It’s coming up to that time of year again for GCSE and A Level maths students – exam time! If it hasn’t already done so then the past-paper frenzy will start very soon. I’m not against the use of past-papers as I think they fulfil a very important role; I do ask my students, on occasions, to complete past papers for me between lessons as this allows me to identify any gaps in knowledge that may have been overlooked – some of them do past-papers whether I ask them to or not which I don’t really have a problem with at all. I have a problem with past-papers being used excessively and effectively replacing actual teaching which seems to happen in many schools now; textbooks being almost non-existent in the classroom after February or March and teaching to understand is completely subordinated to teaching to pass an exam which I feel is a very short-term outlook and much less effective.

But the reality is that past-papers are used and they can be very useful when used properly. I want to point some mistakes that people make when using past-papers to prepare for their exams. I don’t think one post will suffice for this so I think there will be a couple of posts. But let’s make a start…

The first mistake that people make is to be obsessed with the time-limit for the exam. I recognise that there is a time limit in all exams and that when you sit your exam for real then you have no choice but to stick to the time limit that you have. BUT…when you do your first few past-papers (maybe not applicable if you’re doing the new 1-9 GCSE maths exams as there aren’t really any past-papers) YOU DO NOT need to worry about time-limits and, in my opinion, it could be very detrimental to you to worry about it. If the time limit when the exam was actually sat was 90 minutes then forget about it – for your first batch of past-papers take as much time as you need.

When I ask my students to do a past-paper for me for the first time I will say to them, “Forget about time-limits and take as long as you need. Use your class notes or our lesson notes, refer to your textbook if you need reminding about how to do something; use the resources that you have avilable to you. Work through the paper with a friend if you want (not get them to do it for you, though). Just, whatever you do, avoid the temptation to look at the mark-scheme” Almost invariably I’m completely ignored and they will just give themselves as much time as the time-limit stipulates and try to do the whole thing under exam conditions.

And then I look at their paper the next lesson and it’s only half done – if that! Most of the problems will be poorly answered, if at all; the ones that have been answered will be virtually incomprehensible and solutions will be riddled with silly mistakes. I’ll ask them, “How much did you learn when you did this?” – I know the answer before they even open their mouths; “Well I couldn’t do this and I couldn’t do that and then I just ran out of time.” See what I mean about being ignored!

I would much much MUCH rather that this person had taken their time and figured out solutions to as many problems as they could, even if that meant that they had to take two or three times a long to complete the paper as the time-limit gives. I don’t want them to do it under exam conditions because they’re not ready for that yet. I want them to refer to their textbooks, online videos and other resources so that if they’ve forgotten how to do something then they will end up revising and learning as they go. There is NO POINT in doing a past paper under exam conditions unless you’re prepared for it.

That’s not to say that there doesn’t come a time when past-papers need to be done under exam conditions – but not from the outset. If you don’t give yourself the time that you need to start with then you will learn nothing – or at least significantly less than you would. The speed and confidence that you need for your final exam will naturally come about if you give it chance. If you try to go too fast too soon then, ironically, although you think that you’re going fast – you’re going much more slowly than if you slowed down a bit to start with. A pianist wouldn’t learn to play fast by going fast to start with – but by going sloooooooooooooooooowly to start and building up speed gradually and naturally. This is no different.

There’s some more things that I want to talk about here but I think I’ll leave them for the post next week – see you then.