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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5 Ways to Prepare Students For Exams

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).

Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati 

Accompanying podcast episode (audio version of this blog post, read by Richard):

Examinations really are the most visible culmination of what we do as teachers. They offer a no-nonsense assessment of student competency in particular subject areas and their results are still to this day considered to be the ‘gold standard’ of many schools: forming the basis of rankings’ systems, such as league tables, in many countries.

Whether we like it or not, the reality is that grades matter. They matter to parents; to the students taking the exams; to universities; to colleges; to employers and, unfortunately, to the teachers who are supporting the students (who may themselves be under pressure to raise attainment and get ‘good grades’).

I could have chosen to write about the great debate surrounding the real importance of grades, and the gracefully-aged topic of ‘skills vs knowledge’. That may be a good topic for another blog post, but today I’m going to get right down to the cold, hard-truth of what you really need to know: how to best prepare your students for their exams. So strap on your seatbelt: this is going to be a exhilarating ride!

Tip #1: Do past-papers under timed conditions

This is tip number one because, quite simply, it is the very best way to prepare your students for upcoming exams. Of course, you will have to have at least covered the content in-class before giving past-paper questions, but make sure that at some point your students do those questions!

Past-paper questions really give students the crucial experience of dealing with examination language and style – an experience that they can’t really get from any other source. You may wish to give past-paper questions covering a single topic for homework, or make your end-of-topic tests out of past-paper questions (highly recommended).

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One technique I have started using with my IGCSE Physics students is the 20-10-20 technique: the students do 20 minutes of questions (which equates to 20 marks, in my case), followed by 10 minutes of peer-assessment using the official mark schemes. After this, I do a 20 minute review of the questions, going through each part in-detail.

This technique works for me because my lessons are all 1 hour long, so I can fit a 20-10-20 session into selected slots each week. For you, you may have to adapt this strategy to fit the timeframe of your lessons.

It is crucial that, at some stage, your students start doing past-paper questions under the same time-conditions of the exam. This will train them to write quickly and concisely – a massive key skill, as many good students lose marks simply because they run out of time in the real exam.

Tip #2: Use exam-prep software and websites

We really have to take advantage of all of the EdTech tools out there: many of which are available for free! Here are some great generic websites that I recommend (these can be used for any subject area, and all are free to use too):

  • Quizziz: Try the ‘live quiz’ and watch your students jump with joy as they compete with each other to answer examination questions. Quizziz contains many pre-prepared quizzes so you may find that you don’t even need to create one from scratch.
  • Quizlet: This is really awesome for reinforcing key words and definitions, and has a number of integrated games within the system that students can play (Hint: Try the ‘Match’ and ‘Gravity’ games – they’re awesome!). Don’t forget to try out Quizlet Live, which can be done in teams or as individuals – again, just like Quizziz, students compete with each other for points by answering questions.
  • Kahoot!: This is a great multiple choice quiz-based system: another spin on the Quizlet and Quizziz concept, basically. Again, students can compete as individuals or as teams.
  • BBC Bitesize: An old classic for a good reason – it’s awesome! The site contains some of the best revision notes on the web, and topics often have a multiple choice test at the end which is usually out of 10 (allowing for a quick percentage calculation). BBC Bitesize notes now have questions integrated into the notes themselves, making the website more interactive today than ever before.
  • Seneca Learning: I love this website! It’s like BBC Bitesize but more interactive, in my opinion. Students log in to the site (it’s free, but sign up is needed) and go to the course they are currently studying (e.g. GCSE German). Notes will then be displayed on-screen with questions throughout to test knowledge and understanding. One reason I love Seneca is that notes are divided by syllabus section and Seneca’s database keeps getting bigger each year (they now have some IB Diploma courses on there, for example).

Tip #3: Project work

Give your students revision projects to do: such as creating a Google Slides that covers a particular topic, and then presenting that to the class. Just make sure that when you do this you specify a strict time-frame and assign roles: does each member of the group know what their job is?

I recently did such a project with my Year 11 Physics students. They had to create an audio clip, Google Slides, worksheet and model answers covering the Magnetism and Electromagnetism topic in the syllabus. Every person had a distinct role (e.g. one person made the audio clip, one person did the worksheet, etc.) and this was a great skill-building task, as well as a great revision activity.

Tip 4: Offer designated revision time with suggested techniques

If you have time, then you may wish to use the lessons on the run-up to tests and assessments as ‘revision lessons’. This can be time in which students make flash cards, create Mind Map summaries, record audio notes, quiz each other or perhaps work through a Seneca section (see earlier notes). You might want to give your students some training in effective revision techniques prior to the session, and supplying materials (e.g. for making flash cards) is a good idea too.

Tip #5: Do a practice exam before the real thing

This is an awesome idea which I don’t think is used enough for low-stakes assessments. Even with younger learners who have an end-of-topic test coming up, a practice test can be a great way to offer a stark ‘wake-up’ call: shedding light on areas of strength and weakness, as well as providing the students with essential ‘exam technique’ experience. Students should be relaxed during this process and should know that this is not the final test, but is still important as it will inform them of what to focus on in their revision. For students who don’t finish on-time, it will offer a good opportunity to discuss strategies to speed-up, such as avoidance of ‘waffling’ and the importance of reading each question thoroughly (so that they don’t ‘go off at a tangent’ in their answers).

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