Past Papers | GCSE | A-Levels

Past Papers | GCSE | A-Levels

November 1, 2021 | 3years | General

There is an old saying: “The best way to pass an exam is to study the exam.” And it’s true. I could probably stop right there as I have already told you the most important thing you ever need to know about how to pass any exam.

However, I expect you will want some justification for this.

Past Papers and Schools

Throughout my career as a physics and maths teacher stretching over more than three decades I have always been involved in private tutoring. It is in the field of private tutoring that you really see the power of studying an exam. In school courses, A level, GCSE or whatever, the focus is on teaching a subject and getting people to enjoy it, be fascinated by it, devote their lives to it and to win a Nobel prize. Good teachers enthuse their students and give them a passion for their subject.

Of course teachers do have to get students through exams and there is always an element of exam preparation. Usually this occurs after all the course has been taught. It kinda falls into the realm of “OK class we have two weeks now to do past paper work before you sit the exam.” It is an exercise that is usually tacked on at the end of the course in the days or, if you are lucky, weeks before the exam.

Past Papers and Private Tuition

The difference in private tuition is that the focus of the tutor is not the course but the exam. The private tutor is paid to get the student through an exam with the best grade possible. A good tutor will make continual use of past papers.

OK. Anecdote time!

A 28 year old woman phoned me up. She was a teaching assistant and wanted to become a teacher. She needed to get a C pass in her GCSE Maths. It was only six weeks before her exam. She told me that her previous tutor had told her, “Give up, you haven’t a hope.” Great advice!

On the first meeting I took out a past paper. I asked her to point to a question she couldn’t do. I used my technique for getting people to master problems (Tell you about that in another post.). We then moved on to doing the same type of problem in the next past paper, and the next, and the next, until we had done them all.

Following this, we repeated the process with another two problems. At the end of the hour she had mastered three problems. She had around 15 marks in the bag. Not only that but her confidence was restored. She knew she could do it and she knew she had enough time. Six weeks later she got a B pass. She is now a teacher.

Why Past Paper Practice is So Effective

Right, I am going to make a list of reasons:

  • Exams almost always follow the same format – exam writers (I used to be one) use previous exam papers as a template for constructing a new exam.
  • Question styles almost always follow the same format – so much so that you can see virtually the same question asked in the same way in several years’ worth of past papers – master one and you should be able to do the rest without breaking sweat.
  • Practising the past papers over and over means that when you sit the exam the paper will seem like the face of an old friend or a path you have walked every day of your life.
  • It builds confidence. Week on week you will see your expertise grow and the marks you have secured increase. You get to the point where you JUST KNOW that you WILL pass.
  • It reduces stress or nerves. When you open the paper in the exam hall and see what you have been practising, a lot of your anxiety will vanish.

Ready for another anecdote?

I was tutoring a brother and sister for maths. They followed my programme. Then they sat their exams. I phoned them up when the results came through to see how they got on. It was the brother I spoke to. He had achieved the top grade. I asked how his sister had got on. He replied, “Oh, she said it was just like being at one of your tutorials”.

That kind of encapsulated it for me. She was so familiar with the format of the exam, style of questions and nature of questions that it was just like another day of practising past papers.

How do I use Past Papers in My studies?

So, there are two ways they should be used.

  • Specific question practice throughout the year. As you learn new sections of the course you should find the questions in past papers that use this knowledge or skills. And keep practising them on a regular basis. Go through all the past papers and practice these questions. This develops mastery in a particular question.
  • As you get nearer to the exam and have covered more of the course material, move on to practising entire past papers, front to back. This develops an awareness of the typical layout of the exam and the location of specific questions. It also gives you an idea of what rate you need to work at in order to complete the whole exam within duration.

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