Why Question Spotting and Past Papers are the Key to Examination Success

There are many ingredients to exam success. The diligent student will find that both question spotting and past papers are vital tools to use when aiming for the best possible result in examinations. However, these tools are to be used in conjunction with a thorough study and revision of all components of the course. They are not stand-alone ingredients for success, and in fact can lead to total failure.

Past exam papers

Firstly, doing past exam papers is generally a non-controversial approach to studying. It is important to be familiar with the style of examination question – essay, problem, multiple choice or other – so that there are no surprises with what is expected. It is also valuable to know how many questions must be answered, the different sections there might be, the time allowed and so on.

Past papers are also very useful for trying out knowledge under exam conditions. Many education establishments will even provide “mock exams” that give the student a chance to try out their knowledge, sitting in a formal area, under the time constraints and other restriction that accompany examinations. Doing past papers can build confidence through helping make exams more familiar.

Past exam papers can also help focus study. The important topics are usually covered in exam papers and students will be able to test out their knowledge of different subject areas to see whether they can answer questions or not. As a learning aid doing past exam papers  can reveal lack of knowledge or where more work is required. They are a good study tool.

When doing past papers it is important to bear in mind that there will always be changes in syllabus and very old past papers may not resemble more recent ones in topic, or even other format. However, even outdated past papers can be useful, providing scope to answer a question from the knowledge of the current course.

When answers – or model answers -are available for past papers it is even more useful since the student can compare their answer with what is required for a good pass. They can learn material and make sure they can reproduce their answer to at least the standard of the model answer. Doing more than the model answer may even help the student achieve the highest distinctions.

Question Spotting

Question spotting – the art of anticipating what topics and questions will come up – is a different matter. It is often discouraged because it can encourage a narrow focus on course material. It is a method that is associated with the laziest of students who are intent upon getting by the subject with the least amount of work. And if can lead to failure if the particular topics do not come up, or do not come up in the way anticipated.

However, the most diligent student can also use question spotting as a way to polish to perfection a few key components of a course. The diligent student who has a good working knowledge of all components of a course – and who is prepared for anything – may also choose to “question spot” in a few key areas.

In these areas the student will learn in exceptional detail – perhaps beyond what is required by the course – ensuring that they have excellent and outstanding knowledge and ability. They may choose to learn very specific quotations, or formulas, or other that will back up their answer. If the topic or question comes up then they will have an outstanding answer prepared.

A good way of question spotting is to examine past papers and see what are the most important topics, or questions, that tend to come up most often. Sometimes it is possible to guarantee that a particular topic will come up in some way from its frequency of past occurrence. At tertiary level the lecturer may even announce that a particular topic will be examined and the student can “question spot” based on this advice. Or the student may just decide that they like a particular area and will prepare in detail for questions in that topic.


Both question spotting and past papers can give the diligent student the edge when it comes to exam success. Combined with all the other advice about how to do examinations (see for example “Top Ten exam Tips” from Charles Sturt University) and study for a course these two methods will help a student do the very best they can.