A-Level Biology is a popular subject, it pairs well with other science A-Levels and sporting A-Levels, and many students find the topics really interesting and exciting. The hardest part of A-Level Biology is the sheer amount of content you need to learn combined with tricky exam technique and lots of memorisation. It may seem quite daunting at first, but this article will hopefully show you some key techniques that you can utilise when learning A-Level Biology to help you get the A* that you deserve.
The short answer is that it’s really important to be clear and concise with your A-Level Biology answers in order to hit certain marks. A-Level examiners won’t know where to start if your answer is just waffle! In order to access the top grades, you need to read the question properly and understand what you’re being asked – the first word of each question is the key to this (more on that later).
1. Be Specific When Answering A-Level Biology Exam Questions
When sitting your A-Level Biology exams, it’s very easy to waffle and write too much rather than being concise. Many students have a great understanding of the topic but because their answers never seem to get to the point, they miss out on marks.
For any A-Level Biology exam question, there are three main things to try and include in your answer: definitions, keywords and roles. When including one of these three things, you only need a short sentence to get your point across to the examiner; an example of this is writing that the role of a red blood cell is to carry oxygen. This is a very simple fact but it could be enough to get you from one grade to the next. Students will often skip over details like this because they seem too obvious but with A-Level Biology, it is really important to include any details or words relevant to the question. This is especially true for big mark questions, with more marks to gain it is highly likely that some of those will be for definitions and key terminology.
Another benefit to making your answer simple and clear, is that it becomes easier for the examiner to mark so they are less likely to undermark you. By making your answers understandable, concise and using important terminology, you are one step closer to achieving an A* in A-Level Biology.
Finally, so that every minute you spend revising is focusing on actual A-Level Biology content, you must check your exam board’s A-Level specification. The specification literally outlines everything that could be on your exam! When using the specification, you will be able to target specific topics and apply the most suitable revision methods and resources. Applying the right techniques ties in very well with keeping organised – if you’re not organised, your revision structure will be weak and not effective.
2. Pay Special Attention to the First Word of A-Level Biology Questions
Exam technique is crucial to achieving an A* in A-Level Biology. A large part of exam technique is properly answering the question, not just reeling off information.
There are multiple ways the exam board can open a question, the most common phrases being explain, describe, analyse or state. By identifying the opening word of the question, you can see how the exam board wants you to answer. With an ‘explain’ or ‘describe’ question, you need to show how a process works or write about why something happens, connecting each step along the way. For an ‘analyse’ question, you’ll most likely have a data set that relates to the question (I’ll be covering how to answer data questions in the next section of this article, so keep reading!). A ‘state’ question is the most simple and they are usually one or two marks. It’s very common to be asked for a definition or example in this question type.
Another question starter that is used for certain topics is ‘compare and contrast A and B’. Structure is important for these types of questions; list all your similarities first, then the differences. Sometimes it is required to get full marks but it also makes your answer much easier for the examiner to read. There aren’t too many variations on question openers so if you’ve done a few past papers, you’ll be ready for anything!
3. Practice A-Level Biology Data Analysis Questions
Data analysis questions come up in every exam but with enough practice, you’ll be able to spot trends and write down the most important points of the data set. The biggest problem with data questions is the number of points you can make compared to how many marks are offered. With any data question, there will be things to highlight which are quite obvious but easy to miss.
If relevant to the data, ensure you include:
- The mode, median and mean
- Overall trend
- Positive/negative correlation
- Any outliers
When talking about data, don’t just say that something decreased but actually use figures to show how much it decreased by. Using figures show that you read and understood the data but sometimes you will need to go one step further and calculate a percentage to get the mark. The most important part to an ‘analyse the data’ question is to state what all the data actually reveals. This links back to properly reading the question as students often rush to point out things from the data set but don’t draw any conclusions.
Data analysis in A-Level Biology questions can seem scary but with practice, you’ll quickly pick up on trends and draw conclusions. Make sure you look at various graph types, not just simple bar charts, as you never know what could be used in the exam.
4. Memorise Key Processes within A-Level Biology Exams
One of the toughest parts of A-Level Biology is the amount of memorisation due to the nature of the exams and the amount of content. With any exam board there will be many cycles and processes to learn, such as the carbon cycle or respiration. Most questions about these topics have the same basic marks and structure, you’ll just need to alter your phrasing to correctly answer the question.
Ultimately, you need to memorise the steps for each of these processes – depending on how you learn, this could be great or your worst nightmare. Straight memorisation can be daunting but there are several techniques to help you when revising. A great method for learning a sequence is creating a mnemonic as it will stick in your head and they’re much easier to learn than a big chunk of text.
An example of this is for taxonomy:
- Domain – Dear
- Kingdom – King
- Phylum – Phillip
- Class – Came
- Order – Over
- Family – For
- Genus – Good
- Species – Soup
Some other methods for memorisation are attaching an action to each step, making up a song, or simply rewriting the steps until you can’t possibly forget them.
A lot of A-Level Biology is memorisation so you’ll have to use revision techniques that help you learn those big processes and cycles. There are many methods for revision but flashcards are particularly helpful for A-Level Biology so make sure these are a priority.
5. Utilise Flashcards When Revising A-Level Biology Content
Although you can use flashcards for revising any subject, many students always say that they helped the most with biology since so much of the course is memorisation based. If you want to read more about how to make the most useful flashcards, here is a Think Student article about it.
Some students prefer to handwrite their flashcards but this can take a long time so consider using a tool like Quizlet – this has the added benefit of being able to revise wherever you are, as long as you have your phone.
A technique that is similar to traditional flashcards but many students don’t know about, is using a spreadsheet. Your first column will be colour coded, your second will be the question and the third is the answer. Make all the text for the answers in white text so you can’t see them until you click. If you get the answer right, colour the box green and, if wrong, red. If you’ve covered the whole specification with your questions, the colour coding will clearly show your understanding of every topic. This method also means you don’t waste time on topics you already understand.
6. Don’t Forget About A-Level Biology Past Papers
As with any subject, past papers are crucial to getting the top grades in A-Level Biology as you’re familiarising yourself with the exam structure and practicing exam techniques. Sitting down for two hours to do a mock exam can be difficult, especially if you’re at the beginning of the course so start small. Alongside your regular revision, incorporate exam questions that are relevant to the topic.
When first doing exam questions, use all your resources to try and answer the question and then go over the mark scheme to see what you missed. As your confidence grows, do exam questions without your textbook or any resources and repeat the process of marking your work. Eventually, you’ll feel ready to sit down and do a whole practice paper – it may take time but it will be worthwhile in the long run.
Don’t forget to look at the required practical questions as these can be worth lots of marks and require a certain technique when answering them. Finally, don’t just stick to one topic, constantly refresh your memory by doing questions on previous chapters.
7. Learn What Is Relevant To Your A-Level Exam Board
Each A-Level Biology exam board can cover very different content so reading the specification is really important. The specifications are incredibly valuable for revision as they break down exactly what you need to know for your exams. Many students even use them as checklists for every topic. Each exam board is unique and will require different things from its students.
Edexcel and OCR both give students a scientific article a few months before the exam – this is an indication of what topics will come up so make sure you read around the topic and fully understand the article. AQA has a 25 mark essay question in their final exam paper so it is really important to prepare for this and understand how to structure your essay. For additional information on how to tackle your specific exams, read the examiners’ reports! Most students don’t look at these even though they give a great insight into what your exam board expects and what areas students across the country struggle with. This will really help you get ahead and avoid making easy mistakes that other students don’t know about.
8. Make the Most of the Useful A-Level Resources Around You
Considering how much content there is in your texts, the idea of using even more resources might not be the first thing that comes to mind. The more resources you use, the greater your breadth of knowledge will be, which makes exams a lot easier.
YouTube videos are brilliant for explaining concepts and if you’re a visual learner, having diagrams and drawings to look at might be a great idea. FreeScienceLessons is a really helpful channel covering all the sciences, including A-Level Biology. SnapRevise has hundreds of videos relating to each exam board as well as videos on the required practicals. You do need to pay if you want to unlock more content but this could be a great resource for you.
If you’re looking for a condensed version of your textbook, CGP sells revision guides for each exam board that covers all the content in a clear way. However, don’t solely rely on these books as they don’t give as much detail as the exams require. With A-Level Biology, it’s a really good idea to read around the subject – don’t limit yourself to your textbook, read scientific articles and books on the topic. If you want to quickly recap a topic, you can find worksheets covering various topics and exam boards on Maths Made Easy.
9. Stay Organised and Maintain Your Focus on That A*
A crucial part of achieving an A* in A-Level Biology is being organised. By the time you reach your exams, you’ll have accumulated a tonne of notes and revision materials and the best way to keep on top of these is folders. You can have a folder for each topic or a folder for each type of revision material – it’s up to you how you’d like to organise it. By having designated folders, it’s much easier to find the resources you need and it prevents you from losing any of your work.
The next step to staying organised during A-Level Biology is ensuring you have covered the whole syllabus. I suggested earlier in the article that using the specification as a checklist is a great guide to follow. Whether you want to make flashcards, mind maps or posters, you need to cover all the content so you are fully prepared for your exams.
Finally, a good revision timetable is essential for achieving the best grades at A-Level because you need to dedicate an equal amount of time to each subject. If you’re struggling to make a revision timetable, have a look at this Think Student article which can point you in the right direction.