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The Evolution Of Learning Biology from GCSE Biology and Beyond

From Laura, published on 22/11/2017 Blog > Academia > Biology > The Evolution Of Biology as an Academic Subject

Just like the evolution of the science, Biology as a GCSE subject has evolved over the years to reflect the many new discoveries found and research methods used by biologists. It is a fantastic subject to learn about.

For instance, the current GCSE Biology syllabi teach students about Dolly the sheep, the first ever cloned animal, who marks a scientific breakthrough that wouldn’t have been believed possible prior to 1996.

Some of the ways the content has advanced with the times is with the addition of new modules covering things like growing crops, which we now know much more about thanks to developments in the research of cultivation, breeding and harvesting of crops.

Not only has our knowledge widened, but our outlook has too and the subject is taught with a whole-world economic focus.

In addition, as biotechnology moves forward, teachers now consider the use of larger-scale bio-fermenters and how enzymes are now used commercially. That said, technology now plays a very big part in the life of scientists, so are these small additions to the course content enough to reflect just how much Biology has evolved in the contemporary world?

Are GCSE Courses As Up To Date As They Should Be?

As we’ve mentioned in other posts concerning GCSE Biology, the subject naturally has close links to the other Sciences, but also with Mathematics. However, have you ever considered how inter-related Biology and Information Technology are too?

Advances in technology are forever changing what we are capable of doing and finding out, not just in the world of science, so it is inevitable that this modern technological era has has a huge influence on Biology in recent years, not to mention the impact it has had on how Biology affects us in our daily lives.

In fact, modern molecular Biology relies very heavily on new technologies. However, the technological components of Biology courses at this level have scarcely changed over the last few decades.

Scientists believe that modern Biology courses, if they want to really encourage young biologists and give them a real insight into the live science as it exists today, should bring courses up to date and make them more relevant to the discipline.

Biology has been influenced by technological advancements. Biologists believe that courses need to reflect the importance of Technology and Mathematics to contemporary Biology. Photo credit: allispossible.org.uk via VisualHunt / CC BY

While it seems that Physics is growing with the times, professionals from the Biology sector do not feel that their subject field is given the same level of sophistication within education and therefore aren’t given the basics needed to truly understand things like DNA sequence alignment or gene prediction algorithms.

These concepts, which are described as bioinformatics, are important to contemporary biologists and it is thought by the scientific community that these statistical techniques should be taught as part of national curriculums to give an-all round teaching approach to the branch of science.

This pedagogical argument is still on many people’s lips, however young biologists can feel confident in the knowledge that the new AQA Biology GCSE, for example, has been produced in conjunction with Mathematics and Physics experts.

The Impact Of Government Changes To GCSE Qualifications

The History Of GCSE Science Exams

While the Sciences have been studied for generations as part of what was known as the CSE, and then the O Level, the qualification that we know today has only been around since 1988. That, however, does not mean to say that the course has stayed the same since the 80s. Far from it.

Firstly, we have seen some changes to the content covered, which we have exemplified above, but also in the way that the GCSE course is marked.

For instance, between 1988 and 1994, GCSE grades were awarded from A-G (with the possibility of getting a U mark, even back then). Since the mid 90s, however, an A* grade has been in place to distinguish the highest scoring pupils from the rest of the A category.

Science exams, in particular, have been given special attention in recent years and have moved away from the traditional structure, whereby students would study three scientific components (Biology, Chemistry and Physics) and receive a final grade which encompassed all three of these in equal measures.

Now, pupils have the choice to study one single Science (otherwise known as Core science) and then select one of two complementary GCSEs, distinguished as Additional Science (with a more academic focus) and Applied Science (with a more vocational approach). To reflect these significant changes, pupils are now given separate grades for each of the subjects.

The previous modular approach to learning has also been altered and many linear courses introduced to offer more straightforward goals for students.

With these changes, coursework has been abolished from the grading system (although homework and coursework can still be set to encourage learning) and students’ performance over the two years is solely based on how they do during their written, marked exam.

This is seen as a positive move forward as it means that pupils can no longer swindle the exam boards by getting lots of help with their coursework, thus bringing their grade up.

Coursework is no longer graded as part of a Biology GCSE. Biology GCSE exams are now marked solely on exams. Photo credit: c_H via Visual hunt / CC BY

Furthermore, GCSEs have undergone a government-led reform in recent years, which has been introduced in four phases. We are now part of the way through Phase 2, which affects how Biology (among many other GCSE subjects) is taught and assessed.

Right now, teachers and students alike are currently experiencing the amendments, so only time will tell if this reform is an improvement on the old GCSE structure or not.

How Are GCSEs Being Graded Post-2016?

One very important thing to note as you enter your first or second year of GCSE is that this course has undergone many changes in just the last two years alone. This means that the structure of courses may be quite different than before, as well as how you are assessed.

As such, any revision tools or advice passed down from peers and siblings having taken the older version of the GCSE exam might not be as directly beneficial to you.

Keep reading to find out how the changes affect you, as this could help you to feel more confident in the approach to the exams.

Most GCSE pupils will be familiar with the historical grading system, which awarded marks ranging from A*-G, with A* being the highest attainable and G being the lowest (not forgetting the U grade for a set of very poor exam answers). However, a new grade system is in the process of being phased in to the UK education system whereby pupils are marked against a 9-1 system instead.

Newly reformed Biology courses have been taught in UK schools from 2016, with the first assessments taking place in 2018. Conservatives pushed for a GCSE reform and Biology is mid-way through the transitional phase. Photo credit: ** Maurice ** via Visualhunt.com / CC BY

This new grading method will be applied for the first time on this academic year’s Year 11 Biology students. English Literature, English Language and Mathematics subjects have already seen this amended GCSE grading structure put into place, as the summer’s exams were given this treatment for the very first time in the UK.

Although it sounds reasonably straightforward, the familiar letters do not translate seamlessly into the scale of digits. Ofqual, the exams watchdog, has advised educators not to make direct comparisons between the two because the boundaries do differ, so you will have to do a bit of reading up in order to understand where you currently sit on the scale and where you need to be.

While there is still a U, or ungraded, mark, grades 9, 8 and 7 are roughly equivalent to A* and A. Grades 6, 5 and 4 can be likened to a B-C, meanwhile a 3 is said to be similar to a current D. Finally, 2 and 1 are close to E, F and G grades.

Resources For The Reformed Exams

While the exam boards still provide information on their older specifications and offer pre-reform past papers for you to download, you should be aware that your 2018 exam may not be the same in structure. However, a big part of revision in any subject is exam technique, so there is no harm in using these outdated resources to work towards building your confidence ahead of your final exam.

If anything, familiarising yourself with the older structure might make you appreciate the changes that have come about as a result of the reform!

For up to date revision materials directly related to your new specification, look out for online materials produced in the last year as well as new publications and releases in book shops, which are sure to reflect the changes.

To check out some of the biggest breakthroughs in Biology, see here.

Alternatively, if you want to brush up on your Biology vocabulary, check out this blog.

Finally, to learn about the links between Art and Biology, visit our blog on the artistic links.


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