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How to Divide and Edit SQA Question Papers

by Paul Nisbet

on Mon May 03, 2021

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Last week a teacher called us to ask how to split up SQA question papers because they need to separate out sections to use in classroom assessments. This blog has some hints and tips.

2021 National Qualifications

As we know, this year's National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher awards will be based on provisional results based on teachers' and lecturers' professional judgement under the 2021 Alternative Certification Model.

To assist staff, SQA are providing question papers that teachers and lecturers can use in assessments. While these are optional, from conversations with colleagues it seems to me that many teachers and lecturers are using or intending to use these papers in full or in part. The 2021 papers are available through the SQA Secure website. Note that SQA are also offering interactive versions of the question papers, with on-screen answer boxes for disabled students and learners with additional support needs.

From discussions with colleagues, we know that many schools have organised a timetable of classroom assessments this term. Because class periods are shorter (e.g. 50 minutes, less time to settle, organise, distribute, instruct and collate completed assessments, and extra time for students with additional support needs must also be factored in) than the length of time required for a complete SQA paper, teachers and lecturers have to split up the SQA PDFs into sections that can be completed in one or two periods.

Last week a teacher called to ask for advice on how to separate out sections of the SQA PDFs, so I thought it would be helpful to publish some notes in this blog.

Sub-dividing and editing PDFs

The SQA papers are PDFs and the simplest method if you want paper copies for students is of course to just print out the sections you need. However, we need a different solution for students who require digital versions of the papers to read the questions or type their answers.

Print to PDF with Adobe Acrobat Reader

One technique is to print a set of pages to PDF instead of a printer. In the Print dialogue box, choose Adobe PDF as the printer, and type in the page range - for example pages 1 to 20 for Paper 1 of National 5 Mathematics.

screen shot of the Adobe Reader print dialog box

A major disadvantage of this technique is that the answer boxes don't function: they do appear as red boxes - see below - but students can't click and type in their answers. This is OK for question-only papers where students need to view a digital paper or use a computer reader to read the questions, but it's not great for students with additional support needs who require to use a digital paper and type their answers in. (Students can use the Text Comment or Text Box tools in Adobe Reader to type answers but it's not as easy as using the answer boxes.)

screen shot of pages printed with Adobe Reader

The answer boxes don't function when you print to PDF.

PDF Editors - Windows

PDF editors are the best tools for editing and separating out sections in PDFs. For example, to split up a National 5 Maths PDF into Paper 1 and Paper 2:
  1. open it in Acrobat Professional;
  2. go to the Page Thumbnail view;
  3. select the pages you want;
  4. right-click and Extract them;
  5. save the extracted pages as a separate file.

This method retains all the properties of the original paper - answer boxes are saved along with the spellcheck status, i.e. spellcheck on/off.


However, PDF Editors for Windows cost money:

Adobe Acrobat Professional (Windows, MacOS, ~ £164/licence/year)

Foxit PhantomPDF (Windows, $165)

NitroPDF (Windows, £168)

PDFFill (Windows, $19.99)

Kofax Power PDF (Windows, $179).

PDF Editors- iPad

If you have an iPad, take a look at PDF Expert because:

  • you can select, extract and save pages into separate files.
  • it saves the answer boxes as well;
  • it's FREE!

The process is similar to Acrobat Pro on Windows - select the pages, extract, and save them as a separate file. Answer boxes are preserved along with the spellcheck on/off status.

PDF Expert is one of the apps we suggest for students to use to access digital papers on the iPad because you can type or dictate answers into the answer boxes. See Reading Digital Papers on iPad for more details.

Screenshot showing how pages can be extracted with PDF Expert.

Convert to Word

Another technique is to convert the PDF to Microsoft Word then edit to save the sections you need. Students who require a digital version can either use the Word file or you can save it as a PDF. Adobe's free PDF to Word converter works quite well for this but I found that:

  • some fonts and images are not displayed accurately (see below);
  • the bar codes are converted into numbers (which is not a problem this year);
  • the answer boxes appear as graphic objects so need to be replaced by editable text boxes if students are going to use Word to type answers, or you'll need a PDF editor to add answer boxes if you want to save it as a PDF;
  • you need to check each page to make sure it's accurate and accessible.

screen shot showing a digital paper converted to Microsoft Word format


For more on creating accessible assessments, see:

Making Digital Assessments

Create an Assessment with Microsoft Word



Tags: sqa, assessment, examination, pdf

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