How to Use Past Papers Effectively During Revision
With the exam season slowly creeping up, it won’t be long until revision timetables, notes and flashcards start making an appearance. Past papers and mark schemes are often overlooked by students – however, used effectively, they are a very useful tool. Here are a few tips on making good use of past papers during your revision and preparation for exams.
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Once you’ve finished learning the entire syllabus, it can be tempting to ignore past papers entirely. However, having a go at exam-style questions once you’ve studied a specific topic is a useful revision strategy. Whether this is through end-of-topic tests or at the end of a chapter in a textbook, attempting questions in this way ensures you can actively recall information. It may also highlight any areas you are not so comfortable with.
Once you are in a place where you are able to attempt a past paper, it is often a good idea to time yourself. Don’t set a strict time limit at first. Instead, make a note of how long it takes to complete a paper – this will allow you to get a feel for the paper and assess whether you need to change your time-management. Once you’re familiar with the format, it is then a good idea to sit the paper in timed exam conditions.
It’s so tempting to go straight to the mark scheme and think: ‘I should have written that’. However, don’t look up answers to any of the questions you are unsure about while you are doing the paper. Making a note of questions you find particularly difficult will highlight topics to revise, or areas you struggle with. A colour-coded system can be a useful way of marking each question as you’re doing the paper:
Red = questions you cannot attempt at all
Orange = questions you are can attempt, but are not confident with
Mark schemes are available on exam boards’ websites alongside the past papers. Comparing how confident you felt with a question to the answer in the mark scheme can flag up some topics for revision. You may find some questions you thought you were comfortable with, but actually need a little work… or perhaps you nailed a question you thought you struggled with!
Once you have attempted a number of papers, you will begin to notice common questions (whether new specification or not). For science exams, in particular, it is worth learning the key points examiners look for in answers to certain questions.
For example, a 5-mark question on the process of fractional distillation in Chemistry requires succinct presentation of key facts. If you memorise the points in the mark scheme, you are guaranteeing yourself a perfect answer!
This principle also applies to key definitions. Often only 1 or 2 marks, these questions are easy to slip up on if you don’t use the correct phrasing or write down a keyword. Learning a definition provided in mark schemes is a good way to ensure you’ll always pick up these marks.
Once you’ve completed a paper and marked it, make a note of what topics need revisiting in your revision process and what parts you’ve struggled with. Instead of filing that paper away and never thinking about it again, make sure you’re using this opportunity as a learning experience.
Whether that’s updating some of your notes, practising drawing out a process or asking someone to explain a concept, try to act sooner rather than later.
Attempting papers can feel disheartening, especially when you first attempt them. It doesn’t matter how well a paper goes – it’s all about how you use learn from the process. Putting in the effort will definitely pay off!
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