Biology is frequently viewed as a “memorisation-regurgitation” subject by many students, and admittedly, I used to be one of them.
I have always resorted to hardcore memorisation to prepare for my Biology examinations, but this was highly ineffective in Junior College. No matter how much I memorised, I just couldn’t seem to do well, and I struggled with grades that ranged from the Bs and Cs to S and U grades.
It did not take me long to realise that memorisation alone is not going to work out. Thus, after gathering advices from my teachers and friends, I chose to try out new strategies that have effectively helped my grades improve:
1. Don’t just Read the question, Analyse the question
Having all the content in your brain is useless if you can’t give the right content to the right question.
As time is tight in examinations, there is a tendency for students to dash down their answers immediately after reading the question.
I cannot emphasise enough that taking some time to analyse the question is really important, because just like essays or comprehensions, ATQ (Answer the Question) is crucial in Biology too.
So before answering, really know what the question is asking for. Read the question carefully and highlight key words to identify the following:
1) Question Word
Is the question asking you to describe or explain? State or compare? These may seem insignificant but neglecting them could cause you to provide a wrong or excessive answer during examinations.
For instance, I once faced a question that asked to “describe the trend of the graph”. Yet what I did was to “explain the trend of the graph” by rambling on and on about enzyme concepts, thus completely failing to answer the question.
Another time, I blindly outlined the “anaphase” stage when the question was merely on “state the stage of mitosis in Figure 1”. While I did get the mark for stating “anaphase”, the extra information I elaborated on was not worth any marks but rather, a total waste of time.
So if you don’t want to see your memorised content put to waste, noting the question word is the first step I would recommend. To have a better understanding of what the different question words in your papers mean, you can check out the SEAB Syllabus Paper. It has a glossary of terms defining a list of question words to explain what examiners are looking out for. (SEAB Glossary)
Next, figure out which concept(s) the question wants you to illustrate.
This can be simple for straightforward questions that literally tells you to talk about a concept like “functions of a ribosome” or “structure of a bacterial cell”. However, there are also trickier questions that are not as easily understandable at first sight, thus sometimes I find myself leaving blanks for 3, 4 or even 5 mark questions, with absolutely no idea of what to write.
But through more practices, I have learnt that the best thing to do would be to calm down, read the question and background information a few more times carefully, and make intellectual guesses. This can be done by picking up keywords in the question and try connecting them to relevant biological concepts.
For instance, questions involving “cancer” could be asking for cell division concepts while case studies with “pH levels” could have enzyme concepts involved.
By applying these concepts that you have inferred, you will be able to list out several points that could help you secure a few marks, even if you weren’t 100% certain of what the question wanted.
The last thing to look out for is if there is a need to adjust your answer according to the context given.
Many biology questions are based on specific diagrams, figures, case studies and more. Some questions may want you to explain a concept with reference to a figure, others may want you to make a theoretical assumption that is unlike what you have learnt.
In such cases, an exact word-for-word copy from your notes will not help you answer the question fully. So read all information from the question and preamble to see if you need to should adjust your memorised content to suit the questions’ needs.
2. Don’t just Memorise, Understand the Concepts
Pure memorisation can only take you as far as to answering knowledge-based questions.
But to gain an edge over the bell curve, you should strive to answer higher-order questions too, and that calls for the need to comprehend your content.
Take some time to read through your notes and see if you understand the content for what it is. I find a very good way to do this is to ask yourself “why”.
Why does a bacterial cell need structure A? Why is process X needed in the plant cell?
See these biology concepts as a story, find the plot holes and ask questions to fill them up. Then if necessary, find time to consult with your teachers to clarify these concepts. If you are able to understand the concepts well, you will be able to better understand unfamiliar case studies and tackle application questions.
As you might have heard many teachers mention before, knowing the content is not enough, you need to learn how to apply them. So practice, practice and practice.
There are a whole lot of resources which you can work on – the A Level 10 year series, other school papers, your school’s past year papers and even re-doing your own tutorials!
The more practices you have, the more questions you will meet and this will train you to apply concepts to a wider variety of question types. Practicing also provides a great opportunity for you to learn what your common mistakes are and discover any misunderstandings that you might unknowingly have had for certain concepts too.
And for those who are having troubles finishing their examinations in time, you might also want to consider doing timed practices. Use these practice sessions to train yourselves to write faster and think faster so that you get used to the examination conditions and pressure.
At the bottom line, for a subject in which you can’t score without getting the exact keywords right, memorisation is essential for Biology, but it certainly isn’t enough!
(This article was written by our Tutor Jeraldine. If you wish to engage Home Tuition, you can browse a List of Tutor Profiles)