It’s pretty widely accepted that when studying maths or one of the sciences, past papers are a great way to prepare for exams. The intuition is pretty simple – practice what you’re going to have to do, and you’ll be better prepared! This is definitely true, but there’s more to it than that.
To utilise past papers properly in your study, you shouldn’t just indiscriminately grind away at them and try and improve through sheer volume. Rather, it’s important to consider exactly when and where in your study they’re going to produce the most benefit, and it’s also important to recognise that past paper study actually plays multiple roles in your learning process.
Here are a few rules to follow when using past papers in study:
1. Don’t do past papers until you’ve revised all the material already
Past papers are very useful in many ways, but one thing they’re not great for is helping you comprehensively cover the syllabus.
The danger in the approach of beginning with past papers is that you could easily do two or three past papers without encountering questions on a particular outcome or type of problem, do very well in them, and gain a false sense of confidence in your proficiency in the subject without ever targeting your weaknesses.
Past papers are of course written to test a broad range of topic in every subject, however, there is certainly no single paper that is going to target everything you can be tested on. Ensure to thoroughly review all points of the syllabus and then do past papers to avoid this risk.
2. Do one or two past-papers open book before putting yourself under an exam condition situation.
Doing past papers ‘closed book’ and under time pressure is definitely a vital tool in preparation, as discussed in the next point. But, for maximum benefit, it’s a good idea to do a couple of papers without these added factors first.
This is because you are still in the ‘knowledge absorption and revision’ part of the learning process when you have the instant feedback of looking over the crib and your notes and reviewing your errors while you do the exam, rather than being in the ‘knowledge testing’ part of the learning process when you do papers under exam conditions.
It’s important to go through the first part of the process before the second to ensure your knowledge is already ingrained before you begin testing it.
3. Do papers under timed conditions once you’ve completed the first and second stages of past paper revision
Though we’ve stressed the importance of not rushing straight into doing full length, timed-conditions, closed-book past paper study, it’s still an absolutely crucial part of your revision in maths and the sciences.
Make sure to get through at least a few past papers in this manner; preparing for exams involves not only solidifying and testing your knowledge, but also becoming used to the pacing you’ll have to achieve to deal with the time pressure.