This is part 4 of a 6 part series which will teach you how to study for A-Level Chemistry and Biology.
Your next challenge is to make sure you develop good study habits to keep yourself organised and motivated, and to make sure you avoid making mistakes with the way you approach your studies. This is what we’ll cover in part 4.
1. Every evening, review what you did at school that day
Unfortunately, the content isn’t going to stick in your brain just from having one lesson on it. So it’s important to try and do this even for topics that you feel you completely understood in lesson.
Get your text book and your specification out and cross-refer what’s in there to what’s in your school notes.
If you can see that something is missing from your school notes, make your own notes on it. If you realise you don’t understand something, even after reading through it in the text book, find another resource to help you make sense of it.
If you’re feeling confident with the topic (and even if you’re not) have a go at some past paper questions. Remember, you can always use the book to help you if you need to.
Doing this will let you consolidate and build upon what you’ve done at school. This will push you towards an exam-ready understanding and keep you on top of everything.
By doing this, you’ll pretty much be revising all year. So, when you come to exam season you’ll already have a strong understanding of all the content. This will make your revision a lot easier!
Despite all I’ve just said, I do realise that it’s pretty difficult to do this every evening. It’s something to aim for though. At the very least make sure you’re recognising what you’re struggling with each week and deal with problem topics as they come up. It’ll be much easier work through your issues while they’re fresh in your mind.
2. Make a point of regularly reviewing and revising what you covered earlier in the year
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because you understand a topic and can answer questions on it, you’ve cracked it and will remember if forever. It doesn’t work like that unfortunately. Every so often you’ll come across a topic and you’ll swear you have no memory of ever studying it!
It’s a good idea to schedule in a ‘revision day’ at the end of each month. Look back over all your notes, do some past paper questions and see what you can remember. If anything seems to be causing you problems, go back over it now.
It’s very easy to work very hard at a something, finally figure out a thought process that helps you understand it, and then forget all about it. Then you’ll have to start again from the beginning.
It’s not going to be practical to revise everything all the time. So, as well as the topics you struggled with, make a point of reviewing the topics that give you the foundational knowledge for everything else. These are the topics that will hold you you back if you’re not very confident with them.
For Chemistry, topics such as ‘Amount of substance’, ‘Acid-base reactions’, enthalpy and redox are a good start. Isomers, organic and nomenclature are also worth regular revision.
For Biology, revise transport across cell membranes, organelles and biological molecules (particularly proteins). Magnification calculations also find their way into more topics than you would think, so practice with them every now and again.
3. Reflect on your progress
Your A Levels will be the fastest 2 years of your life. Time will fly by very quickly and it’s easy to get so bogged down that you don’t even give yourself chance to think about what you’re doing.
This means that you need to make time to think about how it’s all going.
You need to make sure you consider about whether you’re studying in a way that’s working for you. At regular intervals sit yourself down and consciously ask yourself what’s going well and what’s not going well.
Are you managing your time properly, are you doing past papers or are you just spending forever making notes? Be honest with yourself.
Think about your progress in tests and mock exams. If you’re consistently getting Es and Ds on tests you know that something isn’t working for you and you need to find out what it is. You won’t improve until you sort out whatever issue is responsible. You can’t wait until you magically start understanding everything better because that won’t happen.
Even if you get an A more often than not you still need to make time to reflect so that you can figure out what’s helping you get the A and do more of it.
I know all of this sounds pretty lame but you’ll be expected to do this sort of ‘reflective practice’ at University and at work, so you may as well start now.
4. Beware the illusion of competence
Being able to understand what your teacher tells you is not the same as actually being able to use your knowledge to answer exam questions.
You need to make sure you’re not getting over-confident about what you actually know and what you can do with that knowledge.
I often see this with students who come to me for tuition at the start of year 2, having got low grades at AS. All year long they’ve felt like they understood everything, so their exam results are a bit of a wake-up call.
If you come out of a lesson feeling good about the fact that you’ve taken it all in, that’s great. But still go home, get your text book and specification out, go over it and do some past paper questions. You’re likely to find that you don’t understand at least some of it as well as you thought you did.
A common cause of the illusion of competence is focusing too much on content and not enough on application.
Even students who do a lot of past paper questions fall victim to this. They’ll pick out questions that allow them to test their knowledge of the content, but ignore those that require application as they seem less relevant. But the latter are exactly the type of questions you need to practice with.
You have to be very honest with yourself about what you can and can’t do, and make sure you’re not hiding from the more difficult things.
5. Learn how to make notes that are genuinely useful
Don’t mess about making notes that look gorgeous. The benefit you’ll get from making pretty notes just isn’t worth the extra time it takes to make them.
You may find that colour-coding helps your learning, but don’t go over the top with it. If you find you’re spending more time worrying about the colour scheme than you are the content you’re doing it wrong.
I’m not going to go into great detail on how to take notes here, but my article “How to take notes without copying your whole text book out” will give you practical advice on making notes.
My notes from my Master’s degree look disgraceful. They’re scruffy, ugly and very brief – basically a few point hastily scribbled down. But there’s a reason they look like this, and it’s not a lack of effort. By that point in my studies I’d learned that my notes didn’t need to
look nice, or even be very detailed to be useful. I only needed my notes to act as memory prompts for everything that I’d learned by practicing and doing assignments.
I’m not suggesting that you should make notes like mine. I just want you to ensure you’re making the kind of notes that will help you get through your exams.
Also, if you’re short of time and have to make a choice between making notes and doing exam practice, then choose the exam practice. You’ll learn far more doing that than making notes.
6. Beware the Einstellung effect
This is a situation where your existing knowledge leaves you with fixed ideas that interfere with learning.
In the context of A Level Chemistry and Biology it occurs when you study a concept you’ve already met at a lower level.
The knowledge you acquired then is appropriate for that level, but once you get to A Level you need to know so much more. The problem is that it’s very easy to keep falling back on the GCSE knowledge and find that you’re giving answers that are far too simplistic.
As very basic example of this is the periodic table in Chemistry. At GCSE the atomic mass is to 2 decimal places on the periodic table (apart from a couple of exceptions). At A Level, it’s to 3 decimal places. I sometimes see students getting calculations wrong because they’re rounding the atomic mass to 2 decimal places. This seems correct because it’s what they’re used to from GCSE but it’s not what we do at A Level.
Another instance where the Einstellung effect causes problems is where the same topic area crops up in 2 different subjects.
For students studying both Biology and Chemistry, the DNA topic caused some issues this summer. In Chemistry you need to know a lot more about the bonding in the DNA molecule that you do for Biology. Yet a lot of students seem to have the impression that their knowledge from Biology will be sufficient for Chemistry.
Some teachers reinforced this misunderstanding by asking students to teach themselves this topic, as they ‘already know it from Biology’.
Now you’re aware of the Einstellung effect you’ll find it easier to prevent it. Each time you come across a topic that you’ve met before (either at GCSE or in a different subject) be vigilant. Always check what you’re actually supposed to know for the level or subject you’re currently studying.
7. Try this tactic if you struggle to pay attention in lessons
If you find it difficult to concentrate in class set yourself the challenge of answering as many questions as you can. This is the tactic I used throughout my A Levels. I was a real daydreamer and I used to have massive problems paying attention.
I’d realised that this had hindered my learning at GCSE and when it came to A Level I knew I had some big changes to make. I made myself become the annoying person who always had their hand up and answered every question.
It worked amazingly well for me, despite the fact that I’m very much an introvert and I hate drawing attention to myself.
Dr Terrence Sejnowski, a professor at the Salk Institute in California, suggests a similar tactic. He recommends that you try and ask questions in class. This doesn’t have to be the ‘I don’t understand it’ kind of question. Questions such as “Can you give another example of that?” or “Is that the same kind of thing as in [x topic]?”, “Is that an equilibrium reaction?” or “Is that active transport or facilitated diffusion?” would work well.
I do appreciate though, that this isn’t necessarily easy to do. Whether you’ve got the confidence to put your hand up or not will depend on how you feel about your teacher and your classmates. If you follow the rest of the tips I’ve give you though, you’re likely to get to the point where you feel like you know what you’re talking about enough to try it.
Throughout your A-level Chemistry and Biology studies, you’ll need to learn how to carry out practicals and up-level your maths skills. We’ll cover this in part 5.