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Preparing for A Levels: Stepping up to Biology

Updated: Aug 5, 2021

With many of you starting A Level courses, we felt now is the time to explore how to make the step up to A Level study, what to expect, and how to succeed in this environment. Here we focus on Biology, and how you can tackle the jump up from GCSE in the best way possible.

A Level Biology practical experiment

First of all, congratulations! You’ve worked hard for your GCSE results and you are beginning an A Level Biology course. This article gives you 6 tips on how you can make the most of this opportunity, and how to go about starting the next two years of your education.

1. Organisation

Before we even delve into the content for A Level, there is the matter of getting organised. There is a lot of content in A Level Biology, and it goes into much greater depth than you will have studied before. On top of all the worksheets you will be given and homework, it is vital to keep on top of all your own notes.

My recommendation would be a lever arch folder: this will have enough space to hold everything in, and I’d advise having dividers to separate different modules or topics. It is essential you have one per subject or even one per teacher, as A Level courses are often shared between two teachers covering different areas.

Keeping on top of all your notes can be hard, so I suggest taking half an hour every Friday evening or at the weekend to file away and organise all your week's paperwork, marked work and notes into the correct order - it’ll save you a lot of stress when you want to revise that particular question you did for a homework during the first few weeks in over a year’s time!

2. Resources

To reiterate, there is a lot of content in the Biology A Level, and while this should all be covered in class, it makes life so much easier if you have the textbooks readily available.

Key Point 1: This is vital, so if you take anything from this blog then let it be this: do not mistake a revision guide for the textbook! The revision guide is condensed, simplified information that just does not contain enough content for you to realistically get more than a C; the textbook is far better, containing everything you could possibly need to do well. If you are going to buy one to use at home, then it should be the textbook all the way…

A scientific calculator is obviously a must, as well as a good enough supply of pens, pencils, paper and a ruler - this may seem simple, but you’d be surprised how many aren’t equipped on the first day of sixth form!

3. Key Skills

There are certain areas you can work on to prepare for starting A Level Biology, and practising some key skills can really help you get the ball rolling when it comes to starting your studies.

The amount of maths in A Level Biology surprises a lot of people; there is a strong statistical foundation to Biology and you need to be confident with finding things like percentage change. Of course you will learn how to do the maths over the course, but it would be wise to use some of your spare time to practise some of these key skills.

You should also be familiar with how to read and draw graphs: a lot of questions in A Level Biology require this skill, and while (again) you will have plenty of time to work on this, it’ll give you a huge head start if you can try to master this in the early stages of your course.

Another thing to get into the habit of doing is using key terminology. One of the biggest steps up from GCSE to A Level Biology is the wording you need to use. Be as specific as possible - things like ‘cell membrane’ will no longer get you marks (instead you will need to use the terms ‘cell surface membrane’ or ‘plasma membrane’). Get used to adding in that extra bit of detail that examiners are looking for. Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it, but it is something to think about when starting the course.

4. Practicals

Biology PAG

Many exam boards now have ‘pags’- assessed practicals throughout the year that test your skills in a lab, and it is very important you pass them all. They will cover a range of different topics from all areas of the course. While you won’t get a grade for any one of them (just a pass or fail), many universities won’t accept you unless you have passed this part of the course, so make sure to put effort in when you do them in class.

Don’t stress, though, as they are very hard to fail: as long as you work safely and appropriately you should be fine. However, they are an opportunity to learn a lot about the experiments that will be assessed in practical-based exam questions, so make sure you take the time to become familiar with what you are doing and to understand the processes.

5. Keeping on top of your work

The best way to succeed at A Level is to work as you go along. You may have got away with leaving it all to the last minute at GCSE, but that won’t be the case in Sixth Form. The best way to go about learning is to try and learn everything in the lesson, and then to revise little and often.

Think about how you revise - if you like cue cards, then make them for each lesson on the same day following that lesson. It will help you use your time effectively and you’ll have all those resources whenever you need them.

A particularly important consideration here is that many people leave making revision cards until the last few weeks before the exam. This isn't a very sensible thing to do - you barely have time to make them and then you can’t even use them properly as you have no time to do so. You will have at least 2 (or maybe 3) more subjects to revise for as well - planning in advance and working as you go along will put you in a great place to succeed.

Key Point 2: Don’t expect (or try) to learn every single word of the textbook. Learn the key details and words. The best way to do well is to understand what is happening in each process, and learning it from there. You cannot get an A with no understanding of the content, so you have to work at trying to understand before you start to learn.

6. The Content

Of course, the content of your course will depend on the exam board you are studying towards. However, whatever it may include, it will be a step up in depth and detail. Try and simplify this into easier concepts, which will make it much easier to understand.

From the first week your teachers will also be bombarding you with "make sure you read around the subject" and this is great advice: reading around the subject can broaden your understanding greatly and help you to grasp key concepts, so make sure to do so whenever you find the time. This doesn’t mean learning lots of complicated science that you won’t ever need to know - it just means having an understanding of other processes that relate to the specification but aren’t necessarily included in it.

If you’re stuck on where to find resources, there are a lot of great science magazines out there, or if you are particularly interested then have a read of some research papers - either will help you to grasp the content of your course a lot better.

And finally.…

It is important you enjoy what you’re studying, particularly as this will take up almost all of your time over the next two years. Make sure you are passionate about your subject, keep working hard, and you won't go far wrong! Make sure to keep practising at home, and you will settle in to A Level fantastically well.

Blog Post Crafted by Joe

Joe is currently working towards his BSc in Biomedical Science at the University of Warwick.

When he’s not studying, Joe tutors GCSE and A-level Science subjects in his home city of Coventry.

Joe can often be found at ridiculous times in the morning, bird ringing and searching for interesting bird and butterfly species at his local nature reserve near Coventry, or venturing further afield to find rarities on the East Coast of Norfolk.

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