A-level biology exam technique tips

When it comes to A-level Biology exam technique, most students don’t really know where they’re going wrong, or what to do about it. This post follows on from the introductory post, which describes a major mistake that many students make with exam technique.

Here, I’ll give you 5 A-level Biology exam technique tips that will help you approach the questions correctly, learn the content in a way that will help you answer the exam questions and handle investigation questions.

Tip 1: Read the stem of the question very carefully before you start

And don’t just skim read it – really think about what you’ve been told and try and understand as much of it as possible before you move on. For example, if the stem describes a situation where 2 enzymes have the same substrate. You need to think about what the implications of this are and link back any ‘new’ science the question tells you to what you’ve already learned.

You can pretty much guarantee that this is what the questions will be about, so if you approach the question with a solid understanding of what you’ve been told, you’ll be much more confident at answering them.

A lot of students seem to be given the opposite advice to this – they’re told to skim read the stem and get straight on to the questions and go back to the stem to find the answers. This just doesn’t work well for A-level for this reason: It’s not really a matter of going back and finding the answers – this is A-level so they’re testing your understanding. If you haven’t read and understood the whole passage you won’t be able to see the bigger picture and you’ll miss things. This means your answers are likely to be too superficial of you’ll just miss the point entirely.

If you read the examiner’s reports you’ll see that the most common point they make is that students are not reading the questions carefully enough and this matches up with what I’ve found myself.

Some students worry that spending a while reading and making sense of the question will take too long. It doesn’t  – I’ve timed students answering questions including a few minutes reading at the beginning and they can always finish the question in an appropriate amount of time. You’ll often find you can answer the questions quicker this way – you’ll actually know what’s going on when you approach the questions, so you’ll spend less time looking up and down the page and re-reading the stem desperately trying to find the answer, or just staring at the page wondering what on earth they’re talking about. If you’re worried about timings in the exam, read this post.

Tip 2:  3 things to look out for when answering investigation questions

I could write loads about this, but I’ll keep it brief for now. If the question relates to an investigation, you need to know what the investigation is about. This sounds obvious, but if I ask students to read the stem of an investigation question and then ask them what the investigators were interested in finding out, they will often have no idea. So you need to make sure you stop to think about what research question they’re trying to answer.

You should also look out for what the independent and dependent variables are (but be aware they may not tell you this straight away). If you don’t know these 3 things, you don’t really know what the investigation is about, so you’re not likely to come up with relevant answers.

Tip 3. Read the examiners reports

Remember, A-level isn’t about learning the subject, it’s about learning the exam board’s version of events and learning how to answer exam questions. The examiner’s reports are a super important resource to help you do both of these things. They point out what the examiners are looking for, where students are going wrong with the way they approach questions and the way they structure answers, and common misunderstanding. Overall, they’re your chance to see what the examiners are looking for. You’ll find them on your exam board’s website e.g. you can find the AQA ones here.

Tip 4. Learn the relationships between structure and function

Good exam technique starts with learning the material correctly in the first place – A-level isn’t about learning facts, it’s about understanding the reasons and being able to apply your knowledge. A huge theme that you’ll find throughout A-level Biology is the relationship between structure and function. So wherever you see the structure of something being described, make sure you stop and think about how that relates to its function, even if that isn’t mentioned in the textbook.

For example, why are the 2 strands of the DNA double helix held together by hydrogen bonds and not covalent bonds? This is the type of thing that comes up on the exam but isn’t mentioned in all of the text books, but if you take the time to think about it when you’re studying the material in the first place, you’ll be prepared.

Tip 5. Look for the gap between what the question is talking about and what the data is talking about

If you have a question based on an investigation, part of the question will often ask you to evaluate the conclusion, or ask you about issues with reliability or validity, etc. And usually, it will go something like this: the investigation will be carried out on a small, unrepresentative sample who have one specific disease, for a really short period of time and will have sketch results that may or may not be backed up by a statistical test. The question will be trying to generalise these findings to the population as a whole.

For example, let’s say that this is what you‘re told…

A study was carried out on 20 females with a specific type of lung cancer. They were given a new drug for 3 months. All women had a decrease in the volume of their tumours and you’re given the data to show this. No control group was mentioned and you don’t have any statistics.  

And this is what the question asks you about

The question says that a journalist reported the findings of this study and claimed that this new drug is a cure for cancer. Evaluate this statement.

Can you see the great big gaps between what the journalist is claiming and what data you have? The main issue is that the journalist is claiming that this drug is a cure for CANCER in general, while the data refers to a specific type of lung cancer. This means the data apply to that specific type of cancer only. The question also claims that this drug can cure cancer, but the data suggest nothing of the sort.  All it shows is that the women had a decrease in the volume of their tumours in the 3 months tested. The cancer was still there and we have no way of knowing what would happen after the 3 months, or whether the tumour volume would increase if the

There are various other issues which you’re likely to have to mention too – the small sample size, that it’s women only – men may respond differently, the lack of a control group, the lack of statistics, no idea who these women are,

Specific things to look out for with this type of question- cell culture (cell culture ≠ whole organism), animal models (≠ humans), artificial conditions (≠ natural conditions), failure to control variables (can’t be confident that the manipulation of the independent variable is responsible for the results).

A-level Biology exam technique tips 6-10

Coming soon

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