Simon continues his series on mock exam revision with this post on the role of past papers, and how they can help to bring focus and unity of purpose to revision in what has otherwise, for most students, been a very disjointed academic year.
In my last blog post, I suggested how to begin the process of revising for your mocks, so if you haven’t read that already then I recommend you do so. By following the advice there, you’ll first have gained a proper overview of the syllabus and of the format of the exam papers. You’ll also have reviewed, edited and organised your course notes, and have in place some kind of revision plan (which needn’t be excessively detailed) within which to frame the time leading up to the exams.
This post is written with my own subject area, mathematics, foremost in mind, although much of what follows is relevant to other subjects as well. In it, we’ll look in more detail at the specifics of what efficient revision involves by discussing the most valuable resource available to you – alongside your own course notes – which is…
Whatever the risks at other times of obsessing over exams at the expense of deeper educational goals, the lead-up to the papers themselves is when all your efforts are rightly directed towards honing your achievement in exam papers themselves. In fact, it’s likely that the great majority of your revision during the mock season, as well as revision into the summer, will revolve around past or practice exam papers in one way or another.
Don’t be alarmed if, on your first attempt at a past paper, much seems unfamiliar or dauntingly difficult. That’s perfectly normal once you move from set exercises on focused topics to tackling the sweep of the syllabus in a unified exam. In fact, with all of the disruption that has characterised the last twelve months, gradually gaining momentum working through past papers will bring a sense of purpose and direction to what otherwise has been a disjointed academic year for most students. If this describes your own experience, remember that it’s one shared by (literally) millions of others, and that your own achievements and those of your peers are being measured precisely in the context of the difficulties you’ve faced.
If your school or college hasn’t provided very many past papers, there are plenty of websites (such as revisionmaths.com) from which you can download them for free, and exam boards’ websites also provide a selection of past, practice and “specimen” papers for download. At any rate, given the online resources now freely available there should be no need to spend money on practice papers from commercial revision companies when you have real ones available without charge.
You’ll clearly want to gather papers from the exam board you’ll be sitting for as a priority, because although the content is largely the same from one board to another, the format of the papers and the style of the questions can vary. At A Level this can be significant (OCR-MEI papers, for example, can differ significantly from other OCR papers, let alone other exam boards), although at GCSE the differences are very minor. Also important to note is whether a paper reflects the most recent changes to the syllabus. This means that papers produced prior to 2017 for GCSE, and prior to 2018 for A Level, differ slightly in format and content from those you’ll be sitting, so you’ll need to bear in mind that they may include the odd question on topics no longer tested. However, on the whole, since the continuity in the syllabus vastly outweighs the changes made, they’re still an invaluable resource.
In fact, in Maths (as in other subjects to varying degrees), exam papers – especially those specific to a particular exam board and syllabus – are ultimately so fundamentally alike that, after you’ve worked your way through enough of them, you’ll experience a reassuring sense of déjà vu as you continue. Papers actually vary little in difficulty or style from year to year (even though students often insist that their own paper was the trickiest ever!), and where a paper does cause more difficulty then this will be reflected in the grade boundaries set by the exam board.
Now, as you did with your notes, take a few minutes to get your past and practice papers organised before ploughing into any of them. Ask how many it’s feasible for you to work through before the mock exams begin, and work that into your revision timetable. In Maths, a full set of GCSE and A Level exams normally comprises three papers, and if you’ve access to plenty it’s a good idea to keep a few in reserve unseen to use for your summer revision programme. It’s unlikely you’ll get through more than a fraction of those available before the mocks; on the other hand, I would suggest that, unless your revision is very last-minute, two full sets (or six papers) would be a minimum you should aim to complete prior to the mocks.
It’s preferable to begin working through earlier papers, and then move forward in time, leaving the later ones unseen for use in your summer revision. That way, to the extent that the style of the papers does evolve slightly over time (quite apart from syllabus changes), the papers you’ve attempted most recently are likely to have the most in common with the ones you’ll actually be sitting.
So, you’ve pencilled in a particular paper to use in a particular slot on your revision timetable, but how do you approach it when it’s time to get down to work? That might seem like a question with an obvious answer (“work through it, of course!”), but in fact an unreflective slog through paper after paper will be demoralising and ineffective, so next time we’ll look at how to most effectively use a past paper.
With mock exams playing an especially important role this year, Simon (a qualified Maths teacher and Owl Tutor) offers some useful guidelines for students gearing up for mock exams in the next few months.
Simon March, 2021