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Wednesday 23rd January 2013

Here are ten things about passing A-level biology that I wish someone had told me when I was 18.

No. 1. Stick exclusively to the facts in specification (what used to be known as a ‘syllabus’ before educational newspeak struck us all down). Do bear in mind that the textbooks ‘endorsed’ by the examination boards are actually written by commercial companies and are their interpretation of what’s in the specification. They usually contain a load of extraneous and confusing rubbish.

No. 2. Base revision notes completely on the specification headings and sub-headings. Set yourself a distance-in-syllabus target, not a time target when making these notes ("I'm not going to see my mates until I’ve got to the end of section 2”). This will give you an incentive to work quickly and concisely so that you can go and see your mates feeling virtuous. Coincidentally it will also get you into a lifelong habit of effective time-management. If someone pontificates that you you have to work a certain number of hours to achieve a given target they are talking through their hat and definitely confusing hard work with effective work.

No. 3. Do ALL of the past papers and compare them closely with the published mark schemes (I have them all if you can’t get hold of them). But only do past papers from your own examination board – the styles vary widely. And do concentrate on the published key words in the mark scheme – remember that you can explain something beautifully and get ‘nil points’ if you do not use the approved words and phrases. This is the best 'revision' of all - the students who do the most papers get the best grades. Simples!

No. 4. DON'T go back and check your manuscript when you've finished an examination (other than to fill-in any gaps). Just walk out. I know that this goes against all the advice you’ve been given by teachers, but if they knew their stuff and had thought it through would you be coming to me? My job is to give logical advice, not received wisdom. In my considerable experience almost all students who check over their scripts tend to panic, rub out a right answer and replace it with a wrong one. If you think about it logically it makes sense - you all know you've done it! But don’t leave gaps – you might get some credit if you write fluent gibberish, but a gap definitely gets nothing.

No. 5. Have you worked out yet that education is simply a process of learning increasingly more-sophisticated lies? There is 'The Truth' and then there is what the examiners want at that time and in that examination. Make sure that you give the examiners what they want. If the AQA A-level examiners want to you to say that one difference between Eukaryotes and Prokaryotes is that Prokaryotes have a Flagellum then who are you to deny them their little pleasure (sperm are Eukaryotic and I seem to recall learning that they have flagella too!) In short, learn to play the game at an early stage – and remember that, as in life, the goalposts can change (oh dear – what a pity, never mind…remember that you are all working under the same handicap!)

No. 6. Remember that you do NOT generally need '80% raw marks' on a paper to get a grade 'A'. That 80% is a UMS mark and bears little relationship to the raw mark you get on the paper. Some more recent examinations are creeping up towards 80% raw marks for a grade ‘A’ but generally rather less will do the job.

No. 7. If you failed AS, don't panic - and, above all, don't drop-out of biology convinced that you are thick. AS-levels are lousy exams, thrown together too quickly due to political pressure and, in my opinion, seem to be solely designed solely to demoralise people moving into the Upper Sixth. We take too many examinations in this country nowadays (which is ironic given that many of them are utter rubbish). There are more interesting things to do in the lower sixth than study and expecting a 17-year-old to take an A-level standard exam after just one year (or one term) of study is expecting rather a lot. I have had a lot of students get dreadful marks in AS who have gone on to get really high grades in the 'real thing'.

No. 8. In essay questions a simple story told well will always get more marks than a half-understood mangled version of advanced facts designed to 'impress the examiner' (really, they don't!). Look for the sparrows rather than the albatrosses at all times – complicated stuff may sound impressive but you have to know the basic facts first. In a question about carbohydrates, for example, a simple statement that they contain carbon, hydrogen and oxygen is a good idea before talking about alpha-one-four and alpha-one-six bonds.

No. 9. Don't 'read around the subject' (this is yet more foolish received wisdom peddled by schools). Reading a book will tend to confuse more than illuminate the average 18-year-old. Apart from all else, most textbooks are not very clear. Stick to the task in hand, which is mastering the specification so that you can move onto the next academic hurdle. Ecology may be one exception to this rule – it is is so woolly at A-level that reading up lots of case-studies might be of use in answering questions. But I wouldn't bet on it - doing all of the past papers questions on ecology is likely to be more useful in terms of useable key words.

No. 10. If all else fails get Mum and Dad to lend a helping hand and come along to me (or another experienced tutor in your area) for some guidance. I don't charge for everything that I do and every student who gets a high grade in the face of a lot of twaddle from the examination boards is another minor victory!

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