• Ian Gibbs

Exam Tip #8: Past Papers


If you want to learn how to swim, do you read about fluid dynamics, buoyancy and muscle fatigue?


Or do you jump in the water and have a go?


One of the best ways to learn how to do something is simply to try doing it.


Sitting exams is no exception. If you want to improve your exam skills, do exam questions.


Lots of them.


This is one of the reasons why your teachers make you sit mock exams.


It’s not because they’re vindictive sadists. It’s because mocks help in a number of different ways.


Firstly, the experience of sitting a mock exam is useful. It gives you a clear idea of what the real one will be like—the location, the time limit, the physical layout. It will make the experience of sitting the real exam more familiar.


This has been shown to help reduce pre-exam anxiety which, trust me, is a good thing.


Secondly, it gives you a rough idea of what your marks will be if you carry on studying in the way you have been so far.


This is useful, too.


If you get a D, you know you have to change tactics and pull your socks up if you want a better grade.


If you get a B and you’d be happy with that result in the real exam, you know you don’t have to try much harder.


And if you get an A+ then why are you reading this blog? You clearly have it all sorted already.


Thirdly, it provides you with a very useful idea about what sort of exam questions are likely to turn up on your real exam paper, which ones you do well at and which ones need improving.


Going over your failed answers might feel like rubbing salt into a wound. But this is not the time for denial or self-pity.


It’s the time to analyse what went wrong and why.


So if you can, get hold of the mock question paper along with your answers and scrutinise them:


• Where did you fail to gain marks because you didn’t know the answer?


• Where did you lose marks due to avoidable mistakes?


• Where could you have earnt extra marks but overlooked the opportunity?


• What would you have to add to get full marks?


Sometimes your mock exam papers aren’t returned to you, which I think is tragic. How are you supposed to learn if you’re not allowed to see where you went wrong?


But whether they are or not, your exam preparation shouldn’t stop with your mocks.


Real past exam papers and practise papers are also valuable tools you can use to great effect.


To get hold of exam papers from previous years, either ask your teacher or search the internet. By typing in your examination board and the exam (e.g. SQA National 5 English past papers), you should find enough past exams to keep you busy.


However, be careful. As we saw in Exam Tip 6, exam specifications change. The further you go back, the more likely the content and/or format of the exam will be different.


The more past papers you do, the more familiar you’ll become with their structure. You’ll begin to notice patterns in the types of questions set.


Going through a past paper also forces you to revise a wide variety of topics, some of which you might otherwise tend to shy away from.


By doing a past paper, it can become very clear if there’s something missing from your revision plan.


If that’s not enough, another option is to get hold of practice exam papers. There are publishing companies and websites who go to great lengths to produce practise exam questions in exchange for a modest price.


Just make sure they’re compatible with your examination board.


Mock exams, or answering a past paper under exam conditions (time limits, no referring to notes etc.), is also useful practice to get used to controlling your time and developing good exam techniques but you don’t have to do all past papers like that. Just answering one question each evening under semi-controlled circumstances can be enough.


Doing just one question (or a handful of short ones) is clearly easier than doing a full three-hour exam.


This means you’re more likely to do it.


This is important.


Doing one exam question each night for five nights is better than saying to yourself you’ll do a whole exam paper one evening soon and then never get round to doing it.


Of course, answering the questions is only half the work done.


How can you tell how well you’ve answered them?


Would your answers get full marks? Or half marks?


This is where the marking guide comes in useful.


Many past exam papers come with their own marking guide (called a Marking Scheme or Marking Instructions).


A good marking guide not only tells you the correct answer, it also tells you WHY it’s correct.


It should also explain whether crossed out answers can be counted, what key words are needed and how all the marks for a particular question are allotted.


You can use the marking guide to self-mark your answers. So long as you’re realistic, the marks you give yourself will not be too far from what the examiner would give you.


If you’re working with a revision-buddy, you can also mark each other’s answers.


This has an advantage.


If your answer is unclear or ambiguous, your partner is more likely to notice the problem than you are.


What’s more, the whole process of discussing the examination questions helps you learn.


Vocalising your thoughts and listening to someone else trying to do likewise, is a great way to develop your ability to answer examination questions.


Of course, you could always try asking your teacher to mark your answers (smiling as sweetly as possible).


They might even say yes if you have been good in class.


But be realistic.


If everyone in class did this, your teachers would have so much to mark, they wouldn’t have time for anything else.


Failing all that, you could pay a private tutor to do it. But make sure they have exam-marking experience. Obviously, it costs more but it’s worth it. Try to get their services early as the good ones get booked quickly.


One final observation.


Don’t be afraid to repeat a past paper.


Just because you went through a past paper five weeks ago doesn’t mean you now know it all perfectly.


Keep your past papers, marking guides and answers filed together.


Then if you’re sufficiently organised, you can do the same past paper again and compare your answers with the previous ones to see how much you’ve improved.


Believe me, there is nothing like the frustration of seeing a question in an exam that you know you’ve done before and yet can’t remember how to answer it.


Don’t let this happen to you.


Past papers along with their marking guides are an excellent way to study, revise and practise your exam skills.


If you’re serious about getting the best grades possible, make them a regular part of your revision.


Tip 8: Get hold of as many past papers as you can and make the most of them.