Is it really effective to use past exam papers for revision?

It is no secret that the use of previous exam papers in preparation for an upcoming exam is a tried and tested method for effective study. Educators (and learners) regularly turn to this strategy when exam time is approaching. There is an old adage that states if something is too good to be true, then it probably is. Working through previous exam papers without a good learning strategy is inefficient. When students are told to simply work through previous exam papers without a proper understanding of how learning happens and without understanding exactly why this method is effective, they will probably not reap the benefits associated with the revision of these papers. The same holds true for educators when they ask students to apply this method of preparation without understanding the learning strategy behind it, they will not see the results they expect from the effort. We will briefly look at two of the core concepts that make this method efficient.

Retrieval practice

The most common mistake when revising previous exam papers is providing or having easy access to the memo. The aim of working through a previous exam paper is to recall the material that has been studied and then apply this knowledge to the context of the problem presented in the paper. When students struggle with a problem they will default to the memo (if they have access to it) and therefore they will avoid doing retrieval which is crucial in forming the neural pathways that allow for effective recall. When the memo is consulted before the student puts in the effort to recall the correct information from memory they are fooled into thinking they know the material because they recognised the answer from the memo. The dilemma is similar to how flashcards can be misused by looking at the answer too quickly. However, when done correctly with the proper recall, the revision of previous exam papers are excellent preparation for an upcoming exam.

Reduction of stress

Another important part of working through previous papers is the simulation of the exam setting. By simulating the writing of the actual exam, students become more comfortable with the setting and structure of exam writing and this reduces stress and anxiety on the day of writing. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for most students when working through previous exam papers. They would much rather do their revision on their beds, in front of the tv or by their desks next to a laptop streaming their favourite series. We know from the field of Mind, Brain and Education that an abundance of stress and anxiety may result in students struggling to recall the work they have studied, leading to disappointing results. It is important to teach students the skills they need to make the most of their study time, this will not only benefit them in terms of what they can remember but also enhance their experience and therefore confidence in writing exams.

What can I as a parent or educator do to help?


  1. Try to give the student the memo a few days after they received the exam paper. Allow them to do their revision and properly recall what they have studied to answer the questions before you hand them the memo. This will strengthen the neural pathways of the work they remembered and give them a clear indication of where they need additional study effort.
  2. During the preparation for the exam, have the student complete at least a few previous papers or shorter tests in an environment simulating that of the exam. Not only will they be more comfortable on the day of writing but they will have had some practice in managing their time during the test.

Learning Hacks is an ITSI offering designed to equip students and educators to have a better understanding of how learning works and what the best methods of studying are. For more information, speak to the Professional Development team at ITSI and find out how you can equip your learners.

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