Using exam papers effectively

Past exam papers are a valuable learning tool, and I’d like to share a few techniques I’ve tried for making the most out of them.

Dictator and scribe

I often ask students to work in pairs, taking it in turns being ‘dictator’ and ‘scribe’. The dictator has to answer the question, but can’t write anything down; the scribe can only write down what the dictator says, and nothing else. So both discuss the problem, but ultimately the dictator has to decide what is written and the scribe has to commit it to paper. This is really effective for making sure that both students in the pair understand the solution before moving on. It’s also great for sharing accountability so the sense of failure is less personal if something goes wrong.

Traffic-light cards

I find the alliteration, ‘Brain, board, book, buddy, boss’ a bit annoying, but the principle of exhausting all resources before going to the teacher is a good one. A useful prompt is to ask students to put their revision guides on their desks at the start of the lesson. Without further instruction, they then tend to dip in whenever they need a reminder about a particular topic. Another simple technique is to give each pair a red/green card, initially placed green-side up on their desk. The rule is that when they need support, they should flip the card to red and move onto the next question. This is much better than ‘hands up’, because rather than waving their arms impatiently while you’re attending to other learners, students get on with the rest of the paper and make the most of the lesson time.

Structured feedback

Reviewing answers should be a core part of the learning process, and certainly not a brief plenary activity for the last five minutes of the lesson. One strategy for instantaneous feedback is to indicate ‘checkpoints’ every 4-5 questions through the paper, and then split the mark scheme into corresponding chunks. Each time a pair reaches a checkpoint, they can come to the front to pick up the next piece of the mark scheme and correct their work so far. Where the mark scheme is not easy to follow (perhaps just for one or two questions), it may be worth writing out student-friendly solutions.

A different approach is needed when students have completed a paper individually – perhaps for homework. Sometimes I collect these in to mark myself, so I can give specific feedback, but I do this with caution. In the past there have been times when I’ve collected papers and (despite best intentions) still not marked them weeks later – which is not good. So usually I go for peer marking in one of two ways:

  1. Students only tick or cross answers to indicate right / wrong. This is much faster than trying to work out method marks.
  2. Questions are collected in separate piles and each student marks one pile. This approach is great for sixth formers, because it gives them time to decipher the mark scheme for their particular question. They can make detailed corrections, and then present a brief overview about common misconceptions at the end.

Question-level analysis

Exam papers are not the best basis for identifying strengths and development areas, because some exam questions are much easier than others, but an informal analysis can be useful nonetheless. Recording individual question scores is probably not a good use of time, but jotting down whole-class feedback on particular topics can be a great starting point for follow-up planning.

Student accountability

Finally, I try to make students feel a sense of responsibility for their progress. There’s nothing wrong with an individual relying on peer support in a lesson or making a mistake that needs correcting, as long as I know they’ll definitely get it right next time. And there’s no better way to ensure this than creating a “next time”. Whenever time allows, I provide a period of consolidation and then give the class the exact same paper again – but this time in test conditions. (I normally say I’ll change the numbers so they don’t just memorise answers, but I rarely do.) This helps to make sure they really assimilate the learning during and beyond the lesson.