This is part 3 of a 6 part series which will teach you how to study for A-Level Chemistry and Biology.

In part 2 we talked about 2 of the most resources: the specification and the exam board endorsed textbooks. In part 3, we’ll talk about the most important resource of all: past papers, and how to get the most out of them.

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1. Do past papers from day 1 – don’t wait until just before exam time

No matter what resources you use, you can never cover EVERYTHING that could possibly come up in the exam. This is because, at A Level, most of the questions to apply your knowledge to new contexts. This means that you’ll see all kinds of new scenarios that you couldn’t have anticipated.

The only way you can get confident with this type of question is by practicing with them. This is why it’s so important that you start early with the past papers and use them to learn as much as you possibly can.

You’re studying A Levels to get a deeper understanding of the subjects you enjoy. But you’re also aiming to pass the exams with high grades so that you can go off to University, do an apprenticeship, get a good job. And follow your dreams.

To pass the exams you have to learn how to apply the content you’ve learned to the questions. This isn’t something you’ll instinctively be able to do. The only way you’re going to learn how to do it, and get good at it, is by actually practicing answering exam questions.

In fact, it’s as important to learn the exam technique as it is to learn the content. So, as you’re going to be spending 2 years learning the content, you should also spend 2 years learning the exam technique. If you leave it until right before the exams you won’t have the time do enough practice to develop the skills you need.

The past papers and mark schemes are the best tools for showing you what’s expected of you. Remember in the last tip when we talked about learning the exam board’s version of the subject? The past papers will help you do this. The more papers you do, the more you’ll come to understand how the exam board uses the content. For example, you’ll come to understand what definitions they’ll accept, what the key words are, how they expect you to analyse data etc.

You’ll also start to see what your own misunderstanding are. Do you use significant figures correctly, are you over-reliant on keywords, do you panic when you see a graph? The sooner you find out about these the better.

So every time you get to the end of a chapter, do some relevant past paper questions.

This tip might be controversial. I often work with students who have been told not to do past papers until the end of the year and save all the papers to test themselves on.

This is really bad advice.

We get good at any skill by practicing it. Answering exam questions is a skill, so it’s no exception.

Imagine preparing to play in a Tennis tournament by reading a book about how to play Tennis for 2 years. No actual practice, just reading. Is that a sensible way to prepare?

Then, you go into the tournament. You would have absolutely no clue what you were doing whatsoever. And worse still, all the other players have been playing Tennis every week for 2 years so they’ve got a tonne of experience and they’re amazing at it.

You are going to get your arse kicked.

If you don’t do past papers from day 1, this is the position you’re putting yourself in.

By all means, save a couple to test yourself with. But use the others to learn as much as you can from. And don’t worry about doing the same paper more than once. You’ll learn something new every time you do it. I can vouch for this. I did my A Levels before it was possible to download past papers from the internet. This meant that we had no option but to redo the few past papers given to us. It was more effective than you would think.

2. Doing past paper questions with the text book isn’t cheating

If you attempt past paper questions and you really struggle, try doing them with your text book.

This is another controversial one as I know a lot of teachers don’t like students doing this. But this is how I see it: we’ve already talked about how important it is to do past papers to help you develop your exam technique. And how it’s essential that you start this early.

So, the way that we’re using past papers is as a LEARNING TOOL AS WELL AS A TESTING TOOL.

It’s really important that you think about past papers this way.

When you first learn a topic you’re going to struggle to recall everything and you’re going to find it difficult to answer questions on it. This will only get easier when you’re more confident with the material.

So, how do you get more confident with the material? Well, not by reading thought it and making more notes on the same thing, that’s for sure. You’ll become more confident with the material by using it. And this means doing past paper questions.

Now you’ve got a bit of a catch 22 situation. You’re not confident enough to answer past paper questions, but you need to do past paper questions to get more confident.

So, how do you get around that?

Just do the past paper questions with the text book. This will give you the chance to do the following:

  • 1. See the relationship between what you’ve learned and what appears on the exam. This will make the content more meaningful and help you remember it.
  • 2. Practice applying your newly-acquired knowledge to the exam questions. You already know why this is so important.

So you’ll get all the benefits of doing past papers, without worrying about whether you can remember everything off the top of your head. And the more you do it, the quicker you’ll get to the point where you really are confident enough to do them without the book.

It’s not cheating, it’s learning

Don’t feel like doing it this way is cheating. Remember, we’re using the past papers to learn from so as long as you’re learning that’s all that matters.

I’m not saying that you should automatically do past paper questions with the book. If you feel ready to do them without right from the start then go for it, that’s great! But I see so many students avoiding doing past paper questions because they don’t feel ready. But you only get ready by practicing. This is one of those situations where you just have to throw yourself in at the deep end.


When you shouldn’t use the book

When you’re teachers give you past paper questions to do for them to mark. In this case, they are trying to test what you know. So unless they say otherwise, don’t use your book.

However, you can always look back at the questions after you’ve done them and have another attempt with the book to help you.

3. Use mark schemes to amend and add to your notes

A-Levels are about so much more than learning the keywords and the mark schemes. But there is still an aspect of that.

Each time you do a past paper question, take a look at the mark scheme to see what the key points are and what you need to say to get the marks. Check your notes to make sure you’ve picked up on the correct things, and if not, amend them.

You can also use the mark schemes to give you ideas about how to answer different types of questions. For example, look at their answers to ‘analyse’ questions to get ideas about how to look at data. Make notes on what they’ve mentioned. Once you’ve done a few of these questions you’ll have some good notes with lots of ideas to apply to future questions.

You should also make notes on the methods for any calculations or practical procedures you come across on the papers. Again, the aim of this is to make sure you’re learning as much as you can from the papers. And to build up an ‘idea bank’ to help you with future questions. As a general guide, if you come across something on the past papers that you have never seen before, or you think will be useful in future, add it to your notes.

Something else to look out for is patterns in how the examiners structure answers. For example, for explain questions the answers usually follow this pattern: 1. Make a point, 2. Explain the point.

Students often lose the 1st mark because they jump straight into the explaining. If you notice anything like this, make a note of it.

4. Learn from the examiner’s reports

The exam boards produce a report on students’ performance on each paper of every exam.

These are invaluable to you as they give you the opportunity to get into the minds of the examiners. And this is an opportunity you don’t want to miss. Despite this, few students actually ready them. So make sure you don’t skip this.

The reports explain what the ‘better candidates’ did that got them the marks and what the ‘weaker candidates’ did that meant they didn’t.

This will show you both what you’re aiming for and what the common pitfalls are so that you can avoid them.

The examiner’s reports sometimes explain the reasoning behind the acceptable answers. This can help you understand why answer that sounds correct won’t actually get the marks.

As with the mark schemes, make a note of anything you learn from the examiner’s reports.

You’ll find the examiner’s reports on your exam board’s website. They’re usually in the same place as the past papers and mark schemes.

5. Do past paper questions from other exam boards

You have to be a little bit careful here. The content varies from one exam board to another. So won’t find that you can answer every question on each paper you try. Despite this, they’re still worth a go. Plus, they can be a really good way of giving you practice with content that’s hard to find questions on from your own exam board.

This is especially the case since the specification changed in 2015. For each exam board, the change meant new content. But in some cases, that new content has been on an alternative exam board’s specification for years. So, whilst you won’t find past paper questions from your own exam board, you will find them elsewhere.

A good example is the Ideal Gas equation in Chemistry. This is new to the OCR specification but has been on the AQA specification for years. So, if you’re studying OCR Chemistry, the AQA papers will be your best option for practicing this.

For some topics, there’s sufficient overlap in the content for you to be able to attempt questions from various exam boards without issues. You may just find slight differences in wording. Cross-refer them with your own text books to see what the differences are and what you can ignore. ‘Action potentials’ and ‘DNA replication’ are good examples of this in Biology. ‘Amount of substance’ and ‘Enthalpy’ are good examples for Chemistry.

For topics such as these, papers from other specifications are a great resource for a wider range of questions on the same topic. This gives you the opportunity to see more different applications of the content. They’re great for pushing you past your comfort zone and getting you used to working with material that is less familiar.

6. Print off all the past papers and put them in a folder

Hopefully, by now I’ve managed to convince you how important it is to do past paper questions. Now, you need to make sure it’s as easy as possible to do them.

If you have to mess about finding a relevant paper and printing it off every time you want to do some questions you’re less likely to do them.

Most students I’ve worked with prefer to have a nice printed copy of the past papers to work on. If this is you I recommend printing all the papers off at the start of the year. That way they’re right there when you need them and you have no excuse not to do
them. Better still print off all the papers, dissect them and organise the questions by topic so that you’ve got ready-made question packs.

It takes a few hours to do this (I know because I’ve actually done this) and it’s so boring to do, but it’s worth it in the long run.

It can be a challenge to motivate yourself to do past paper questions, so anything that you can do to reduce the resistance is worth the time.

7. Learn the right way to approach exam questions

I’m going to tell you something that I want you to think about every single time you do an exam question:

You’re not supposed to know the answer, you’re supposed to work out the answer.

When you get more confident with your knowledge, it’s easy to feel like you should be at the point where you can look at questions and know exactly what to do.

Unfortunately, science A Levels don’t work like that.

You might find that you can answer definitions or basic describe and explain questions without too much thinking. However, the vast majority of questions for A Level are application based. So, no matter how strong your knowledge, you’ll have to work pretty hard to figure out what’s going on and how it relates to what you’ve learned.

This shouldn’t scare you. This type of ‘working out’ is literally what science is all about. Scientists collect data and make sense of it in the context of the knowledge available to them at the time. This is pretty much exactly what you’re expected to do when answering the application questions. With practice, the logical “what’s going on here then” approach becomes second nature.

If you’re answering part of a question and you have no idea about what’s going on try re- reading the whole thing from the beginning. It’s likely that you’re missing something and you need to find out what that is. A-Level questions can stretch over a few pages so it’s likely you’ll find something relevant in an earlier part of the question.

Always be very specific

This is something else to bear in mind. When you’re answering exam questions it’s very important to make sure your answer is specific to the context of the question.

You won’t get marks for referring to “the bond” or “the enzyme” if the question is talking about “the hydrogen bond with water” or “DNA polymerase”.

If you find it easier, it’s fine to come up with a general answer in your head, then ‘translate’ it to fit the context of the question.

You know what resources you’re supposed to be using and you know how to use them. Your next challenge is to make sure you develop good study habits to keep yourself organised and motivated, and to make sure you avoid making mistakes with the way you approach your studies. This is what we’ll cover in part 4.