How to succeed in A-Level Biology?

The first post of our A-Level revision series, focusing on Biology.

March 2022
Chandan Sekhon
Cambridge University - 1st Year Medical Student

So you’ve spent months applying for medical school and you have finally received an offer(s) to go to medical school. (Whoop)! The next hurdle is getting the grades you need in your A-Level exams. If you are unsure about how to approach studying for your exams, this is the series for you. Welcome to the A-Level revision series! Each post will provide advice on exam preparation for a specific subject: beginning with A-Level Biology.

Not all medical schools require you to take A-Level Biology, however, if you are studying biology please read on!

How do you memorise A-Level Biology content?

Biology is a subject that requires a huge amount of information to be memorised. It is very fact-based and therefore, it is crucial to ensure you have methods that help you memorise information. I used to make extensive notes whilst I was in school but since coming to medical school, I’ve realised this isn’t always necessary. This is because it is very time-consuming and isn’t particularly efficient. Instead, you would be better off using active recall methods to retain information.

The method I would most recommend using is writing out questions for yourself. Make general questions such as ‘what are the components of the mitochondria?’ instead of just saying ‘the mitochondria is made up of a matrix’, for example. This way you save time and still learn the information you need. At medical school, the amount of information you have to learn makes A-level biology look like year 6 SATs (not to scare you). Therefore, when I came to university I realised I would benefit from adapting my revision techniques. And looking back at my A-level days, I wish I had done this sooner and taken different approaches to studying the information. Instead of pouring over textbooks and re-writing notes, making questions instead. Notion is a great app, which I regularly use, to do this. Here you have a toggle function where you can write a question and embed an answer so you can reveal the answer after pressing the question (a bit like electronic flashcards!).

Another method of active recall is blurting. This method does require a lot of effort and brainpower, but it is one of the best ways you can learn information. Here, you select a topic and give yourself 15 minutes or so to ‘blurt’ everything you know about that topic on a piece of paper. After the time is up you can go over the textbook and fill in any gaps in your knowledge and repeat until you know the information off by heart.

How do you succeed at A-Level Biology?

Despite the huge amount of information you need to learn, usually, this isn’t the main problem for students. The mark schemes for A-Level Biology are incredibly specific (this is probably something you have already noticed but I must reiterate it!). Frustratingly, you can know the entire topic off by heart but still not do amazingly well in exams, just because you didn’t use a specific word or phrase for a question.

The only way to get around this is to practice questions. And honestly, this should form the majority of your revision time for Biology. Personally, I had a roughly 60:40 split between exam practice and content learning. Even then, I would recommend spending even more time doing questions than that. Use all the papers for the exam board you are doing even if the specification may have changed slightly – it is likely the topics covered and marking points are very similar (just don’t panic too much if you come across a question that may seem a bit unfamiliar!). I used to do past papers from the 1990s and even that was helpful as it gave me practice. Papers from other exam boards may be appropriate too! If you still feel you are short on questions, do questions from revision guides and textbooks. Perhaps the most important part of this process is taking time to mark your work, focussing on the questions you get wrong, and making flashcards or a note of what the mark scheme said for that question. Often, the question may come again in a later paper in a different format or be worded differently, however, the mark scheme will be the same. When learning definitions, use the definitions in mark schemes over the ones in textbooks. I would recommend the website Physicsandmathstutor for past papers. Your school may also have access to Exampro which is worth looking into for questions.

Are there any additional tips to succeed in A-Level Biology?

Practicals

Please do not ignore practicals. As boring as you think they are, they are a key component of exams. They will definitely come up so ensure you can outline key steps of each practical, can identify limitations, and analyse results. Again, past papers are a great way to practice these.

Maths

Another key area to practise is maths. Personally, I hated the maths in Biology but it is an area that students trip up on. So, make sure you are comfortable calculating statistics e.g. standard deviation, magnification equations, and particularly unit conversions (e.g. from millimetres to micrometres etc.). Make sure to read questions carefully because they often use different units for different parts of the question so it is something that you can easily lose marks on even if you have done the rest of the maths correctly!

To Summarise…

I think we can all agree A-Level Biology can be particularly frustrating due to the specificity of the mark scheme. You need to make sure you prioritise exam technique and if you do certain exam boards (looking at you AQA) you may need to write an essay too. Essay plans and blurting will help with this and will aid your memorisation of the information anyway. Make sure to utilise all the resources available to you - exam papers can all be found online for free and they are easily the best resource to use. So good luck and look out for the next post focusing on A-Level Chemistry!

Author: Chandan Sekhon

Editor: Allegra Wisking

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