If your teen is using past papers to help prepare for exams by:
doing the questions
timing themselves to complete the paper
testing their subject knowledge
then that's good... but it's not GREAT.
There are so many more strategic ways to use this gold mine of resources, and I'm sharing four of them with you in this episode.
These BETTER ways to use past papers not only revise subject content, but ALSO develop and practise the six elements of exam technique that are required for ultimate exam performance.
You’re listening to the Parents of Hardworking Teen Podcast, episode 16 - and today we’re talking exams and specifically I’m sharing some of the BETTER ways that your teen can make more strategic use of exam board past papers, or practise questions, whenever they’re revising and prepping for exams.
Hello VIP’s! I hope you’re ready to talk exam prep today! You know this is one of my favourite topics and today I’m particularly fired up because I’m actually going to be sharing with you some of the content I’ve delivered in Next Level Coaching this month.
Next Level is my monthly Coaching program for 10WGT grads, and every month, we have a different monthly challenge. It’s not some sort of extra homework or tasks to be completed. It’s the way that I like to keep a fresh approach and focus each month and how we keep moving students forwards and upwards. Sometimes it’s a workshop, or a quiz, or even, like back in June, we did a a 4 week Essays Bootcamp. These accompany all of the personal coaching that we do on the live group calls and build upon everything students cover in the 10WGT.
And this month I delivered our challenge as a ‘Decide and Action’ Seminar, where each student has to decide, with my input and feedback, which of the BETTER ways to use past papers is indeed BEST for them and their subjects.
Now, of course, I can’t work through the personalised and action elements here on the podcast, but I can share with you what some of those better ways to use past papers are, in the hopes that you can pass one or two onto your teen and that they can start to see just some of these benefits in their exam prep too.
Because the traditional ways most students use past papers are like this:
First of all it’s just to look through them, to get a feel for the layout, how it all looks and feels. All good. This is definitely important.
Taking things a bit further,, they might do a bit of a survey of what topics are covered to help inform their revision. Both in terms of where they show up in the paper - like are certain topics in the short response questions near the start, or the extended responses at the end, and also when have they cropped up over the years. This is something I have students do as part of the prioritising stage in my reverse-engineered revision planning system.
And then there’s probably the most common method - to ‘do’ past papers. To complete the questions and answer them. Either to test themselves on whether they really know the subject content and they might also choose to do it under the same time restriction of the paper so that they can get used to the time limit and the pressure that brings.
So, nothing wrong with any of those methods. All valid and useful.
But as with most things in life, when there are different ways to things, there are pros and cons to each of them.
For example, if we’re using past papers to survey the topics being tested, that can be helpful to inform our revision, but it doesn’t develop our actual exam technique.
Or if we’re completing a full past paper under timed conditions, that can be great for getting us used to those exam conditions, but it can be time-consuming. We can’t spend a whole 2 or more hours completing a past paper, when we likely have at least 2 or 3 papers across multiple subjects that we want to go through.
But, if we have a wider variety of ways to use past papers, we can select the methods that have the specific pros that will be of most benefit to us personally.
So, here are a few other ways that your teen can use past papers, that will maximise the benefits and translate into more confidence walking into the exam and better results at the end of it.
The first one is to use past papers as a way to practise identifying command words. Now command words are what tell your teen exactly what to do and how to answer. So they need to identify the verb in the question and deduce the level of cognition. Now, if your teen could use some training in that skill before they can get to practising it, then I have two whole modules in the 10WGT where I train your teen in this critical element of exam technique, and especially go into detail on the higher level commands. Because once they know how to identity command words and the different levels of cognition, including questions that don’t have a specific verb, like questions that start with ‘how’ - then they can use past papers as a way of practising and honing this skill.
Now, they won’t be testing themselves on their subject content here. This is all about the application aspect - developing one of the elements of their exam technique - identifying the command in the question. So, if answering exactly what the question is asking - i.e. getting on the right track from the start, going into enough detail but also not giving information beyond what’s being asked for, then this could be a great strategy for your teen.
Okay, another way they can use past papers is to play one of my favourite games: Predict the Mark Scheme.
Granted, possibly not as fun as Twister, but definitely more fun than I Spy.
This is where, instead of answering the questions, your teen dissects the question and looks at the number of marks allocated, and from that, writes out a mark scheme of what would be required for full marks.
Here’s why this is one of my favourite exam games (who knew that exams could be turned into games eh?)
It’s because it does require some subject knowledge AND it also requires students to think about what the question is really requiring. And what it ISN’T requiring. What might students be tempted to include that isn’t actually needed? And they do all this from the perspective of the marker, they start to get inside the mind of the marker and think about what they’ll be looking for, not what they think they want to write as the student.
When I used to do this sort of stuff in my lessons, I can tell you that when we divided into students and examiners - all the students would put their hands up to be the examiners. They all wanted to write the mark scheme instead of answer the question, even though it basically requires the same skills - it’s kind of just a nice refreshing switch up for them.
Alright - next way to use past papers other than just answering the question is related specifically to those big extended response and essay questions.
These are the ones that hold the most marks yet - totally understandably - are also the ones that students dread the most and… practise the least.
One - Because, they are tough. These are the questions that are pitched at the top levels of cognition, usually at the analysis or evaluation levels so they do take a lot more effort, thought and skill to answer.
And Two - because they take a long time to answer.
So they feel overwhelming and daunting..
And so there’s the natural tendency to think, ‘Well, I could get through 8 of the other questions in, say, I don’t know half an hour, 45 minutes, but I could only get through one of these, so I’ll do the 8.’
(By the way, I see students doing this a lot in Maths practise too. They complete 10 practise or revision questions when they would’ve been better off spending their time on doing just one or two of the big word-y questions that they would’ve gotten more out of in terms of processing.)
Again, I totally get it - It’s so tempting to chase the feeling of accomplishment we get by doing more of the easier questions. Of course it is.
But, remember, the daunting questions are the ones worth the most marks and so these are the questions I really want your teen TO be practising, to be mastering, to be super-confident in.
But here’s how to make that reality, in a less daunting and time-consuming way.
Rather than write out a whole essay or full page response or whatever it is, instead, have your teen write out a bullet point plan. Now, it still has to be detailed. It can’t just be three basic things they’d cover in 3 body paragraphs.
For an essay, it would be the thesis statement, their 3 or 4 body paragraph points AND the exact evidence they’d use. So, probably 6 to 10 bullet points.
This means they’ll get the practise of dissecting the question and quickly coming up with a plan in response. And this is extra important, because I want your teen to ALWAYS plan every extended response and essay.
They should never just start writing and figure it out as they go. So it’s a good drill for that too. And as you can imagine, they can probably get through 4 or 5 question dissections and plans in the time it would take them to write a full essay, so they’ll get a wider range of practise.
But again - consider what your teen needs most. If they need practise in actually writing a flowing and well written full response under time pressure, then go for it, have them do a full response to practise. But if it’s breaking down the question, coming up with what to write and how to structure it and what evidence to include and PLANNING all that out before they write (not just winging it), then this is a super-effective way to do it.
Okay, this last one I’ll share with you is a little more involved, but if your teen tries any of those and gets on well, then this will be a great way to have them take things even further.
This is taken from one of the activities I love to run with students: The ‘Most Marks, Least Words’ challenge.
For this your teen will also need the mark scheme for the past paper they’re using and they use the question along with the marking criteria for it to construct a model response - one that would get full marks, but in the most succinct way.
This really makes students think about what’s required, at what level - and what isn’t.
It gets them writing with more clarity and more… directly, in exams, which is often not what they’re used to doing in class or homework or research or assignments.
And this is an excellent activity for students who run out of time in exams.
In fact I want to share with you one of my favourite ever emails that I got from a parent, Selina. Her son, Campbell completed the 10WGT I think at the start of Year 12, and then joined Next Level Coaching for the rest of his Year 12, so this email is about 9 or 10 months old now, but it still ranks as one of my faves ever.
Selina did give my permission back then to share this and the whole thing is so good, that I’m going to read it all. It’s not long - but I’ll tell you the part that makes it one of my favourites when I get to it. She said:
Campbell received some great news today. He has been given early entry into engineering at UTS. This was his preferred university and course so he is super excited.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for this program. It has helped Campbell fine-tune his written skills, allowing him to improve his marks and become more confident when sitting exams and assignments. If only he’d had this information earlier. (That’s one of the most common comments I get by the way, but here’s the part I love the most - even more than early uni entry and even more than the confidence)...
Last week he was completing a short answer response in a last-minute online group tutoring lesson. His peers all wrote around 4 - 6 sentences to complete the task. Campbell wrote 2 sentences and received the best mark. This is thanks to you.
Again, thank you. Kind regards, Selina
Two sentences. Best mark. More criteria met in two sentences than were met in 4 - 6 sentences.
This way of using past papers along with the mark scheme will help your teen do this.
Okay, so there are 4 alternative ways for your teen to use past papers when preparing for exams - either in revising or testing themselves on their subject knowledge and/or in practising and honing their exam technique.
Many of these methods mean that your teen could cover a whole paper, likely multiple past papers much faster than if they were actually answering all of the questions.
Not that going through and answering the questions isn’t a good way to use past papers, it just depends on what your teen wants to practise or test -Is it their subject knowledge or is it any of the elements of exam technique. Or I should say, would most benefit from. Sometimes, like those extended versus short response questions, it’s not always what they want to do.
But the fact that these are much more time-efficient ways for your teen to do their exam prep - then that might make it a little more appealing. A potential bonus there.
So, I’d love to know - which of these do you think would be most helpful for your teen? Or, if they end up trying one or more of them, let me know how they find it. I’d love to get your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And if you know of any other parents or carers who could use these tips or would be interested in what I share here on the podcast, please forward them a screenshot or post a screenshot of your favourite episode on any of your social media.
I’ve got to tell you, I’m absolutely loving making each of these episodes and I’ve got SO many awesome episodes in store for you. So make sure you’ve clicked follow or subscribe in your podcast app, I’ll see you back here for another episode of the Parents of Hardworking Teens Podcast next week and you have a brilliant week, bye!