This is part 2 of a 6 part series which will teach you how to study for A-Level Chemistry and Biology.

In part 1, we talked about letting go of the bad habits you picked up at GCSE and taking responsibility for your studies. In this post we’ll talk about 2 of the most important resources you need – the specification and the exam board endorsed text book. As you’ll learn, the best way to succeed is to start with the right resources for A-level chemistry and biology.


1. Find your exam board’s specification and read it


If you want to do well in the exams you need to understand exactly what the exam board expect of you. The specification is literally the document that tells you that. It’s the key to making sure you go into the exam completely prepared and don’t end up with any nasty surprises.

Hopefully, your school will have given you a copy of the specification. If not you’ll find it on the exam board’s website.

Now, go print it off.

Ok, if you’re not a ‘printing’ person at least save it to your desktop. Make sure it’s somewhere you can easily find it because you’re going to be using it every day.

Now that you’ve got the specification, READ IT. You don’t necessarily have to read every single page. But it’s not going to kill you to do so and you’ll at least have made sure you’re not missing anything.

This tip may sound very obvious. However, I reckon more than 80% of the students I’ve work with over the last 8 years have only had a quick glance at the specification. Until I start nagging them to read it. And believe me, there are things on there that you definitely need to see.

The specification has what you’d expect: sections that describe the format of the exam and the learning outcomes for each module.

Read past all this, though, and and at the end you’ll also see sections that tell you what maths skills and practical skills you need to develop.

It’s very important you read these sections. You need to know about these requirements early in your studies, so that you’ve got time to work on them.

Here’s an example. Did you know that you need to be able to use the equation for a straight line graph (y = mx+c) for both Biology and Chemistry? When you’ve read the specification you’ll see that it’s on there.

This means that it you might get an exam question that asks you to apply a new equation to the equation for a straight line graph. Would you know how to do that?

If you’ve read the specification you’ve got an advanced warning of the things that you’d never imagine would come up, but actually might. Then, you can get to work on making sure you know how to do everything.


2. Use the specification to guide your studies


Each time you move on to a new topic, take a look at the specification and read the learning outcomes. Their job is to tell you two things:

  1. What you’re supposed to know about that topic (e.g. ‘The definition of…’
  2. What you need to be able to do in the exam (e.g. ‘Analyse data on…’

Then, make notes that cover all the learning outcomes listed.

Be careful though, the specification isn’t 100% comprehensive. It wont tell you every little thing you need to know for each learning outcome. This is why using the right text book, and doing past paper questions, is so important. We’ll talk more about that later.

If you see something in your school notes, or your text book, that isn’t mentioned on the specification, don’t assume that you don’t need to know it. If you’re ever in doubt, ask your teacher and, if you’re still not sure, just learn it. Knowing too much is a better problem to have than not knowing enough.

That said, some of the specifications are actually quite good at telling you what you don’t need to know. Alongside the learning outcomes you’ll see statements like ‘Knowledge of [x] not required’. So, if you do come across that content, read it and make sure you understand it. But you don’t need to spend time committing it to memory.

When you think you’ve finished studying a topic, look back at your specification and treat the learning outcomes as a list of questions. Ask yourself ‘Do I know the definition for that?’, ‘Do I honestly know how to explain that?’, and ‘Have I practiced lots of different examples of that calculation?’. If the answer is no, keep going with that topic until you’re certain that you have the knowledge and skills you need.


3. Look out for command words on the specification


*Not all the specifications make good use of command words. If yours doesn’t, look out for command words in the text book instead*

Do you remember ‘command words’ on the GCSE exam papers? If so, you’ll be well practiced at structuring your answers differently, depending on whether it’s a ‘describe’ or ‘explain’ question.

Carry looking out for command words on the A Level papers. But also pay attention to them on the specification. They will tell you tell you what kind of knowledge you need for each bit of content. Then, you can make sure your notes reflect this.

For example, if the learning outcome says ‘describe’ you need to learn the keywords and the details. But it the command word is ‘Understand’ the finer details are going to be less important. You may be more likely to see that content appear in the exam in the context of an application question.

The command words can be particularly helpful for topics that have a lot technical details. Descriptions of scientific research are a good example. I often see students having a great big panic about how they’re going to remember everything the researchers did. But if you look at the specification, you’ll usually see you don’t need to be able to ‘describe’ or ‘explain’ everything. Instead, you’ll have to ‘evaluate it’ or ‘analyse’ the data. These are very different skills and need a completely different understanding of the material.

It’s very important you pick up in this. If you don’t and try learning the details rather than practicing evaluating the research etc. you have 2 problems:

1. You’ve wasted time learning things you don’t need to know

2. You haven’t learned the information you do need to know and still won’t be able to answer the exam questions.


4. Use the exam board endorsed text book as your main resource


A Levels are not only about learning the subject. In reality, they’re more about learning the exam board’s version of the subject.

The easiest way to ensure you do this is to use the exam board’s own resources. Look for a text book that says it’s either ‘endorsed’ or ‘approved’ by the exam board on the front. Don’t get a book that only says ‘for [exam board]’ – that’s not quite the same thing and it won’t give you the same benefits.


The case for the correct books

If you rely on a book that’s not endorsed by the exam board, or use only your school notes, you’ll run into the following problems:

1) You run the risk of not learning all the content. Or, a version of the content that doesn’t match that which the examiner is expecting to see.

2) You may end up learning things you don’t actually need to know. This is not a bad thing in itself, but time is precious. By all means, read around the subject. But you need to have a clear understanding of what you’re expected to know and what’s just a bonus. The specification is a good starting point for this, but the text book will show you the details.

3) You’ll miss out on the ‘Examiner’s tips’ that are at the side of the pages in the book.

4)The exam board-endorsed text books contain diagrams, graphs and examples which
are similar to those in the exam. You won’t see these if you don’t have the book so
you’ll be at a disadvantage when they come up.

5)You’ll miss out on the sections that show you how to apply your knowledge to different contexts.

I’d like to think that this list makes a good case for getting the exam board-endorsed text book. Quite simply, if you don’t have the right book you won’t learn the exam board’s version of events and you won’t realise what you’ve missed. I may sound like I’m on commission to sell text books. I’m not, I’ve just see so many students struggle along with the wrong resources. And I’ve seen the improvements that are possible when they finally start using the correct ones. Why make your A Levels more difficult than they need to be?

Choosing the correct book

You might find that your exam board endorse more than one text book, so you’ll have a choice. If this applies to you see what your school use and get that book. Unless they choose one that isn’t endorsed, like a CGP book. In that case, get on Amazon or go to the school library. Then have a look at the different options so that you can find the one that suits you.

Be very careful that you choose a book for the 2015 specification. Some of the new books look identical to the old ones and I’ve seen a few students end up with the wrong one.

Consult other resources

Let me be clear here. I’m not recommending that you ONLY use the text book. If something isn’t making sense its always a good idea to look for alternative explanations in different text books or YouTube videos.

None of the endorsed text books are perfect and they all have their own particular weakness. For example, the Oxford text books (AQA and OCR) are weak on the practicals. Even with the text books that are stronger on practicals, such as the Hodder ones, you’ll end up needing to consult other resources.

Some Chemistry students also like to have a separate text book for the calculations. This is a very good idea if you’re less confident with maths and you’d like to see a lot different examples of the calculations.


5. Don’t use revision guides until revision time (if at all)


Using a revision guide as your main resources is one of those things you can kind of get away with at GCSE but is a terrible idea for A Level.

Revision guides are not text books.

They’re not designed to teach you everything you need to know. They’re simply designed to show you the main points in a way that’s easier to commit to memory.

You won’t get a proper understanding of the content from a revision guide, because they don’t expand upon it the way that the textbooks do. Then when you try the past paper questions you’ll quickly discover that you have no idea what’s going on.

If you absolutely must, you can use a revision guide in the run-up to the exams. But if you do everything else we talk about in this guide, you should that your own notes are better than a revision guide anyway.

The only time I would actually recommend a revision guide is if it’s a month before the exam, you’ve done very little work all year and you’re desperate to pass. The idea is not to end up in this position in the first place though.


The specification and exam board endorsed textbooks are both essential, but the most important resource of all is the past papers. Part 3 will tell you how to get the most out of these.

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