordingly: Do you need to speed up with your answers or can you afford to take a bit more care?

3: To get to know the mark scheme and how to gain those extra marks.

Now we’re getting to the really key top 3 uses of past papers!

The more questions you complete (and mark) the more you get to understand how the mark schemes work. For example, you often find there are keywords that have to be written before a mark can be awarded.

This really becomes helpful with the longer answer questions (the 4-mark or 6-mark questions). The mark scheme for these is often in two parts. Firstly, you have to write a clear, logically sequenced answer with correct spelling, punctuation & grammar. Then you have to include a variety of points which answer the question.

A good tip here is to read the examiner’s reports published on the exam boards’ websites. They can be a bit wordy and dull but they do show why students lost marks or performed particularly well.

2: To act as a focus for group revision.

Revising with a group of friends can be really helpful. However, without focus it can just turn into a gossip session – and this becomes a waste of time. In order to get the most out of a revision group you should agree a focus – and what better focus than a past paper.

You could each write your own answer to a question before swapping and improving each other’s work. By the time you get your own work back again you should be able to see how to make your original answer better.

Another idea could be that you plan an answer to a 6-mark question together by brainstorming ideas before each writing your own individual answers.

A top tip here would be to focus on individual and specific questions rather than the whole paper. This way you can really concentrate on those tricky topics in which you all need the most help. By focusing on smaller chunks of the papers will also help you to maintain your motivation to keep going.

1: To check your own understanding and fill in any gaps in your knowledge.

This is my all-time top recommendation for how to use past papers. It’s the longest and most difficult, but in turn it is by far the most beneficial and thorough. I have summarised it in this image below

A top tip with this method is to work with papers from other exam boards as well as your own – giving you many more papers to work with. The overall content of the exams are pretty much identical. They may vary in terms of the layout or types of questions but the actual scientific content will be very similar.

Of course, there are no actual guarantees. But by following these methods regularly during your revision you greatly improve your chances of getting those top grades. I would advise that you mix and match these various methods to your own circumstances: If have a free 20 minutes then limit yourself to just 1 or 2 questions. Group work will take a bit more organising. Do whatever works for you best.

Good luck,

The Doc.

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