It's never too early to look at exam papers

30 Jul 2020

Good preparation will help you revise more efficiently and do better in your exams. That’s a pretty straightforward and solid piece of advice. But for most students who start a course in early autumn, examinations are barely a speck on the horizon. Out of sight and out of mind. January exams are months away. Summer exams seem like light years into the future. The idea of looking through past exam papers at the start of the academic year may seem pointless, daunting or even terrifying. Why would you undermine your confidence by reading questions you can’t possibly answer?

In my experience, the majority of new students are keen to get down to work and want to get their academic careers off to a good start. So they study hard. But not always in the best way. One of the key principles behind the strategies in Simplify your Study is to look at the end first and become familiar with what you are working towards. Preparation means doing the groundwork. It means getting ready for something. Preparing for your exams means knowing how you will be assessed and using this knowledge to guide the way you study.

Looking at past exam papers isn’t the same as doing past papers. You wouldn’t be expected to answer questions when you don’t have the relevant knowledge. But one advantage of seeing, handling and reading exam papers is psychological. Exam papers use a peculiar language and a particular layout.

They "shout out" orders and directions:

  • Answer FOUR of the following EIGHT questions

  • DO NOT REMOVE THIS EXAM PAPER FROM THE EXAMINATION ROOM

  • TURN OVER WHEN INSTRUCTED

  • Time allowed: TWO hours

Print out a past examination paper. Familiarise yourself with the form and structure of the assessment that is coming. Familiarise yourself with the language that is used to ask questions and give instructions. Look at past papers regularly throughout the term or academic year. Take away any surprises. The 'mere exposure effect' is an idea used by psychologists to explore the relationship between familiarity and preference and some studies have shown that exposure to something can increase your preference for it. Getting to know your exams won't mean falling in love with them, but it can reduce anxiety.

The benefits of looking at past exam papers aren't just psychological, they are also practical. In fact, the primary aim of using past papers is to find a focus for your work and your revision. Here is an example of how it can help in lectures:

Masood, a Mechanical Engineering undergraduate, found understanding lectures difficult because the content seemed abstract. He was given a lot of information but had nothing to relate it to. Masood told me that he could only really learn by putting things into practice. He needed to understand the practical value or application of information and ideas. In preparation for his next lecture, Masood looked at some past papers. He didn't try to answer them but collected 4 questions relevant to the lecture topic and read them. As a result, the information presented made much more sense to him.

Most students wouldn't think about using past paper questions to give focus to a lecture. But if you are studying a module where most or all of the assessment is by an end of term exam, your work and thinking should be geared towards that task.

If you don't use this idea for lectures, you should certainly try to gain focus from past paper questions before you start making revision notes. Some tutors make a range of exam papers available at the start of the year, others may give one sample paper. But even a single paper can provide valuable information about the structure, style and demands of the questions you will be expected to answer. Look for past exam papers early. If there are none, ask for some. If your exams are months, weeks or even days away, stop what you are doing and look at some past papers.Revising course content is more effective when you know what you are revising for.

This article was written by Peter Lia, author of Simplify Your Study