5 Ways to Use Past-Exam Papers With Your Students

An article by Richard James Rogers (Award-Winning Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management and The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback)This blog post is illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati.

Accompanying podcast episode:

Past-exam papers provide teachers with the opportunity to train students in time-management, exam-technique and key skills, since they provide students with exposure to the same style of questions that they will encounter in their final exams.

Think about anything at which you’ve become proficient: be that riding a bicycle, martial arts, painting, yoga or anything – it was practice (and lots of it) that made you proficient at that thing. Natural abilities will, of course, contribute to mastery, but ultimately the greatest way to achieve superiority in any endeavor is through practice.

Past-exam papers provide students with the vital practice they need to succeed in the final exams, and today I would like to go through some ways in which we can use past-papers in the classroom with our students.

Tip #1: Create end-of-unit assessments from past exam paper questions

Whenever I reach the end of a topic I use past-paper questions to test my students’ knowledge and understanding of what they have learned. These questions can either be pulled off pdfs through screen captures, or they can be built using question banks. Currently, I teach KS3 Science, Edexcel IGCSE Physics and Chemistry and IBDP Chemistry – and all of these courses have great question banks for teachers to use: namely Testbase for KS3, ExamWizard for Edexcel, and the IB Questionbank for IB subjects.

Of course, these question banks are not free, but they are worth the slice into the school budget in my opinion as they provide teachers with a very quick way to build test papers from past-paper questions. Another massive advantage of question banks over full pdf past-papers, other than speed and efficiency of test-building, is that questions are categorized by topic or syllabus statement too. Question banks will also automatically add up the question scores for you, saving you further time as you calculate how much the test should be out of.

And on that point: total marks – make sure you calculate your mark-to-time ratio too. For Edexcel IGCSE Chemistry, for example, students have to complete 110 marks in 120 minutes – i.e. about 65 seconds per mark. This means that when I am assigning a 1 hour test for this subject, it needs to contain 55 marks of questions. Any less that this and I’ll be giving the students too much time to complete the paper, which won’t be an effective ‘model’ of the real exam.

Tip #2: Use past-paper questions for in-class structured revision

Create special test papers that are built from past-papers and give them to your students to complete during normal lesson time. This, of course, works great when students are preparing for an imminent end-of-unit test or terminal examination (e.g. an end of year exam). Consider the following:

  • Students should receive quick feedback during these sessions, and should know exactly where they have lost marks (and why). Include enough questions to be completed during the lesson, along with enough time for checking through the mark scheme in a final peer or self-assessment exercise. In my case, for example, most of my lessons are 1 hour long. This allows me to create a 40 minute paper, with 20 minutes left over for marking and feedback.
  • Always provide the official mark schemes, so that students become familiar with the language and skills needed to gain top marks.
  • If possible, allow for a 5 or 10 minute discussion at the end of class to go through difficult questions, common misconceptions that are tested by the paper and even command terms like ‘evaluate’, ‘describe’ and ‘explain’.
  • During the final feedback and marking part of a revision lesson, tell your students to be VERY STRICT when checking the answers. If the answer that is written does not match the mark scheme word-for-word, then it could be wrong, and the student should come and seek your advice.

There are some nifty ways that you can make lessons like this more active, engaging and spatial for learners than they would be otherwise. Some ideas you might want to try are as follows:

  • Cut up the questions and answers (i.e. physically, with scissors). Give students one question at a time, and when they have finished they can come and collect the official answer from your desk.
  • Provide students with the official answers, one at a time, and ask them to write the question that each answer pertains to.
  • Consider using live quiz-based apps that have quizzes built from past-papers on them.
  • Play learning games with your students and use past-paper questions, key vocabulary and command terms to create the questions.

Please be advised that when students reach a certain age (i.e. mid-teens and older), their exams become very content-based and, therefore, revision lessons need to be quite intense in order to be effective. The odd ‘fun’ lesson here and there containing learning games and competitive quizzes can offer a nice break from the intensity of completing whole papers. However, ‘fun’ lessons like these tend to be less efficient at embedding high-demand content than, say, a lesson in which students complete a 40-minute assessment filled with past-paper questions.

#3: Create homework assignments from past-paper questions

This is a great way to train students in time-management. Make sure your learners know the mark-to-time ratio for your subject (e.g. 1 mark per minute), and specify how long they should spend completing the paper at home (e.g. if it’s a 35 mark homework assignment, then the students would have to time themselves for 35 minutes, if the ratio is 1 mark per minute). You may even want to share a Google Sheet with your students in which they can type their names and exactly how long, in minutes and seconds, it took them to complete the homework. The aim of this exercise would be to improve efficiency over time, with (hopefully) a downward trend being observed – the more past-paper homework the students get, the less time each one should take as the weeks go by. Another adaptation of this, is that you could ask the students to write down how much time it took them to complete the work on the paper itself (if you’re collecting it in and marking it by hand).

#4: Use ‘reverse questioning’

I mentioned this briefly earlier – provide the answers, and ask the students to write what they think the questions are.

This is really good for getting students to think deeply about the knowledge and skills they need to master for the exam, along with deep consideration of command terms and the key vocabulary requirements of their upcoming assessment. For me personally, a common command term that comes up is the word ‘explain’, and it takes time for many students to realise that they need to state why something happens when they are told to explain something. I train my students to always use the word ‘because’ when the question asks them to ‘explain’. For your subject, you may have similar challenges that only be solved by regular past-paper practice and a heavy focus on key vocabulary and command terms.

#5: Use past-paper questions and model answers to create ‘frameworks’

Give students past-exam paper questions and model answers for them use as ‘frameworks’, or skeletons, for building:

  • Flashcards: A lot of research has shown that flashcards are a brilliant revision tool. They can be created digitally (e.g. on websites like Quizlet) or physically on paper. Make sure the students write/type the question on one-side of the flashcard, and the model answer on the other side. This could even be done as a group activity, with different groups swapping flashcards and testing their knowledge as a plenary session to a lesson.
  • Consider asking your students to choose a live quiz app and create multiple choice quizzes using past-exam paper questions and model answers.
  • Mind Maps: Do some research into this, as many educators think Mind Maps are something they actually aren’t. Mind Maps are a very well-defined psychologically favorable learning tool created by the late Dr Tony Buzan (with whom I was very lucky to have a one-to-one video call with just before he passed). Mind Maps need to be created in a certain way in order to be effective, so make sure your students know the rules. Once students know the rules, they’ll then need practice in order to put past-paper questions and model answers onto their Mind Maps. These will often need to be shortened in some way, and illustrated.
  • Learning Journals: This very popular blog post of mine goes through what learning journals are, and how they can be used as a great revision tool. When used correctly, they can be VERY effective.

Conclusion

Past-exam papers really are the bread-and-butter of effective revision and exam-preparation. Use them to:

  • Create end-of-unit assessments
  • Guide in-class structured revision
  • Create homework assignments
  • Create ‘reverse questioning’ tasks
  • Create ‘frameworks

Suggested further reading

Wade, N. (2022) Are past paper questions always useful? Available at: https://www.cambridgeassessment.org.uk/insights/are-past-paper-questions-always-useful-neil-wade/ (Accessed: 10th April 2022)

Tan, A., & Nicholson, T. (1997). Flashcards revisited: Training poor readers to read words faster improves their comprehension of text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89(2), 276–288. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.89.2.276 (Accessed: 1st May 2022)

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Author:

High School Science and Mathematics Teacher, Author and Blogger. Graduated from Bangor University with a BSc (Hons) degree in Molecular Biology and a PGCE in Secondary Science Education. Richard also holds the coveted Certificate in Mathematics from the Open University (UK).

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