When it comes to GCSEs and A-Levels, one of the most useful activities you can do is to pit your knowledge and skills against the real thing, or at least as close as possible to the real thing. In this case, the best simulation is past papers. The precise question content and topics covered in the exam may alter each year slightly, but what doesn’t change is the style of the questions and the composition of the exam paper. This makes past papers an invaluable tool for revision. Let’s say that your A-Level history paper is divided into different sections, then the question style and requirements will be the same for each respective section on each year’s paper. Only the exact tested content will move around.

Where can I get past papers? Will any paper do?

There are two main places you can inquire about getting past papers for your son or daughter. The first is at their school. There’s a good chance that each relevant department has a stock of past papers, and you could ask your child’s teacher for some, especially any that they aren’t planning to use in their own classes as practice.

The second major source is the Internet. Whether from the exam boards themselves or from third-party sites, the only thing you have to check is that you download the right paper to match your child’s upcoming exam. If they are taking an AQA-set exam, for instance, then the papers from Edexcel may not be of much use. Once again, you can confirm these details with your child’s teacher and ensure you download the most useful material.

How should my child use them?

Yes, getting your hands on the past papers is the easy part. The trickier thing is how best to make use of them. We recommend the following idea:

Step 1: Take the first practice paper and have your son or daughter complete it in full before they start their main revision schedule.

Step 2: After completion, the student should now reflect on what was easier and difficult in each one. At this point, they should be thinking about both which content they found difficult and which exam section or aspect they found difficult. For example, did they struggle to finish one section in time? Were there some command words that they didn’t understand?

Step 3: Based on that reflection, make adjustments to your revision schedule to include more practice of test sections that you found harder and fewer of those you find easy. It’s like the Leitner revision method but on a slightly larger scale.

Step 4: Make a full past paper a task you complete at least once a week during revision time and check up on your progress. Don’t forget to keep checks on exam skills --- time management, response to command words, length of answers to fit the number of marks etc.

What benefits will past papers bring to my child?

Broadly speaking, there are four main benefits to using past papers as a part of your GCSE or A-Level revision.

Past papers familiarise students with question types and command words. The more papers they complete, the more familiar they will become with the types of questions and their key command words that emerge in each section of the exam paper. This practice helps them to sharpen their critical skills and apply the knowledge they’ve garnered in the classroom in a more precise way when responding to questions. Seeing words like “Explain,” and “Analyse”, and “Summarise” will prompt different modes of thinking more and more quickly, allowing them to answer questions more efficiently.

Students will cover a wide range of topics as they complete the papers. Since each year’s papers within a certain time period were made to be different from their immediate predecessors, it means that the papers contain varied content. This allows students to cover a number of topic areas in a single sitting, giving them a greater overall picture of where they stand.

Learners can identify gaps in their knowledge and exam skills. It’s because the precise content is so eclectic that students will be able to quickly identify both the gaps in their knowledge of the curriculum, as well as their specific exam skills like time management.

Past papers can help to reduce student anxiety toward their exams. This is perhaps the single most important benefit of using past papers for revision. As your kids complete their past papers, they start to see patterns in the question styles, and they become very familiar with the exam layout and requirements. This makes the real thing seem far less scary. When you’ve taken the last five years’ worth of past papers, you can be quite assured you know what’s coming this year. Not the exact questions, of course, but what they’ll look like and what you’ll have to do to answer them.