Discover how marking can encourage your chemistry students to use past exam papers effectively

An illustration of tiny high school students climbing a stack of papers

Source: © Alice Mollon/Ikon Images

Using past papers for practice? Students awarding themselves top marks? Bring them back down to earth with this approach (and without a bump)

We’ve all been there. You hand Student X back their test and see the confident, slightly cocky expression transform into a deep frown, quickly followed by an accusatory glance in your direction. You go through the paper, watching Student X furiously flick through their test, gathering ammunition. The bell rings and break time is completely taken up as Student X argues over every single mark lost. You hold firm and patiently explain (again) how the mark scheme works. When asked about revision they inevitably say something along the lines of ‘I did loads of past papers and got 85%! I must have just had a bad day.’ You sigh and discuss revision strategies, all the while knowing that the whole rigmarole will be repeated in another six weeks.

Please understand, I believe practising past paper questions can be extremely beneficial. What better way is there for students to familiarise themselves with question layouts, language and exam board expectations? How better can they practise applying their knowledge to unfamiliar contexts under time pressure, while also familiarising themselves with the quirks and tricks buried in harder questions? Past paper questions are valuable, provided they are used well.

I work in a boys’ school, so my perspective is certainly biased, but not many of the students I teach use past paper questions well, even with serious nagging. Homework and revision are seen as hurdles to jump over, and shortcuts are considered fair game.

Using past paper questions well

When set for homework and completed alongside notes and worked examples, past paper questions allow students to consolidate and apply knowledge they have recently acquired. Just as important, students gain experience of exam questions and develop the problem-solving skills necessary for success. However, because mark schemes are readily available, students often reword or blatantly transcribe mark scheme answers.

During revision, once students have put in the memory work, past paper questions give them an important opportunity to practise, identify any gaps in their knowledge and hone their skills and timekeeping. Unfortunately, many students skip the memory work and limit their revision to only completing past papers.

After an open-book test, I give students the mark scheme, and they must mark, correct and annotate their papers

To add to this problem, many students won’t mark questions they’ve done independently, assuming that what they have written must be correct. Even if they do mark their work, very few scrutinise the mark schemes or their answers.

Together these issues lead students to overconfidence in their ability and understanding, unrealistic aspirations and, often, disappointment.

Changing approaches

In response to the issues, I tried setting regular open-book tests and going through them during lessons – essentially getting the students to do what I would have set for homework, but properly. Matters improved. However, this took up precious lesson time and feedback was often ignored.

Now, after an open-book test, I give students the mark scheme, and for homework they must mark, correct and annotate their papers. Their annotations must include explanations of the thought processes behind wrong answers and justifications for any ambiguous marks they have awarded themselves.

I then mark their marking. I skip over questions based on recall, or where the mark scheme is black and white, since these are generally marked accurately. Where the mark scheme is more ambiguous, I can really get to grips with a student’s thought processes. This is particularly helpful for levelled questions, extended response questions, mechanisms, unstructured calculations and anything explanation- or practical-based.

The students receive two marks:

  1. their actual score (my mark);
  2. their marking score, in the form ±x, where x is the difference between their score and mine.

The students receive two marks: their actual score (my mark) and their marking score, in the form ±x, where x is the difference between their score and mine.

Outcomes so far

The completion rate of the marking homework is high, because the students are keen to find out how they did. The marking also tends to be of a higher quality than the homework questions used to be, since shortcuts are not available.

The information gathered from this double marking can be highly formative. Sometimes a student may not have been specific enough with their language but can’t see why their answer would not receive full credit. Discussing this with the student often improves the clarity of their answers, their understanding of terminology and their writing in future tests.

Discrepancies in scores have also arisen from students misunderstanding the subject matter. In these instances, the students mark answers as correct, even when they are different from the mark scheme. Such occasions quickly highlight areas where additional help is needed, so much so that I have started using the students’ marking to determine which questions I need to address in class.

I seem to be on the receiving end of fewer dirty looks and have more post-results break times to myself

In the early days, students would retrospectively credit themselves with a correct answer, because they ‘meant that’, forgetting that examiners are not mind readers. They would also focus only on the key points in the mark scheme, skipping additional information such as chemical errors and sloppy mechanisms. Students have made significant gains in these areas.

The data I’ve gathered using this strategy is useful in report writing and discussions with parents and students. The lack of external exams since 2020 means that many current 16–18 students have an overinflated view of their abilities; use of this data in discussions, emails and parents’ evenings has kindly but unequivocally brought them back down to earth. Students and parents can’t chalk up a poor test result to a bad day and a student’s plea of ‘getting high marks in all the past papers I’ve done’ can be put into context. Furthermore, conversations have been more positive, since this strategy clarifies key areas of improvement and makes constructive feedback seem less critical – I’m criticising their marking, rather than their work.

Looking ahead

So many students rely heavily on past papers for revision, but don’t know how to use mark schemes appropriately. I hope this strategy will go some way to rectifying that problem. Having trialled this approach for less than two terms, I won’t know its ultimate effectiveness until the current cohort sit their public exams.

If nothing else, the students seem to be taking greater interest in their homework, considering their answers and the mark schemes more carefully and developing their self-reflection and metacognition. There seem to be fewer surprises when the closed-book tests come, and I welcome the reduction in my marking load. I also seem to be on the receiving end of fewer dirty looks and have more post-results break times to myself, for which I am very grateful.

Rebecca Kell is a chemistry teacher at Bolton School