Not a past paper again…

“Not a past paper again…”

I bet we’ve all heard that refrain over the past couple of weeks, as the stack of past papers is placed ominously on the teacher’s desk. The exam is a few days away and we’re running low on time, papers and patience. So are the kids.

Or maybe it’s not so urgent for you? Both of my Year 11 classes have their final AQA Additional Science B2 paper on Thursday. (Assuming that they’re not doing Additional Science resits or Core Science module papers in the hope of crossing a grade boundary by iteration, if not dedication.) Perhaps you’ve got longer. But anyway, it seems worthwhile considering a few more imaginative ways of using exam papers.

Please let me be clear – doing practice papers in exam conditions is a very valuable way to prepare. But there are ways to improve their use, as well as to mix them up a bit so that kids don’t burn out too quickly. Some of these methods are also a good way to use individual questions, perhaps from previous specifications, without having to put together an actual full paper balanced between all topic areas.

Full Practice Papers

If students are doing past papers at home, we know that they won’t always be strict about exam conditions. So why not use this? Have them do it three times, but each time having a chance to focus on improvements:

  1. Timed exam conditions, then write a post-it note of weaker areas.
  2. Second attempt after active revision of areas flagged up in 1 above.
  3. Third attempt, with folder/revision guide open.

Of course some will combine 1 and 3 as their first attempt, perhaps with the markscheme, and stop. But others will learn at each stage.

Targeted Questions

Combining revision with exam questions in lessons can be very helpful. Start off by asking students to predict what words or key phrases will show up in revision material on a specific topic. They could do this individually, or in small groups – ideally they should try by themselves then compare ideas with another. (Think-Pair-Share) Then either show them an example (such as these pages from S-Cool), or play podcasts for them; I like using the podcasts produced by the Naked Scientists and available free from BBC Bitesize. They can improve their summary but only in the limited time available. Then attempt a relevant question. What was useful? What did they miss that would have been useful? What facts or methods will they add to their summaries for future reference?

Write The Markscheme

I suspect this is similar to what many colleagues already do. We all know – and point out to our students – that a lot more appears on the markscheme than students are expected to write. It will point out traps and make distinctions between correct answers and those that are in the right ballpark. So why not have them, in small groups and with their materials handy, write a markscheme to a question? Even better, give them each a different question and as a class they can finish the job. Perhaps a chocolate-based prize could be offered to the closest match to the official version? Their suggestions can also be tested against the next approach.

Mark The Teacher

This is often very popular. I produce sample answers to a full exam question, often parts of it based on student attempts from the past (suitably adapted) or illustrating common mistakes or misconceptions, e.g. osmosis vs diffusion, all genetic diseases are recessives and so on. I then challenge pupils to mark these answers as if they had been written in an exam, and improve them. (It’s particularly useful to give D-grade answers that can be brought up to a C, or A/B grade working that need fine-tuning to get the highest marks.) More able students can explain to others why particular answers are better than others.

Improve the Question

I like having students write their own exam questions but this can often be a little daunting. They can usually cope if you ask them to produce a simple factual question with one unambiguous answer, but anything more leaves them struggling. (Although giving them a range of structures can help, especially if they can see how it is based on ‘common’ exam questions.) So why not have them change one part of a question, or add on a more challenging section to the end? Alternatively, they could convert a Foundation question to one more suited to Higher tier, or the other way around.


I’m sure colleagues have many other approaches – I’d be particularly interested in quick and easy ways to use exam questions in a more active way. Please add your comments, ideas and suggestions in the comments below. Hope it’s not too stressful before they finish…

12 thoughts on “Not a past paper again…”

    1. glad you liked it – would really appreciate some other suggestions of ways you and your department try to use exam questions in more imaginative ways…

  1. I divide the class into quiz teams and give each group a different exam paper and mark scheme, they trawl through the paper trying to find tricky questions to challenge the other teams with. The must select 5 questions (They have to include one 1 mark and one 2 mark question in their 5). The team posing the question gets a point if no other team can answer their question. We then discuss tricky question and answers a group so they understand why X is a correct or incorrect answer e.g. why “light” or “sunlight” is correct but “the sun” is incorrect when talking about where plants get the energy needed for photosynthesis.

    1. I’ll have to steal that. Perhaps keep some sort of annotated record on screen about okay/good/best answers? If it goes on the VLE at end they’ll have a tips/reminder list for their revision at home. (Optimistic, I know…)

      Thanks for the contribution…

      1. Steal away (I stole and adapted the original quiz game idea to use with past papers) and I’ll steal your improvement to it because I never thought about linking it in with the VLE. I’m not very good at using the VLE yet, I keep forgetting about it until someone mentions it at a CPD session – must get a grip with that one as the possibilities are endless.

  2. For long answer questions, would this new site be a possible? bills itself as an online q&a site for education – the idea being that you stick questions up and pupils collectively answer, and edit the answer until they reckon they’ve got the best possible model of an answer for each question.

    1. sounds interesting – will check it out and see how it works for my kids. I also want to give Answer Garden a go, but it wasn’t updating properly when I tried it yesterday lunchtime (possibly a local problem). I definitely like the idea of kids collaborating, helping each other see how to get the ‘best’ answers…

  3. Hi I’m not a science specialist but was pointed to this blog by a friend.
    I love revision activities and I can suggest some, but they are from an RE background.
    1. I write exam questions on poster paper and students complete a circus activity going round writing what info they would need to answer it around the qu in note form (different christian attitudes to abortion for example) then having done this and gathered other students ideas they write their full answers in exam conditions.
    2. I jumble up model answers and they have to make it into the right order.
    3. I play games, for example pass the parcel. I wrap it up like I would for a Childs party but in each layer is a question. In order to get the prize they have to answer the question verbally.

    Hope this helps, I know it’s from an RE perspective but maybe some transferable ideas! My kids sat their exam today and said they felt really relaxed and prepared going into it!

  4. This one is via @emilyruthclark an RE teacher on twitter she couldn’t get the blog to open to comment on it, so I’ve added her idea below:

    I don’t know about science but I put exam questions on poster paper and set up a circus activity. They have to go around answering what info they would need in it (different Christian attitudes to abortion for example) then using that try answering a question.

    Also do model answers and jumbled up and they have to decode.

    Also alot of mindmapping.

    Pass the parcel works too with different questions in each layer that they have to answer to get the prize.

  5. wow thx alot of making my parents give me even more lame past papers people like you should be punished for torture

    1. I have three kids. I’m already being punished.

      More seriously, are you objecting to being given the chance to practise the things you’ll need to do well in the exams? Do you complain when a sports coach gives you exercises that will make you better for a competition?

      Check out the Learning Scientists blog – @AceThatTest on Twitter – for lots of evidence-based study methods.

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