Studying Biology At A Level

Your grade in Biology could determine if you can go on to study at university, which establishment you get into and it can influence your CV, especially if you have your mind set on a career in the Live Sciences sector.

But, even if none of that matters to you and you’ve chosen to study Biology because you did OK in the subject at GCSE level, then you should by no means underestimate the power that a Biology qualification can have for you.

Biology is essentially a subject that teaches you about life, so one could argue that the subject is applicable to a large number of things we see or do as we go about our everyday lives.

For instance, we might walk past rows of trees on our stroll to work, we might sit and eat our breakfast in the tube when doing our daily commute… all processes related to humans and plants come down to Biology.

So many things around us relate to Biology - including the food we eat and how it affects our bodies.
Even what and how we eat is directly related to Biology. Photo by SteFou! on VisualHunt

It is easy to go through days or weeks without giving a thought to the biological processes that shape our lives and environment, but learning about Biology helps you to embrace the wonders of nature.

In fact, these essential processes should, in an ideal world, be learned by everyone if we truly want our population to have a good awareness of the planet we live on and to help us to appreciate the power and complexity of the Sciences.

So, with this in mind, you choosing to be a Biology student for the second times means that you are taking notice and are, in a roundabout way, giving back to the environment and community.

Grading And Exam System

The GCSEs, which stands for General Certificate of Secondary Education, are a two-year study programme traditionally taken by those aged around sixteen years-old, compulsory for students in the UK.

If you are in the middle of or have just completed this course, you will already know that you now choose one or two scientific subject to focus on for this qualification instead of splitting your studies equally between Biology, Chemistry and Physics and being given an overall grade for the three.

As such, you may already have a strong grounding in Biology as you enter A Levels and have a more meaningful qualification to display in your CV to highlight your strengths in the Biology field.

Students who are new to the A Level Biology curriculum in particular can look forward to expanding their knowledge and understanding of the subject and getting involved in even more practical activities in the classroom and lab.

Some of the core topics you will be faced with on your A Level course are Biological Molecules, Cells, Genetic Information, Energy Transfers and Gene Expression, the last two being taught at A Level only.

As you might have noticed, some of these topics were already covered by the GCSE syllabus, but will be looked at in more detail now that you're on a higher level course.

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A Level Biology Course Content

A Level Biology: An Introduction

Biology at A Level is offered by AQA, WJEC, Eduqas and OCR, among others. Below are two of the most popular exam boards for Biology A Level and their grading systems.

AQA Biology A Level & AS Level (7401, 7402)

At a glance, this linear specification offered by AQA covers a range of core topics such as Biological Molecules, Cells, Genetic Information, Energy Transfers and Gene Expression, the last two being taught at A Level only.

The AS Level course is split into two exams, each worth 50% of the final grade and lasting 1 hour 30 minutes. The second year, however, is assessed over three written exams, each taking 2 hours to complete and making up 35%, 35% and 30% of the final mark respectively.

OCR Biology A Level & AS Level (H020, H420)

This specification leans on the practicality of Biology for students and integrates problem-solving to help pupils understand biological concepts and scientific methods. Like the above, the course is split between the two years of study.

The course is said to refresh the popular themes from GCSE Level specifications and embeds new teaching modules centred around answering the all-important question: How does Science work?

Course Overview

Braintree Sixth Form provides prospective students with some very useful information about studying Biology, including entry requirements and career prospects. Furthermore, they provide a fantastic overview of the A Level Biology course structure, as below.

Course Structure

Year 12

  • Module 1: Development of Practical Skills in Biology: This covers the skills of planning, implementing, analysing and evaluating practical investigations
  • Module 2: Foundations in Biology: This covers cell structure, biological molecules, enzymes, nucleotides and nucleic acids, biological membranes, cell division, cell diversity and cellular organisation
  • Module 3: Exchange and Transport: This covers exchange surfaces, transport in animals and transport in plants
  • Module 4: Biodiversity, Evolution and Disease: This covers communicable diseases, disease prevention, immune system, biodiversity, classification and evolution

Year 13

  • Module 5: Communications, Homeostasis and Energy: This covers communication, homeostasis, excretion, photosynthesis, respiration. plant and animal responses, neurones and hormones
  • Module 6: Genetics, Evolution and Ecosystems: This covers cellular control, patterns of inheritance, biotechnology, cloning, manipulation of genomes, ecosystems, populations and sustainability.

Biology A Level Assessment

  • Paper 1 – Biological Processes – 37% of total A Level. Candidates answer all questions in a 135 minute written paper  comprising multiple choice questions, extended response and structured questions covering content from Modules 1, 2, 3 and 5.
  • Paper 2 – Biological Diversity – 37% of total A Level. Candidates answer all questions in a 135 minute written paper comprising multiple choice questions, extended response and structured questions covering content from Modules 1, 2, 4 and 6.
  • Paper 3 – Unified Biology – 26% of total A Level. Candidates answer all questions in a 90 minute written paper comprising extended response and structured questions covering content from Modules 1 to 6.
  • Practical Endorsement for Biology – Candidates complete a minimum of 12 practical activities and investigations covering key skills and topic areas over the two year course. Evidence of candidates meeting a series of competencies in practical skills is assessed by class teachers and moderated externally. Performance in this assessment is reported separately to the A Level grade as a pass/fail certificated endorsement. It does not count towards the final A Level grade.

Getting Your Head Around Your Upcoming Exams

According to research, children and young adults in our country are among the most tested on the planet, so does this mean that UK students should be accustomed to performing under pressure?

The only way to get around stress before the exams is to work hard.
Despite being some of the most tested pupils in the world, students in the UK still find exams very stressful. Photo by half alive - soo zzzz on Visual hunt /

On the contrary, it seems that the recurrent need to test performance and improvement during schooling is something that still causes a lot of distress for pupils, and the abolishment of coursework is making the importance of exams all the more stressful. What do you think?

Many admit to finding it hard to get to grips with the fact that they will be participating in nationwide exams in the not so distant future. Nevertheless, your exams are going to happen and will make up all of your final grade, so it is time to start thinking seriously about them.

Having access to a timetable, even if only a provisional one, can really help to prepare you psychologically for the culmination of your course, because having a specific goal to work towards can be very motivating.

Using a calendar or a countdown app might make it even easier to remain focused on the exam period and might, on some level, build up a bit of anticipation for the day of the first exam to finally come.

Attempt to keep your spirits up by translating your nervous energy into positivity. Just think, once you have completed your last exam you will have an entirely carefree summer ahead of you!

When Will My A-level Exam Timetable Be Released?

Timetables for compulsory exams like GCSEs and A Levels are usually released a couple of years in advance, but do remember that these are only there for guidance and should not be taken as completely certain.

Although exams will usually take place across roughly the same 2-3 week period of each academic year, you should never attempt to predict when your exams will be based on information from previous years.

To be on the safe side, however, we would recommend that you do not make any arrangements for holidays or social events around the time of your exams unless completely necessary, as doing so could allow you to get distracted from your revision, cause unwanted stress due to losing precious revision time, or leave you feeling tired and less alert.

Your education does not last forever but you will have plenty of opportunities to go on trips or nights out in the future.

What If I Am Away On The Day An Exam Is Set?

You should make sure that you do not accidentally make any plans which cause you to be away on the date of any of your exams. Failing to sit an exam could result in you failing the entire course and putting two years of study to waste.

If your family are looking to book a holiday which crosses over with the exam period, then every effort should be made for the trip to be booked for a later date, or rebooked for another year. Even a once in a lifetime trip will not sway the examiners, as the rules cannot be twisted for just one pupil.

If, however, you have a valid reason for missing an exam, such as being unable to make an exam due to the death of a loved one or as a result of having a funeral to attend, you should consult your school or exam board at the earliest opportunity.

Be warned that your eighteenth birthday will absolutely not be classed as a reasonable excuse to miss or re-sit an exam (and neither will being hungover on the morning you are supposed to sit the assessment!).

There are no excuses for missing exams, especially not if you have drunk too much alcohol the night before.
Don't plan to attend or host any parties around the exam period because being hungover won't get you out of doing your exam! Photo by Flóra on

In emergencies, the officials will work together to do all that they can to help you, whether that be awarding you a mark based on other assessed performances or using comparable units of a completed exam to predict how you would probably have been graded. This is called special consideration and applies to all students so long as they have completed 25% or more of the total assessment for the subject.

Similarly, special consideration can be applied to those who made it to the exam but were affected by circumstances out of their control, like sickness, a bereavement, or being in the midst of a court case, for example. In situations like these, exam boards will give an allowance (usually up to 5% of the raw mark) dependent on the severity of the circumstances.

How Are The Exams Graded?

When you sit your exam, you will be asked to write your answers in a booklet which will be collected once the assessment time is up. These booklets, known as scripts, get sent off to examiners to be marked. Examiners are more often than not qualified teachers, but don't worry as they are rigorously trained to mark to a particular standard.

The exam marking period usually lasts for around 12 weeks, so don't bank on getting your result until the end of the summer. Throughout this time, the examiners' work is checked externally to ensure their marking is consistent and fair and to ensure that they are applying the mark scheme correctly. If not, the examiner won't be allowed to continue marking.

Once all of the marks have been collected, the exam boards set the grade boundaries. This process, called awarding, is carried out by senior examiners who are experts in their particular subject field, and overseen by the qualifications regulator.

They look at scripts in relation to the grade boundary from the previous year as well as a range of scripts from the current year and then compare the scripts to decide the mark for this year's boundary.

Biology Exam-Taking Tips

Preparing for a Biology exam isn't the same as for any other subject. Of course, the general rules of revision apply, but there are a number of other things you should be thinking about doing when you have a Biology exam coming up.

Plan extra time for Biology revision

Okay, so we would say that as we are championing Biology. But, the fact is that things you learn about in Biology are often completely new to you (except those things you already covered in GCSE which may be slightly more familiar to you). So, rather than adding knowledge to things you already know, as you would be on an English or Maths course, you will need to take some extra time to learn the contents of your Biology modules as well as all of the complicated vocabulary that comes with it.

Study vocabulary lists

On the subject of vocabulary and glossaries, why not create flashcards to help you remember some of the long words and scientific terminology? Memorisation is great ahead of an exam, so be sure to start early and keep going back to the exercise, increasing the amount of time you spend on learning them as you get closer to the exam period.

Be active in your revision

This is more of s general suggestion rather than an exam tip. Reading alone isn't enough to pass a Biology exam with flying colours, you need to truly understand the information and be able to apply it logically. To gain this enhance understanding, you must ensure you participate actively in any classroom activities or experiments in the lab. Whilst doing so, ask as many questions as you can - you won't get the chance again and you will kick yourself if you hit a brick wall during your revision because you didn't explore the subject more at the time!

Use resources

There are various resources you can make use of, such as science books, revision websites, exam board websites and past papers, but one place that you shouldn't forget is your classroom textbook. These books have been designed for a specific purpose, working closely with your exact curriculum to help you to pass the exam! Be sure to take a look at their revision tips, exercises and any add-ons they offer ahead of your test.

Maximise points

Of course, you can know the course inside -out but that doesn't guarantee you top marks. Since your overall grade is down to a number of factors like coursework, lab experiments and racking up points in your long answers, you should try to target getting the most points. This can include displaying your knowledge of terminology in an exam, being proactive in class or it could be the extra effort you put into your homework assignments.

Be ready

It goes without saying but you should always make sure you have prepared yourself enough for the exam that you feel ready. Test yourself in the run-up to the exam so that you can address any weak areas before they catch you out on the exam paper. You'd rather find these before the examiner does in your actual exam when there's no opportunity to try again, wouldn't you?

To find out how using past papers can benefit you, visit our blog on the importance of past papers.

Furthermore, to find out what other resources are available to you, see this article on revision resources and techniques.

Finally, find biology tutors near me.

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Laura is a Francophile with a passion for literature and linguistics. She also loves skiing, cooking and painting.