Making the most of GCSE past papers, mark schemes and examiners’ reports


As a GCSE Geography examiner, I often feel that examination board websites are designed in ways to support teachers rather than students. As a result, many teachers download past papers, mark schemes and examiners’ reports to their own VLE or choose to point students in the right direction via specific web links. However, we still need to think carefully about how students can make best use of this information as part of their revision process and offer support to ensure that meaningful preparation occurs. Having observed PGCE students, Newly Qualified Teachers and a number of experienced Geography teachers, it is very clear that we make use of past papers, mark schemes and examiners’ reports in very different ways.

In my opinion, GCSE Geography requires a good working knowledge of the specification, well-organised and structured case studies along with a sound general understanding of theory. Well-practised examination techniques are also vital but this will be the focus of future blogs; I would like to focus entirely upon preparation, particularly the use of past papers, mark schemes and examiners’ reports on this occasion.

We all know that examination questions vary from one series to another. Most students choose to complete examination questions to improve not only their writing style and time management but also their understanding of questions on different areas of the specification. Many students will also spend considerable amounts of time reading mark schemes in the hope that their own answers will be clear or detailed. However, mark schemes often indicate how the question could be marked, suggesting likely answers to longer questions; this can leave students feeling unclear about what constitutes a concise model answer – something they seek given the time pressures they will face under examination conditions.

So, how can we, as teachers, use examiners’ reports, mark schemes and past papers to support students more effectively?

  1. extract individual questions from different examination years and group them according to the order and wording of the specification
  2. extract key points from the examiners’ reports in advance of setting past paper questions and include these points in the setting of independent study or homework
  3. given the 24/7 access that our students have to mark schemes, be willing to set an examination question and include the mark scheme at the bottom of the question page. This will encourage your students to focus upon the style and structure of their answer as much as the content
  4. if mark schemes are attached below a set of questions when they are set, marking can be directly linked to the demands of the examination board
  5. go through specification points at the start of each unit. Following careful teacher preparation, ask students to write down the year in which each point was tested so that they can attempt relevant questions at their own pace throughout the GCSE course
  6. ask students to use their specification to write down the textbook page numbers where information can be found on each and every specification point (including case studies)
  7. ensure students keep an accurate log of the names of case studies they have learnt on their specifications
  8. ask students to write relevant page numbers onto their past paper questions to ensure that the content they are learning and applying is relevant
  9. use the mark scheme to discuss the difference between levels-based marking and points-based marking

Whilst this list is not exhaustive, I hope that detailed reviews of the way in which examination board documents are used and linked may lead to more efficient practice on the parts of both students and teachers, thus freeing up time to meander through specifications while exploring geographies beyond the scope of the GCSE level.

Image: OUP

Nick Dyson

Nick DysonNick Dyson is currently Head of Sixth Form at Burgess Hill Girls, and also works as an examiner. He has held a variety of teaching roles during his career, including: Newly Qualified Teacher Coordinator, Head of Geography and Head of Careers. Outside of the classroom, he is also a keen windsurfer.