The first thing to say is that if you’re not using past exam questions then you have to, otherwise you’re missing a trick! Your class notes, revision books, websites etc. are all great, however a large part of getting a good grade in science is knowing exactly what the exam board wants you to include in your answer. The best way to do this is to see what they’ve asked for in previous years.
There are so many ways that you can use past paper exam questions, and just practising them should be an essential component of your revision. The problem is that many students don’t use them as effectively as they could be. Past paper questions shouldn’t be used only at the end of your revision, but from the outset. Not only as a way to test your knowledge, but also as a way to improve it.
Are you one of the many students that attempt an exam question as part of your revision, can’t do it, or can’t get enough marks, and go straight to the mark scheme? This is what I used to do and makes complete sense. However, exam questions can be used so much more effectively. On this page I’m going to outline some exam question use techniques, from the most basic to the more complex that you should be using to test and improve your knowledge. One of these may be just what you’re looking for…
The first method I’m going to outline is one that both I and my department use loads. Students really like it, as not only does it work really well, but it makes you actively search for a better answer. This is how it works:
- Black pen – attempt an exam question, completing it in exam conditions, using your knowledge.
- Blue pen – using all resources available to you, try and improve your answer. Here it is best to use your exercise book from school or a revision textbook. Even if you think you have the perfect answer, see if you can improve it.
- Red or green pen – use the mark scheme to check your answer and add any additional mark points that you’ve missed.
Now have a look at your answer and where the marks have been awarded:
- Marks from black pen – this is what you want to be the case. Not only have you understood the question, but you know the content.
- Marks from blue pen – you understand the question, but you’re not quite there with remembering the content. This is where many of you will be leading up to the exam. However, you want to move into most/all marks from the black pen responses.
- Red or green pen – Often 2+ mark exam questions will have more marking points than marks, so it’s essential you not only know where all the marks are awarded (a marking point that would have got you the mark one year, may not the following), but you help reinforce that content in your memory by writing it out.
This is a great method for when you just cannot seem to get more than a few marks on those longer answer questions (4 or more marks). The method also helps you build note resources and can feed into mindmaps or broadsheets. This is how it works:
- Take your longer answer question and write it out on an A4 piece of plain paper.
- Brainstorm any words, no matter how tedious, that you can link to any element of the question and write these down around the paper.
- Build your brainstormed words into full sentences and write them as bullet points.
- Work through each sentence and underline any that you’re sure about the content.
- Write these as the answer.
- Those that you haven’t underlined, use your notes and other revision resources to check the content and modify it so the sentences are correct. Add these in a different colour under your first answer.
This method is used when the brainstorm approach still isn’t getting you those pesky marks on the mark scheme. This is usually because your answer isn’t precise enough with the science. The method does take a lot longer but it’s very effective, especially at A-level when precision is essential. This is how it works:
- Follow steps 1 and 2 above.
- Work through the specification and for each brainstormed word, see if it links to a specification point (the more frequently you use this method, the quicker this stage becomes as you learn the specification).
- If it does link, write the specification point above that brainstormed word.
- Continue with steps 4-7 above.
Exam hall approach
It is really important that you practise exam questions in the conditions of the real exam. Not only will this help make the process of sitting the final exam as ‘normal’ as possible, but it allows you to see how you would actually do if your exam was right now. This will get you used to working through questions at the correct speed and train your brain not to freeze. The general rule of thumb is that for every mark, you should be spending 1 minute, however depending on the course and if it’s GCSE or A-level, it can fluctuate. For example OCR’s biology, chemistry or physics A-level gives about 1 1/2 minutes per mark. This is how it works:
- Clear your desk from everything except your pencil case that you would have in the real exam and don’t have any notes you can see or prompts that can aid you.
- Set a timer to the total number of marks in the questions.
- Start the timer and answer the question(s). At the end of the time, stop! Don’t keep writing even if there’s more you want to write. This is really important to improve your timing.
- Before marking, start the timer again and continue the questions. Make a note of how much time you actually needed to complete so you’re happy. Many students who struggle with completing exams in time, actually find they waffle far too much when they review their answers, and writing succinctly gets you the same amount of marks, but takes significantly less time.
- Mark, but be honest in your marking. Don’t be tempted to give those “that’s what I meant” marks.
For any of the above techniques, if after looking at your answer, the mark scheme and the available resources, you still cannot understand the question, this is where you need to speak with your science teacher so they can explain it to you. Don’t just leave it and hope for the best, because if you can’t get the marks when you’ve got all your resources in front of you, the chances of you getting them when you’re on your own in the real exam is pretty slim!
Inspired? Try it now.
Pick an exam question for a topic you’re currently learning or revising and attempt a technique from above. Worked, or didn’t, for you? Leave a comment or if you’ve done something slightly different, share it for others.