5 Common Mistakes Students Make When Studying A-Level Biology

Is studying for your A-Level biology getting you down? There is so much content to learn, and even if you know your stuff it can often be tricky to get the marks in practice exam questions because the language the examiner is looking for is so specific.

In this article, you'll find a summary of my conversation with expert A-Level biology tutor, Aarti Lodhia (she's also an academic coach with Life More Extraordinary), who has helped over 500 people get an A or A* at A-Level about the five common mistakes when studying A-Level Biology.

This article is also available as a podcast episode. Listen using the player above, or listen and subscribe through Apple podcasts.

5 Common Mistakes Students Make When Studying A-Level Biology

1. Not realising how big a jump it is from GCSE to A-Level Biology

This is the first thing that happens when students join the sixth form, and it doesn't just apply to biology students, but to students of every subject.

The problem

Most students study GCSEs for a number of years, sometimes starting in year 9, or even year 8. This means that students get very familiar with the level they need to work at to succeed in their GCSEs. On top of that, most students are studying for nine or ten GCSEs which means that, necessarily, the content is a lot less than it is at A-Level.

In year 12, you are then jumping to A-Level which is only a two year course and you're usually only doing three A-Levels, or a maximum of four. Therefore, the A-Level content is absolutely humungous in comparison to what students are used to at GCSE, especially in the sciences and particularly with biology. Aarti says that doing biology A-Level is a bit like learning a new language, in terms of the content and the subject-specific vocabulary you need to learn. The exam questions are also completely different to the question you get at GCSE. This means that there are many new skills to learn and not a lot of time to do it in. Many students don't realise how difficult A-Levels really are until towards the end of year 12.

What students can do

Students, therefore, need to get their heads around the breadth and the depth of the subject, but also the complexity of the material and the subject-specific vocabulary, as soon as they can in their study of A-Level Biology. Basically, science A-Levels are ridiculously hard. This isn't to put people off, but it's simply a realistic approach. You can't go into year 12 thinking that you're going to relax for a year – it will never work because the jump from year 12 to year 13 is even bigger than the jump from GCSE to A-Level as:

  • the number of new words per lesson is incredible
  • the concepts are complicated and studied in great detail
  • it all relies on a thorough understanding of what you learned in year 12, so this needs to be really secure before the beginning of year 13.

How are the exam questions different?

Typically, at GCSE, questions focus on thinking skills like knowledge, understanding and application that are lower order thinking skills, in terms of Bloom's taxonomy. At A-Level, the questions are more focused on the higher-order thinking skills like analysis, synthesis and evaluation.

Bloom's taxonomy

2. Not starting to revise A-Level Biology from day 1

People mistake revision for exam revision. Revision from day 1 of your biology A-Level doesn't look like revising for an exam, but it's about securing and cementing what you learned each lesson.

You will learn an incredible amount, even in the first lesson of your biology A-Level, so it's important that you secure this knowledge as you go along.

You can find out more about good study habits here, and we go into them into even more detail in the Hone Your Habits module in The Extraordinaries Club. Aarti will be talking about the Curve of Forgetting in the How to Revise Biology Masterclass.

3. Thinking that reading and making beautiful notes is ‘good' revision

Some people think that they're doing when they're reading and making beautiful notes with beautiful handwriting, fancy diagrams and lovely colours.

If you've just read things and copied them into your notes, this is passive revision. If you don't know or understand the revision notes you've made something is going wrong with your revision.

Beautiful notes does not equal good notes. Good notes are notes that help you remember.

Beautiful notes does not equal good notes. Good notes are notes that help you remember. #revision #alevelbiology Click To Tweet

If you're using colour and it genuinely helps you to remember that's fine, but if they're beautiful and you don't know them it's a waste of time.

4. Going straight to answering A-Level biology questions without knowing the content

A-Level Biology exam questions are very difficult. In order to succeed with them you need to:

  1. Know and understand the content
  2. Understand how to answer the questions

Without knowing the content, you can't answer the questions.

In the How to Revise Biology A-Level Masterclass Aarti will be talking about how to track and stay on top of your content revision, as well as how to answer exam questions. She will be sharing a tool with us that she gives to all her biology students to help them track their content learning.

It's like the Revision Power Hour – you need to be learning the content, then practicing the exam technique.

5. Waffling in exam answers

Especially in longer answer questions, many students waffle. As an examiner, waffle really annoys Aarti.

You can avoid waffling by:

  • Read the full question (Aarti will talk about how to do this in the How to Revise Biology A-Level Masterclass)
  • Answer what the question is asking
  • Take your time to stop yourself rushing into giving the wrong answer
  • Using the correct scientific terminology
  • Answer the question as concisely as possible – you don't need to use all the space that's been given to you on the exam paper.

It's really about crafting your scientific writing so you can answer questions concisely and effectively.

The difficulty of A-Level biology is learning the language, the scientific writing and the maths. Few other A-Levels have this wide combination of skills which make biology hard.

Would you like more help with A-Level Biology Revision?

On February 25th 2021 Aarti will be doing the How to Revise Biology A-Level Masterclass for members of The Extraordinaries Club (if you're reading after this date the recording of the masterclass is available in the club). The masterclass essentially teaches students what they need to do to successfully study A-Level Biology independently. This is what will be covered:

  • How to effectively revise the content of biology A-Level before you start answering exam questions
  • How to organise your A-Level biology revision so that you don’t get overwhelmed and you cover everything that you need to
  • How to answer A-Level biology exam questions
  • How to structure longer A-Level biology exam questions and what language to use
  • How to tackle data analysis questions
  • How to avoid common mistakes that A-Level biology students make
  • And much more!

Click here to find out more and sign-up for the How to Revise Biology A-Level Masterclass.

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