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How to use past exam papers to revise effectively

Tips for using past papers to supercharge your revision

Formal exams might be cancelled this year, but short assessments for GCSE and A-level mean that revision is still on the cards. If you’re in year 12 you might also have mocks coming up so these tips will help you too.

The teachers we spoke to for our article on how to get good teacher-assessed grades highly recommended using past papers for your revision. 

Assessment material provided by the exam boards for short assessments (you can find more info on these on our sister site The Student Room) are exam-style questions based on past papers so it makes more sense than ever to include past papers on your revision plan. 

Here are some tips on how to use past papers effectively to level up your revision.

Why use past papers? This science and maths teacher gives some good reasons for why past papers are a great revision resource and tips on how to use them.

Test your knowledge

Revision is often a process of memorising facts, dates, formulas and quotes, but the best way to make sure you’ve retained that information is to test yourself on it. 

Answering past papers helps you to work out which topics you know really well and figure out what gaps you need to focus on. 

By testing your knowledge you can check your revision progress and feel more confident about what you already know. 

Want to know how? This video has three different ways you can revise using past papers recommended by a teacher.

Apply your knowledge

Memorising your notes will only get you so far. Exams don’t just test what you know, but how you apply that knowledge and demonstrate your understanding of what you’ve been taught. You can expect to be tested in a similar way in your classroom assessments as the assessment materials have been provided by the exam boards.

Exams ask you to solve problems, analyse information and make arguments so it’s a great idea to use exam papers to get used to putting what you’ve learned into practise and develop your answering skills.

Understand the questions

Practising papers can help you to get used to the style of questions that might come up in your exam so that you’ll be better prepared for the real thing. Exam questions use command words to tell you how they should be answered so getting used to recognising and responding to these is really helpful exam prep. 

This year’s short assessments also use exam style questions so it’s worth getting to know the sort of questions you might be asked.

What are command words? This video gives a useful overview of what they are and how they work. It’s been made by two secondary school teachers who pay a lot of attention to past papers and mark schemes so they really know their stuff. 


Want more detail? This video from a school department head provides definitions and tips for the command words used by AQA. He has also made similar overviews for OCR and Edexcel.

Manage your time

If you’re using past papers, it’s a good idea to set yourself the same time limits that you’d have in an ordinary exam. This will help to give you a sense of how it feels to answer questions against the clock and get used to managing your time well. You’ll be able to see if you can complete the whole paper in time and if not, figure out where you’re going wrong.

If you’re due to complete short assessments this year then this could still be useful practice. Find out what format your assessment will be in, how many questions you’ll need to answer and whether there are any timed conditions, then try to practice under these conditions.  

Want more time management tips? This video from an education expert has lots of tips about how to make the most of your time in the exam.
 

Mark yourself 

There’s a lot to learn from testing yourself, but you can take that learning even further by marking yourself as well. If you download the mark scheme along with a past paper you can use it to check your work. As well as helping you to check your performance, it will also give you a better understanding of how marks are awarded and what was required from each of the questions you answered.

Use this method to analyse and improve your test technique and you’ll be training yourself to do better in assessments and exams.

Want to know how? This video from studytuber UnJaded Jade has a helpful method for marking and analysing your exam papers.

Examiner’s reports

If you want to take your revision a step further then it’s also a good idea to read the examiners’ reports for past exams. These are available online. You just have to search for the examiner’s report for the exam board, the subject and the year. 

Examiner’s reports are written by the people who mark the exams. They write a question by question report of each exam paper explaining what they wanted to see from students and where students went wrong. 

This is a really useful resource for levelling up your revision as it helps you to understand exactly what the examiners are looking for.
 

Past paper revision is exam training

Using past papers will help you to train for your exams, tests and assessments. You can test your knowledge, develop your question-answering skills and practise timing your answers. 

All of this practice will not only improve your understanding of the subject but it will also help you to feel more confident about your exams so it’s a great idea to build it into your revision plan.

Our sister site Get Revising has a range of past papers available for GCSE and A-level.

For this year’s teacher-assessed grades, you may also want to look at the additional assessment materials provided by the exam boards as these will also give you questions to practice with.
  • AQA (All Levels) - Scroll down to 'Get Assessment and Support Materials' select your level and the subject you are looking for and select 'see materials'
  • OCR (All Levels) - Select your level and subject and download the ZIP file provided.
  • Pearson Edexcel (All levels) - Select your level and then subject underneath the header "Summer 2021 assessment materials for students" Then simply open up the tab called 'Summer 2021 assessment materials for students'
  • Eduqas (All levels) - Select your subject, then click the tab resources and finally the Summer 21 Assessment Materials tab that will appear below.

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