Applying knowledge to novel contexts, and across the different topics of A Level Biology, is one of the hardest skills to help students develop. Similarly, improving exam technique remains stubbornly tricky for some students. In this blog, I explain a way to help students improve these skills, using a resource I’ve developed based on an OCR A Level Biology A exam question about the kidney from 2017.
In lessons, I’m sure we all use exam questions to help students with application of knowledge and exam technique skills. We’re there to lead them through it, work through things with them when they get stuck, and model the thought processes needed. But there never seems to be enough time in lessons to really support this part of student development as much as I’d like.
We always advise students to do exam question practice as part of their independent learning each week so they get plenty of experience with using their knowledge and skills in the way in which they will be assessed. However, it’s very hard to develop the application of knowledge and exam technique skills independently. Some students grasp it with enough exposure because the mark schemes provide what they need. Others need more.
This resource aims to model a way that we can provide that extra support. You can download the resource here. This is the only resource I’ve made like this so far (they’re very time consuming to produce!) and part of writing this blog post is to see if anyone else is interested in making more so that we can share the workload and help more students with the effort we put in.
The exam question I chose for this resource is Q22 from 2017’s Biological processes A Level Biology paper (H420/01). It is based around the kidney but has a variety of things about it that make it useful for supporting students developing their application and exam technique skills. There is:
In the resource, students are asked to have a go at the question first. They then read the guidance about ‘How to approach the question’ as shown in the diagram below, and decide whether they need to adjust their answers. Following that, they use the mark scheme (with additional comments) to check their answers, and summarise the key points that they need to consider when answering questions like these.
Before doing this with students I make it explicit that we are doing a task to develop general skills that should help them be better at answering questions from any topic. We work through it in class together and I explain the reasoning behind how the task helps develop skills.
Having used this question in lessons, anecdotally, students seem to really value the support so I’m hopeful they will gladly take the opportunity to do more independently – I just need to write them!
When I’ve written some more example questions, I plan to provide them as a resource for students to work on independently, with me just being available to help when they need further support. I’m really interested to hear your thoughts about this and whether you do similar things already, so that I can improve my support for students, and we can share resources. Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you have any questions about our biology or other science qualifications, you can email us at email@example.com call us on 01223 553998 or tweet us @OCR_Science. You can also sign up to subject updates and receive information about resources and support.
Chris Graham has been teaching in sixth form colleges for nearly 20 years and is currently the Head of Biology at Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge. He is also seconded for one day a week to Science and Plants for Schools (SAPS), working on a project to support the teaching of biology through plants. He studied Biological sciences as an undergraduate at Oxford University and then a PhD in insect neuroanatomy at Cambridge University. He is passionate about sustainability and natural history and has a particular passion for mosses and liverworts. In the school holidays you’ll find him enjoying the birds, pine woods and sea air on the north Norfolk coast with his family.