Past Papers: The Proven Revision Technique + Simple Study Plan

Past Papers: The Proven Revision Technique + Simple Study Plan

With GCSE and A Level exams fast approaching, students will slowly be winding down to a regime of intensive self-study. So we thought we’d share a good revision technique that has so far shown to work well for students and is, in our view, an effective means for remembering more in a short time-frame.

Before we begin, we’d like to state that “the best” revision technique does not exist, as it entirely depends on the individual’s learning preferences. The following technique is just one way that can help students do better in their exams.

Use past exam papers as your route

In our view, students make the mistake of using past exam papers only as a means to test their knowledge, such as doing a few mock exams under time conditions. This may be the wrong approach.

Ideally, past papers should be the primary way to revise. Learning from books and class notes are well and good, but it has been shown that student are more effective in their learning when they start from exam paper questions. These questions should then lead students to refer to notes and other materials.

Why are past papers more effective?

Increase familiarity

Students become familiar with the kinds of questions that come up in exams. More importantly, they pick up on slight nuances in questions, as well as become accustomed to answering a variety of different questions.

Variety of topics

Revising from past exam papers compel students to study a range of topics in short space of time. Past papers also require students to study topics they not like very much, but which is a necessary part of an exam board’s specification. In a span of an hour, a student can have revised over a dozen topic areas, recalling previously learned topics from memory as well as notes.

Identify learning gaps

Past papers enable students to identify learning gaps faster, and in time, developed a degree of self-awareness about their knowledge gaps. The aim is to reduce their gaps as they continue to study.

Reduce anxiety

Focusing on past exam papers helps remove the fear out of exams. The more past papers students do as part of their daily revision, the better prepared they’ll be for the actual exam. A recently study1 suggests that learning by taking practical tests have shown to protect memory from negative effect of stress, which impacts on the receiving of information from memory.

What’s a good past paper focused revision plan?

The following is just one example of a simple revision plan that puts past papers at the centre of a student’s revision methodology.

1. Gather all learning materials

Though students will rely on past papers, they will require their notes as learning references. Students must firstly gather together all available notes, books, web browser bookmarks, CDs, and any other learning aids, and organise them nearby.

2. Download (and print) the exam-board specification

Every student will sit an exam that follows an exam board specification, so it’s a good idea to know the topic areas. This may serve as a general learning checklist.

3. Download and organise all available past papers

We recommend students use a laptop to view the past papers (instead of printing them). The laptop should be placed on a large enough table, with all learning materials within easy reach. Space should be made directly in front for answering questions.

Download as many exam papers from the relevant exam boards and categorise them in folders. It may be a good idea to download papers from other exam boards too, just to increase the pool size of potential questions.

4. Develop a repeatable process

  1. Attempt an exam question
  2. If it’s too difficult, go to the relevant learning materials and revise that topic
  3. Attempt the same question again, then check the answer in the mark scheme
  4. Go to the next question and repeat the process

Use a computer to display past papers, with space to write, and learning materials easily accessible.

For every past paper completed, students will have referred to learning materials for a wide variety of topics. It is unlikely that one past paper will sufficiently cover all the topics set out in the exam board, that is why students must repeat the process for as many past papers as possible.

Students should add to this approach and make the plan truly their own.

What’s your revision plan? If you think it’s a good one, share with us below.


  1. Practical testing and memory against stress:
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