The Problem with Past Exam Papers

In The Confident Teacher by Alex Quigley13 Comments

Over the weekend I had the joy of watching my little boy, Noah, play one of his football matches (there was a little pain too – just don’t mention the penalty). If you have watched six year olds play football you will know that they largely run around, compelled toward the ball like moths barging headlong into lightbulbs.

Now, penalty incident aside, our parent chat got onto how our young novice 6 year olds needed to play – well, more like a team. We pondered: maybe they should drop some drills in training and  get in some more full match practice?

It appears intuitive doesn’t it: to get better at playing the big games, we need to play more of the big games. Only the issue is that this isn’t quite the best way to go about it for novices learning the game.

Move over to the day job of teaching. I spent the last fortnight grappling the marking monster and carrying GCSE essays everywhere I went. This week I’ll have more essays and some mocks from my year 10 class to mark too that will tour my Easter holiday travails.

While I have been wading through the marking and attempting to give meaningful feedback, I’ve pondered how playing the ‘big game‘ of getting our students to write multiple full essays and do repeated mocks is not only a flawed approach to learning, but that it can prove an intolerable workload burden to full time teachers*.

On Monday afternoon, at our fortnightly English department training, our Subject Leader, Nic Goodwill, had us watch Daisy Christodoulou‘s talk on ‘Why does AFL fail?‘ and debate then assessment. Only recently, I read Daisy’s superb book, ‘Making Good Progress?‘ that helped cohere a good deal of my reading on assessment over the last few years. After years of marking essays and mocks (earlier and earlier it seems) and setting assessments that I thought were the best bets, I finally came around to cohere some significant insights.

This past few months, like most English teachers, I have considered how my students would do better in their new GCSE exams. In the past, I would have drilled them lots of times to write usually full exams or essays in timed conditions, tackling lots of full exam questions, giving them a sense of the ‘big game’: the real pressures of time, the challenges of the exam question wording, the differences in the reading sources etc.

Only now, I think doing mock papers should be done as late as possible; much later than I thought in the past. Yes, they need to practice the ‘big game’, considering the strategies of writing with grace under pressure; however, if we focus too much on the ‘big game’, too early, our students will never have time to accumulate and remember the knowledge and understanding required to actually play the ‘big game’ with success.

Put simply, I think that doing multiple mock examinations in year 10, or even in year 9, is a poor use of our time and that of our students (the associated workload and marking issues are obvious). Simply starting the GCSE earlier in year 9 may prove more damaging than helpful. Exam technique should be something we teach, but it should be the icing on the cake in terms of our time devoted to training our students.

Let me offer some concrete examples from my subject: English. I am currently teaching ‘An Inspector Calls‘. My class have just finished a summative assessment that was an essay on the character of Sheila Birling. My formative assessment for this summative piece was…you guessed it, a full character essay. So what was the problem? Well, every student still had lots of gaps in their knowledge. With so many errors and gaps, I had to give scattergun feedback on lots of things in response to their first essays.

As Daisy Christodoulou describes in her talk on AFL, my formative assessment simply proved too big and unwieldy (not to mention beset by my personal subjectivity & propped up by a vague mark scheme). They had to play the ‘big game’ of remembering quotes, writing insights about character, theme, social context, all in a coherent argument structure, with written accuracy, without the practice and focus on knowledge to do all of these things fluently.

So what is an alternative?

I should stick to quizzing students on core elements of the text. A quiz on the characters and themes would help to consolidate the base knowledge they need. A short answer test on key quotations would prove helpful. Multiple choice questions to tease out their knowledge and understanding of the social political context of the text would each help narrow the focus of assessment. Discussion and debate on key quotes or themes would provide me with a useful diagnostic assessment. After developing a coherent progression, my students would be better prepared to tackle an essay. Given each of these more precise formative assessments, we could then more accurately diagnose gaps in knowledge, repair miscomprehensions, and more.

Although it seems like a simplistic assessment, a cumulative quiz helps you to narrow the field with the given ‘game’. This ultimately helps build a more reliable judgement to bear on what your students know and need to know in future. It challenges many of our teacherly assumptions.

I had been doubtful about multiple choice questions being used for the study of English Literature (see my blog here). To me, they felt reductive and limited as a teaching tool. Now, a well constructed multiple choice question appears to me to be a concise but very effective method of assessment. They are tricky to write and I don’t have many of them, but they could save us a lot of time and effort if we got them right. They offer rich opportunities to discuss and share understanding and clarity gaps in knowledge.

For English Literature, improved assessments that delay the summative assessment of the ‘big game’ could mean a vocabulary test; quotation recall quizzes; literary term quizzes, and more. They seem inadequate, but they are diagnostic and secure the base knowledge our students need to do the complex stuff later. We can then better build up to more complex tasks.

I know conversations in staff rooms across the country are bemoaning the lack of past papers for the new GCSEs. Rather paradoxically, we should seize this as an opportunity to shift our assessment practice and to work upon developing precise diagnostic tools that are more likely to generate learning and consolidate knowledge and understanding.

So, back to football. On a bright spring Saturday, I want my boy to be practising lots of great drills and skills in training. He may career around the pitch now like a balloon in a cyclone, but in the not too distant future he’ll be ready for the ‘big game’ (hopefully he doesn’t mistakenly pick the ball up in the penalty area!). If we get assessment right, I’ll be able to get out and kick a ball about with him too because I won’t be slaving away at marking endless mock exam answers.


*I would like to note that as a member of SLT I have relatively very little marking in comparison to a teacher on a full teaching timetable.


  1. You should have a look on Quizizz and/or Kahoot. There are lots of solid questions written by other teachers on both platforms Alex. It is easier to compile quizzes on Quizizz Alex. Hope that helps! Mark

    1. Author

      Yes – Kahoot, Quizlet all getting a lot of action (in our Science department there is a real strength). Not heard of Quizizz – will take a look – thanks!

      1. Quizizz is very similar to Kahoot in many ways but for me there are a few distinct advantages to Quizizz over Kahoot, I think:

        1. The quizzes are significantly easier for teachers to create either from scratch or by searching through other quizzes that have been shared.
        2. You don’t have a leaderboard after every question so you don’t always have the same top 5 or so pupils getting the top leaving the bottom 25 demoralised.
        3. The question order is randomised and pupils complete the questions at their own speed.
        4. Easier setting of a Quizizz as homework, plus it can be linked to Google Classroom.

        It’s definitely worth checking out Alex. and there’s a student app for it on Android and iOS.

  2. That’s spot Alex. Same is true for language. If we spend all our time on technique rather than learning actually what the words mean, we can only achieve very limited success. I also think the only full practice tests we should do in test conditions should be proper mocks in the hall they are doing the real exams in, particularly if we are attempting to gather data.

  3. Quizlet and Memrise are great for home quizzing but I am loving ZipGrade for class assessment. It is an OMR system you can scan with a phone. This means students require no devices and extended tests are easy to run. The tagging allows a really useful mode of highlighting group and individual areas of misconception.
    I use it for a 5-10 mark recap on a wide range of content every other lesson and an extended assessment every few weeks on recently taught content. The questions take some thought to compose but once done can be used again and again.

  4. Following your football analogy, the FA have determined how such ‘big games’ themselves should be progressively developed: 037_standard-code-of-rules-youth.pdf Of course there are many maturation factors which are not as transferable to past papers, but your sense of ‘securing the base’ is absolutely on the money. Young players are no longer rushed into the full experience; rather they are given developmentally appropriate, incremental stepping stones to that ‘big game’ experience. Time for skill development; time to secure the basics; time to build confidence; time to get a sense of what lies ahead without it being overly daunting or, potentially, damaging to future health or success.
    Another excellent blog – thanks Alex!

  5. Author

    Cheers Shaun – I’m glad to hear the FA have it right!

  6. I had a similar epiphany whilst reading Christodoulou’s book, and since switching to quizzing (I use quizlet), drilling on technique, “show sentences” (courtesy of Katie Ashford’s blog) and using detailed success criteria which the students mark (they heavily annotate their work first), my marking load is down and my students’ knowledge (and the skill that comes after) is increasing! Beautiful.

  7. Pingback: Educational Reader’s Digest | Friday 7th April – Friday 14th April – Douglas Wise

  8. Pingback: How to Train a GCSE Essay Writer

  9. Pingback: Just One Paragraph | The Grumpy Teacher

  10. Pingback: Rethinking Assessment

  11. Pingback: further reflection on assessment and deliberate practice | George Green's Expressive Arts

Leave a Reply