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The Big Exam Question: Do I Do Past Papers?

April 25, 2012

The Values and Pitfalls of Using Past Papers in Your Exam Preparation.

Opinions at exam time are like onions in a crowded Jamaican market – almost every other person has a pile at their feet. Everybody is shouting at you from a mile away about how great their onions are and why you should buy from them.

Yikes! What do I do now?! Cue cards? Past papers? Group study? Revision classes? Do I read my notes alone or the text book? Do I write essays? So many things to do, so little time!! | Photo by Joybot

It’s coming down to the wire now, and as you ought to know by now, your exam preparation time is as precious as your market money.  Just like you cannot spend all your market money buying the loudest person’s stinking onions (and forget to buy everything else to go with the meal), so you cannot afford to spend all your time doing whatever the loudest person tells you. You need to ensure that whatever you do, is effective.

So, Should You Do Past Papers?

Probably – based on what I have learned from watching the first 4 videos in Professor Stephen Chew’s series: How to Study Long and Hard and Still Fail or How to Get the Most Out of Studying.

Photo by CHRISSPdotCOM

The key is found in Chew’s explanation of the difference between what he calls, shallow processing and deep processing of information.

Shallow Processing:  Take this approach and you probably won’t remember the information very well or be able to apply it with any skill during your exam.  Reading non-stop, highlighting chunks of passages and cramming 1000 memory cards of isolated facts is the pinnacle of shallow processing. You may pass, but you won’t do your best.

Deep processing:  This approach doesn’t promote isolated memorization. It promotes learning. It will ensure you remember and are apply to apply information in the exam. Asking yourself questions after reading, applying the information to your personal experience, testing yourself with the information in the way the teacher will test you – all of these promote deep processing.

From this information, based on Professor Chew’s series, it is clear to see that using past papers in your exam preparation is definitely a smart thing.

Warning About Past Papers

Photo by ptufts

As I said to a friend one day :

“The thing about past papers are that, well, they are in the past!”

Note well, the point of doing past papers is not to build your expectations of the future exam but to strengthen your knowledge of the examinable material. There is a very big difference. The exam may not come in the same way or with the same emphases. There are, therefore, several things to remember about past papers:

1.     You should do multiple years and topics.

I am often tempted to do one year’s paper per course and then feel pretty satisfied – horrible idea. If there are 15 examinable topics and only 5 questions per paper, if you only check one paper, you will miss 10 topics.

2.     You should contrast the past issues tested with the topics your own teacher emphasized.

The general topic may be the same but the emphasis may be completely different in your year. One year may be more procedure based, another more concept based another more fact based.

(“Now Andrew, time to take your own advice.”)

Are you a fan of using past papers? Do they usually help or harm you?

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  • Ticoaye

    Past papers all the way! Med school volume is too much for me to be able to pick out the nitty grttty that they seem to focus on in the past papers but not in the forever long lectures that they teach. 

    For me its to increase knowledge and not a hope of mere replication in teh next paper. However if that comes with it, all the more to gain!

    • http://maximizemylife.com/ Andrew Wildes

      Yea the MBBS volume is legendary! With past papers you tend to recognize pretty quickly what the teachers never bring – like the long history lessons they spend 10 classes developing. Those things hardly ever factor in a problem question. It’s only when you get to the past papers that you realize exactly how you need to approach studying – knowing the general rule, the points supporting and a source.

  • http://twitter.com/amstaines Anmarieta Staines

    good piece…….gotta read some more as soon as i get the time

  • http://maximizemylife.com Andrew

    Yea the MBBS volume is legendary! With past papers you tend to recognize pretty quickly what the teachers never bring – like the long history lessons they spend 10 classes developing. Those things hardly ever factor in a problem question. It’s only when you get to the past papers that you realize exactly how you need to approach studying – knowing the general rule, the points supporting and a source.

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