A-level biology exam technique

To succeed with A-level Biology, exam technique is crucial. But when you start studying A-level Biology, the first thing you realise is that there is A LOT of content to learn. So, you focus on learning the content. Then, you do your topic tests and you do your mocks, and you start to notice that the questions look nothing like what you’ve learned and you have no idea how to answer most of them. 

You then you realise that it’s your exam technique that’s holding you back,. But you don’t actually know what exam technique actually is. You speak to your classmates and teachers about it and you look online for tips. You come to the conclusion that what you need to be doing is learning the command words, and using the mark schemes from past papers to learn the answers to questions. So you try doing this and you feel like you’ve got a better idea how to answer the exam questions, but you do another test and you’re still not improving.

You know your exam technique isn’t right, and your teachers keep telling you that’s what you need to work on. But no one is telling you what to do or what exam technique actually is.

Does this sound familiar?

Pretty much every A-level Biology student I’ve worked with over the last 9 years has been through this. When it comes to exam technique, there’s a lot more to it than learning answers from mark schemes. In fact, this causes more problems than it solves in my experience.

The big mistake A-level Biology students make with exam technique

Trying to learn answers from mark schemes causes one major problem that I see all the time: students try to give the stock answer that they’ve learned for any question that it’s remotely linked to. This means that they don’t really think about the question that they’re been asked, and just throw the stock answer at it. Questions on enzymes are the best example of this. I see random answers about enzyme-substrate complexes that have nothing to do with the context of the question, far more than I see the correct answers.

So while I agree with using the mark schemes to learn the key words to use and how to structure your answers, you need to be smart about what you learn and how you use that knowledge.

Exam technique isn’t about learning stock answers. This is more likely to cost you marks than gain you them

What exactly is A-level Biology exam technique?

If exam technique isn’t just learning the mark schemes, what exactly is it? I see exam technique as a combination of the following:

  • Knowing how to approach the questions so you don’t miss anything
  • Knowing the key words (and how to use them appropriately) but not learning stock answers
  • Knowing how to tailor your answer to fit the question
  • Having the skills that will allow you to deal with the information you’re presented with – e.g. maths skills, data analysis, interpreting investigations.
  • Knowing the random little topic-specific techniques that make all the difference to whether your answer is enough to get the marks or not

How to learn exam technique

I know that’s a short but pretty intimidating list. So how do you learn how to do all this? Ideally, you’ll have someone to teach you. But you can’t assume you’ll be taught all of this at school, so you need to take responsibility for learning exam technique yourself. And the best way to do it is by doing past papers and looking out for the patterns (not stock answers though remember), and using the questions to help you develop the skills you need. But you’ve probably been doing past papers for ages and not picked up on half of the things you need to. So I’m going to help you out a bit here. In this series of posts, I’m going to share with you some of the exam technique tips and tricks that I’ve learned from spending 9 years of doing A-level Biology past papers with students.

I want you to take these tips as a starting point to give you an idea of what you need to look out for and what skills you need to work on. If you bear these in mind as you do past paper questions, you’ll start to develop a solid understanding of what exam technique really is, and how to both approach the questions and answer them in a way that gets you the marks

A-Level Biology exam technique tips

Read tips 1-5 here

Tips 6-10 coming soon.

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