Frustrated with low grades despite revision?
Follow These 5 Steps
A-level biology is notorious for students achieving surprisingly low grades even with a good grasp of the subject
Why? Because the mark scheme demands such precise wording; and if your answer is technically correct but uses the wrong words, you don't get the marks
Specialists at scienceforoxbridge.com with years of experience tutoring for A-level biology exams have put together the optimum revision strategy for translating your hard work into high marks
Step 1: Gather and organise revision materials
The revision process needs to be simple. With so many resources available, making the process too complicated is a common mistake.
This makes revision more time-consuming than necessary, and can even mean learning science you don't need to know.
The following four resources are all you need. They ensure you cover everything in a way that will earn you marks. And prevent you wasting time learning unhelpful details.
1) Latest A-level biology specification
The specification outlines everything you need to know for the exams, and nothing else. Links for the most common exam boards (OCR, AQA and Edexcel) are provided below.
There are two ways you can take advantage of the specification when revising.
First, a printed copy can be used as a checklist to make sure you've covered everything. Make notes on every point, and place a tick by each once it's been reviewed. By the end of the process, you know for certain you've reviewed the entire biology syllabus.
Second, the most undervalued benefit of the specification is that the wording used for each point corresponds to the mark scheme. After all, the exams and mark schemes are written by examiners using the specification as their guide as well.
Therefore, the single most effective thing you can do to ensure your revision translates into high grades is to learn everything exactly as it is written in the specification.
2) Reliable and concise revision guide
You should not rely on a textbook to make notes. These are useful for a more in-depth understanding of the topics in the biology syllabus. But they include extra information you don't need.
Therefore, using a textbook to write notes takes longer, and can also mean writing wrong answers because the material is not in the mark scheme.
Complementing the specification, a revision guide is the best resource for making your notes.
Be careful which guide you use. It must be reliable, and many aren't. Many science guides are poorly written, providing extra unnecessary information and even using the wrong terminology for your exam board.
CGP revision guides are excellent. These provide only the material you need to learn and are carefully drafted to mirror the wording in the specification. So, you can be sure what you revise will earn you marks.
3) One notebook
You should use one notebook to make all your biology notes in one place. Once complete, you know that this contains everything you need to recall for the exams. So much easier and less stressful than using piles of paper in the wrong order.
Ideally, you should also try to order your notes in the same way as the specification. This makes the process more simple and systematic.
As a bonus, try to take pride in your work. Use a high-quality notebook (Oxford Campus is a great choice), present everything neatly, and maybe add a splash of colour to highlight key points.
4) Access to all past papers
Working through every past paper will put you in the best position for your A-level exams.
Practice is essential, and the best practice questions are in past papers. Using questions from other sources can be helpful for general understanding. But there is only so much time available to revise. And given the choice between questions from previous years and other places, your priority should always be to do actual exam questions.
Step 2: Make notes on the specification
Making notes is essential for learning everything accurately in the biology syllabus.
The process of note-making is beneficial in itself. You have time to carefully consider and ensure you understand what you are writing down. And can see how the relevant scientific concepts fit together for each topic.
It also acts as a highly effective means for retaining information. Writing things down always makes it easier to remember, compared to reading alone. You are therefore not only making your notes to review and learn properly later, but also establishing your first memory of them in the process.
Your notes should be made using the specification and revision guide. These complement each other perfectly. The terminology in a CGP guide corresponds to the specification, which itself mirrors the mark scheme.
The number one reason capable students score low marks in A-level biology is that they fail to write their answers using the terminology in the mark scheme.
The solution is to copy exactly the wording used in the specification and revision guide. This will allow you to learn the material in a way that is likely to award you marks in the exam.
Here is a good example of the value of the specification when revising.
Shown above is the section on enzymes from the AQA biology A-level syllabus.
Many science students will know that the shape of an enzyme's active site allows it to bind to a specific substrate. However, we see from the third point in this section that using the term 'shape' would be awarded no marks. Instead, only using the phrase 'tertiary structure' would be given credit, even though this is essentially an alternative way of saying the same thing.
Also important is the use of the term 'enzyme-substrate complex'. Many students would correctly say that the enzyme binds to the substrate before releasing the product. But the mark scheme only gives credit for this point if the term 'enzyme-substrate complex' is mentioned.
The ideal strategy is to make notes this way from the start of your A-level studies. You should add notes to your single notebook when revising for each end-of-topic test biology test at school.
In this way, you are preparing for your school test in the best possible way. And at the same time writing the notes you will use later for your A-level exams.
This makes the process so much more efficient. You revisit the same notes you revised from before, making memorisation much faster. You don't have to write anything on the same topic later. And by the end of your studies, you have a single notebook containing perfectly worded notes on everything you need to know, and nothing else.
Step 3: Learn your notes
Many students fail to memorise their notes completely. Making science notes is a waste of time if you can't recall the information when it counts.
You should ensure your revision notes are completed a good amount of time before the exams. You will then have enough time to commit the notes to memory.
The process of retaining science notes can take time, especially in A-level biology. The key is repetition, which can be dull, but is the only way to retain large amounts of material accurately.
Keep yourself motivated and remind yourself what you are studying for, how it will feel to achieve top grades, and what university place you are fighting for. Also, remember you have the best summer holidays waiting for you at the end!
Memorising the notes is much more manageable if you focus on one section at a time. You should learn each section of the specification, before moving on to the next.
You can also make the process more effective by learning each page of a section on its own, before reading the next. To memorise a single page, read it through several times, consciously absorbing the information as you go.
Once you've done this, try to recall not only the content of the page but also the wording. Then check if you missed anything and repeat the process if you did, paying more attention to what you didn't remember.
You are ready to move on only when you can say everything on the page from memory. Then repeat for the next page, and so on.
After doing this for every page of the section, go back and recall every page again. Note and correct any mistakes you make.
You have only finished learning the section when you can recall every page from memory. This does take time. But is highly effective because, by the end, you will know you know everything you need for examination in A-level biology.
Moreover, because your notes were made using the wording from the specification and revision guide, you can be confident you've learned the biology syllabus in a way that will be awarded credit in the exams.
Step 4: Complete A-level past papers
After learning the entire biology syllabus, you can focus on the skill of applying your knowledge in past papers. These will always include unfamiliar questions, where you have to think about how to apply what you know.
The thinking process is made much easier after learning the notes because ideas come more easily and you can see which part of the syllabus is being tested. Without revising the material first, you will also make mistakes from a lack of knowledge and using the wrong terminology.
This doesn't mean you have to avoid doing any past papers until you can remember your notes. However, completing most past papers after you have the necessary knowledge makes best use of the limited papers available.
It's obvious that practice will improve your ability to apply your understanding to questions. This is why you should aim to complete every one available.
The more recent A-level papers are more similar to the ones you will be taking, so these should be completed last. You should also save the most recent exam series for completing a few days before the exams.
It's best to complete some papers under exam conditions so you become familiar with the available time. But make sure you attempt every question, doing them after you run out of time if you find you can't finish.
The next and most important task is to mark the paper. You only learn optimally from the process if you correct your mistakes.
The most effective way to do this is by adding a 'general' section to your notebook and writing everything you learn from the past papers here. This can include any remaining gaps in your science knowledge and key phrases in the mark scheme you didn't use. This will make your notes even more effective for scoring high marks.
Step 5: Review your notes
In the final days before the exam, the priority is to review your biology notes and ensure you can recall everything for when it counts. Once again, revision notes only mean anything if you remember them.
Doing this in the final days before the exam, including the evening and morning before, will ensure all material and wording is fresh in your mind.
You will then be in the best position possible to score top marks in A-level biology.