How to improve your critical thinking skills

Critical thinking is about finding a balance – evaluating information towards a balanced view of a particular topic. Developing your critical thinking skills is an essential part of putting your work into context. But evaluating data, from multiple sources, is also an essential part of modern life. With so much debate over “fake” news and AI-related manipulation, critical thinking skills can help you determine who you trust and why.

Critical thinking skills are also an important part of education, from “evaluate” questions in science, to the A-level EPQ, up to postgraduate and academic reports and assignments. So here are some tips for developing your critical thinking skills.

Learn to separate fact from opinion

Whether it’s a statement in a newspaper, a web site or social media – your first job is to establish if the basis is fact (did it really happen? Is there any proof? – see sources below) or opinion (someone is presenting their own conclusion, which may be subject to bias – see below). Both are useful to your balanced view, but should be handled very differently. You could suggest, for example, that two people have interpreted an event differently, with all their experiences and potential biases called into play, so long as you make the line between fact and opinion clear.

Who or what do you trust? The importance of sources

In building your view of a topic, it is important that any information you rely on is trustworthy. The sources you use should/will always be transparent and public (so they can be checked, just as you are checking on other people’s sources). But how do you decide what to trust? Eyewitness observations, videos or experimental data are the safest form of establishing trust – although these (and the trust they carry) are not immune to manipulation. When gathering academic sources, look for work published in established peer-reviewed journals, or papers that have been cited multiple times by other researchers.

Question everything – Look at the core data when evaluating a source

If you are writing an academic report (your assignment may be to “critically review relevant literature” or “critically evaluate the scientific basis”), the temptation may be to include a source based solely on its “headline” – the core hypothesis or message. Where possible, make sure you are comfortable that the data supporting these sources, and how they are analysed, backs up these “take home messages”. A-level students use this approach in their “evaluate” questions, or during their Extended Project Qualification (EPQ).

Bias, motives and balance

Considering different points of view is essential when presenting the balanced view that we’re striving for with critical thinking. A core argument may have sources in support and in disagreement – this is natural and healthy, and helps you to discuss the current thinking around topics that may be controversial.

Real life is rarely black and white though (see language below). Calm, balanced appraisal of the complexities of a situation, with empathy, is often how people reach a point of understanding. Generally, points of view that seek to inflame, “gas light” or otherwise encourage division are to be treated with suspicion – still discussed, of course, but with a cautious eye on motives and bias. Bias is also an important consideration in self-reflection – how did your opinions change throughout a project? What did you do as a result?

Language is important – theirs and yours!

When evaluating a source, look for sweeping statements – does the data really apply in “all” cases? Is “every” person the same? Generally, good research favours open language, allowing for the possibility of exceptions to rules. During critical analysis, make sure your conclusions are open too – “all” becomes “most” or “many”, while “every” is diluted to “frequently” or “often”.

Why trust me?

I’m a former scientist with a PhD in cell biology and mathematics, now a tutor and coach. I’ve written for the Royal Statistical Society on shaky statistics in the media, and have over a decade’s experience as a freelance science writer. I’m hoping you might like some one-to-one help developing your critical thinking skills (That’s my bias!)

Generally, though, the point I’m trying to make is don’t give your trust out lightly, develop your critical thinking skills and decide for yourself.

Good luck,

John
Woolton Tutors

Dr John Ankers is a specialist biology tutor and academic coach. He also helps postgraduates and PhDs with critical analysis.

Studying A-level biology in Dubai – what are the options?

Many UK expat families are relocating to the United Arab Emirates with teenage children. Parents and students often ask me what the options are for studying A-levels in Dubai. Here are some details about the next steps and the choices you have. We’re focussing on A-level biology in Dubai, but many of these points apply more generally too.

Choosing a school in Dubai vs online school vs home school (home education)

Enrolling at a local school to study A-level biology in Dubai

Depending on your circumstances, one of the local schools may be a good option. Enrolling for A-level biology at a Dubai school gives you two years’ teaching on topics like genetics, homeostasis and photosynthesis, together with practical skills and experience (more on this below). Exams are usually taken at the school (most schools double as exam centres). Each school will have its own requirements for entry in terms of grades at GCSE or equivalent and may offer A-level biology courses from different course providers (see below).

Here are some popular Dubai schools, with the specific A-level biology courses they provide:

GEMS Jumeirah college 19th St – Al Safa
(Biology course/exam board: Edexcel Salters Nuffield)

Dubai College Al Sufouh – Al Sufouh 2
(Biology course/exam board: Edexcel Salters Nuffield)

Dubai British School Emirates Hills Town Centre – Springs 3 Emirates Hills
(Biology course/exam board: Edexcel Biology B)

Dubai English speaking school and college Oud Metha Rd – Umm Hurair 2
(Biology course/exam board: AQA)

Safa community school Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Road
(Biology course/exam board: AQA International A-level)

GEMS Cambridge International school Al Twar 1
(Biology course/exam board: Cambridge International A Level)

Differences between the A-level biology courses are discussed below.

Enrolling for A-level biology at an online school

Online schools provide an alternative for A-level biology students who need to move around (perhaps through family commitments) or who prefer online learning from their own home. Again, these schools have individual requirements (and fees) and offer different A-level biology courses.
Studying A-level biology at an online school still requires you to attend an exam centre to sit exams (although online exams are currently being trialled by the AQA). You may also need to attend a local centre to gain a “practical endorsement” required by some universities (see below).

Home-schooling (home education)

Some A-level students opt for an entirely home-schooled (home educated) approach. Here you have lots of flexibility in choice of A-level biology course provider/ exam board, but more admin to take care of. You’ll need to register with the British Council at least six weeks before your exams and find a local exam centre offering A-level biology in Dubai. The exam dates can be found on the website of your course provider, for example AQA, Edexcel. You’ll also need to decide if you need to earn your “practical endorsement” (see below).

Private tuition can complement all of these approaches – working with a dedicated one-to-one tutor throughout your course. I am a specialist A-level biology tutor if you want to get in touch for any advice on your options 🙂

Choice of exam board for A-level Biology in Dubai

Studying A-level biology in Dubai Different schools offer A-level biology courses from different exam boards. Each has its pros and cons. AQA A-level biology is a popular choice in schools in the UK, and is perhaps also (slightly!) easier than others in terms of the exam content; however it features a 25 mark essay question which some students may find a challenge. Edexcel’s Salters/Nuffield and Biology B courses are other highly respected options, but the content is more detailed.

Alternatively, OxfordAQA, Edexcel, and Cambridge International Education (CIE) also offer “international” A-level Biology courses. These are very similar to A-levels, with some details changed to put exam questions in a more international context. These international courses are modular, meaning rather than sitting all the exams at the end of the course, assessment is  spread throughout the two years, after each taught module.

The content covered is broadly the same for each exam board including cell biology, evolution, genetics and immunity. Each exam board has a “specification” for their course that can be downloaded from the web sites linked above.

Practical endorsement and applying to university

In the past, assessed practical work contributed to your final A-level biology grade. Now, most A-level biology courses “strongly encourage” you to have practical experience, yet this doesn’t contribute to your final grade. So why do it at all? This separate “practical endorsement” is sometimes known as Common Practical Assessment Criteria, or CPAC.

Your CPAC endorsement is proof that you have practical experience and is sometimes required for admission to university courses like medicine. UCAS checks on your CPAC status during the university application process in the UK. It’s worth checking with your desired university, especially when applying to UK universities from Dubai, to see if the practical endorsement is required. If you are home-schooling, it may still be possible to do your practical training, and get your endorsement, at a local school.

Sharing your experience of A-level biology in Dubai 

Often the best way to find out how schools work (and which is the best for you) is from the inside – to talk to students who actually go there, or have been there.  There is a thriving community of teenagers in UAE on reddit discussing “universities and colleges”. There’s also a discussion on “looking for friends” in Dubai – school is only one side of life in Dubai after all, and balance is important to your wellbeing, and therefore to your grades.

Extra help and advice for studying A-level biology in Dubai

I specialise in online A-level biology tutoring, and have several online students in UAE and extensive experience with home education. If you’d like some advice on your next steps, I’d be very happy to help. Equally if you’d like academic support with your A-level biology, please do get in touch.

Best of luck,

John

Dr John Ankers is a specialist online A-level biology tutor and academic coach.
Woolton Tutors has international clients in UAE, USA and China as well as the UK.

How to answer A-level biology describe and explain questions

The wording of A-level biology describe and explain questions is  important.  Often when people lose marks in exams, it’s not due to being completely wrong, but slightly wrong – the answer might make perfect sense, but miss the point of the question. Very frustrating!

I’ve written about how to answer A-level biology evaluate questions, and application questions, but what about “Describe” and “explain” questions? What’s the difference? What does each question want from you?

Answering A level biology Describe Questions

“Describe” questions want to know what is happening in front of you – perhaps in a graph, a scientific diagram or a picture. You need to describe what you can see!

Describe and explain questions in A-level biology
A typical A-level Biology graph. Describe – What can you see? Explain – Why does it look like this?

Imagine the examiner doesn’t know any biology and can’t see the paper – your job is to tell them what’s going on. What is the line in the graph doing? What is the plant in the picture above doing in response to sunlight?

The line may show a relationship between two variables – look for their names on the axes of a graph. Can you see a correlation between temperature and enzyme activity? Or, for the plant picture, the bend of a plant and the light levels around it?

Steer clear of using “it” in your descriptions – use scientific names instead. “The gradient of the line is…” or “the line representing enzyme activity flattens after…

Keep an eye on the number of marks the question is worth – these will tell you how many details you need to mention.

Answering A level biology Explain Questions

Explain questions want to know why something is happening. You may still have a graph in front of you, but why does it look like that?

Focus on scientific explanation – what is going on “behind the scenes”? If the graph is of enzyme activity, we might talk about how the enzyme meets the substrate and the effect of temperature on how often this happens – explaining why the graph points upwards.

Use clear language here, too. Instead of “it” use the correct names for whatever you are writing about. Clear language doesn’t have to involve lots of scientific words. The idea is that your points logically follow each other. This happens, then this happens… so in the graph this happens.

Use the word “because” in your answer – it’s a good way to focus yourself on the explanation rather than the description.

Answering A level biology “describe and explain” Questions

Some exam questions ask you to both “describe and explain”. Here you can be methodical – look at the number of marks for the question and divide it in half. This is the number of points you need to mention, including a description and explanation for each.

Remember for each pair of marks – first describeWhat does this look like?” then explainWhy does it look like that?”

Answering A level biology Suggest questions

Some questions may ask you to “suggest an explanation” for a graph or an event in the text. This is slightly different to an “explain” question as it gives you a little more freedom.

There may be multiple reasons why something behaves as it does, or why a line flattens on a graph. Your job here is to pick a theory than makes sense, then argue how and why it explains what’s going on. The mark scheme will likely have lots of flexibility to allow for whichever explanation you choose.

Good luck!

You can find this guide with added bits, including model answers to real exam questions, in our shiny eBook “How to answer A-level Biology exam questions”, available in our shop. A purchase from our shop gives you a month’s free subscription to “ask an expert” – very useful for some exam practice 🙂

 

If you’d like to work through some A-level biology describe and explain questions, from exam boards like AQA, please get in touch with me at Woolton Tutors, and we can set up some online A-level biology tutoring sessions. If you have a few quick questions, have a look at our Ask a scientist service.

Best wishes,

John

Dr John Ankers

Specialist online A-level biology tutor and academic wellbeing coach

https://wooltontutors.co.uk

How to answer A-level biology application questions

A lot of our tutees ask about How to answer A-level biology application questions. Application questions (AKA “applied knowledge” questions) challenge you to apply your knowledge in an unfamiliar setting. Essentially, they are biological puzzles, and you have all the information you need to solve them – the real challenge is working out how and where to start.

Here are a few tips to guide you through:

  1. Ask yourself – what topic is this?

Look for key words and phrases that give you clues to which topic area (or areas) the question relates to. There may be a lot of information here that you’ve not seen before – that’s ok! It’s designed that way. If there’s a strangely named chemical described as an enzyme, everything you know about enzymes and proteins might be useful. Do we have an unfamiliar gene? Great – now everything you know about transcription, translation, epigenetics and genetic engineering could be relevant. Continue reading “How to answer A-level biology application questions”

How to answer A-level biology evaluate questions

One of the most popular requests from online A-level Biology students is “How do I answer A-level biology evaluate questions?”

Usually, these questions involve scientific data and a conclusion made by a student, journalist or politician. The idea is to discuss their conclusions and decide how much you agree.

Here are a few tips to try:

1. Don’t be afraid to agree AND disagree

Evaluate questions are usually looking for a balance of your opinions. You probably won’t agree completely, or disagree completely with a conclusion and that’s fine. The good news is there are marks for providing evidence for and against.

2. Look for “sweeping” statements

Usually “evaluate” questions are testing your ability to spot where the “story” in the science has been misinterpreted. Often the conclusion over-reaches – maybe it says a drug “cures lung disease” when the data only shows an effect on cells in dish, or in rabbits rather than humans. Look for places where the conclusion and the data are mismatched. Continue reading “How to answer A-level biology evaluate questions”

A-level biology summer school- get a head start on next year

Our online A-level biology summer school will help you get a head start on the next school year.

Whether you’re making the transition from GCSE to A-levels (and we have a blog that may help), or heading towards your exam year and more detailed topics in Year 13, I can help!

Our online A-level biology summer school offers you:
  • Friendly, one-to-one daytime sessions available during the summer holidays at a reduced price compared to term-time sessions. (£55 compared to £75)
  • Our weekly masterclass session for small groups will also be running over the summer, depending on numbers, at a reduced rate. (£30 compared to £35). We are also taking booking for the term-time A-level biology masterclass, starting October 2024.
  • Extra help and Q&A via ask an expert is free as always for my students.
  • Ideal revision and practice to improve predicted grades for UCAS or medical school applications.
  • Sessions are flexible around you and your summer holiday plans 🙂
For A-level Biology students about to start Y12 (AS):
  • Help getting ready for A-level biology, with a head start on biological molecules, cells, DNA and other topics you’ll meet in the first year of A-level biology.
  • Gently make the transition from GCSE to A-level, seeing where the course builds on what you already know.
  • Get answers to any questions you might have about the course, or the science itself.
  • Top up your maths skills ready for the “maths for biologists” aspect of the A-level course.
  • Explore the different types of questions that come up in mocks, class tests and the A-level exams themselves.
  • Put A-level biology topics into context, reflecting on the latest research, career ideas, and university prospects.
For A-level biology students entering Year 13 (A2):
  • Recap your Year 12/ AS biology learning, with “troubleshooting” on any topics you find challenging.
  • Work on areas for improvement following mock exams or class test results.
  • Get a head start on Year 13 topics that delve deeper into DNA, genetics and the nervous system.
  • Work on skills you need for the A-level biology exams –
    Learning (approaching and remembering biological “facts”)
    Understanding (feeling comfortable and confident with the processes of life)
    Presenting (putting your knowledge on paper in a way that gets you the marks you deserve)
  • Focussing on the assessment outcomes (AO) of the major exam boards.
  • Work on specific aspects of the exam, such as “evaluate” questions, “application” questions and exam technique.
  • Practice and receive feedback on answers to longer questions (or essays for AQA paper 3).
  • Boost your confidence ahead of the new term.

If this sounds useful, get in touch for a chat about our A-level biology summer school and we’ll take it from there.

All the best,

John
John@wooltontutors.co.uk

Dr John Ankers is a specialist online A-level biology tutor, coach and writer

https://wooltontutors.co.uk

Business German tutoring – language skills in a changing world

We offer online business German tutoring for individuals and teams. Perhaps you are working for a German company? Or collaborating in one of Germany’s many academic or business sectors?

Germany leads in industry areas such as pharmaceuticals, automobiles, engineering and electronics, and  German is the most spoken native language within the EU. Having a functional understanding of “German for business” will help you to collaborate effectively with German partners and clients.

Our flexible online business German tutoring will help you:
  • Improve German language skills whether you are a beginner or sharpening your language skills.
  • Learn practical up-to-date phrases and vocabulary to help you communicate effectively with German partners and clients.
  • Prepare for relocation.
  • Practise German conversation in and around our taught sessions.
  • Strengthen and develop new and existing relationships.
  • Practise conversation around topics you suggest – preparing for a meeting or presentation perhaps (see below).
  • Improve your pronunciation and listening skills.
  • Increase your confidence when speaking German in person on during online meetings.
  • Learn the language in a way that is flexible to your schedule.
  • Get expert help in proof-reading important emails or reports.
Business German tutoring to prepare for a number of situations:business German
  • Important meetings
  • Job interviews
  • Professional development
  • Team building
  • Relocation
  • Advancing your career in a multinational company

 

Prices start from £50 per hour – please get in touch to discuss your needs.

Sessions are hosted by Sammy Ankers. I am an experienced modern foreign languages teacher, and a former Head of German with a 1st class degree in German.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Sammy

Sammy@wooltontutors.co.uk

Woolton Tutors

Sammy Ankers is a specialist German tutor
Woolton Tutors

Woolton Village, Liverpool, UK and online.

 

How to revise for A-level biology (and everything else)

Students often ask for advice on how to revise. Learning is different from understanding, but we need both to get the marks in exams. We can prepare for different questions, like describe and explain, evaluate or application A-level biology questions. But sometimes there is no avoiding it – there is also a lot to learn. So how best to do it?

Here are a few tips for how to revise effectively. (I’m using “How to revise for A-level biology” as an example here, but these tips can be applied to other subjects, too): Continue reading “How to revise for A-level biology (and everything else)”

Online Italian lessons for couples

Ciao! We offer online Italian lessons for individuals and couples. These have been very popular in recent years, with Italy a well-loved travel destination, while Italian culture and food gets a warm abbraccio in the UK. Learning Italian with your partner brings a little more of Italy into your life.

Why not book an Italian taster session as the perfect Christmas gift? 🎄 🇮🇹

Couples’ sessions cost £50 per hour.

Sessions are hosted by Sammy Ankers. I am an experienced modern foreign languages teacher and I love Italy.

Our tutee couples really look forward to our sessions, where they can sit back, relax, and learn the language in a fun but practical way. Our job is help you have fun learning together – a new hobby! – and leave you prepared and confident for your next trip to Italy.

Couples’ Italian lessons are completely flexible to you, but they can involve:

  • Practical phrases and vocabulary to help you on your next trip to Italy.
  • Tools to practise Italian conversation with your partner (this can be a lot of fun!)
  • Conversation practice around your favourite topics – cookery, culture, or even your last holiday.
  • A chance to relax and slip into Italian language and culture.
  • Boosting your confidence, improving mental function and even delaying dementia.
  • While you’re having fun, you are also learning a skill that may be attractive to future employers.

Single taster sessions or blocks of sessions can be given as a gift – an ideal way to start your new hobby together!

Get in touch to book an Italian taster session as a last-minute Christmas gift and start 2024 with something new.

We wish you all a peaceful Christmas, and all the best for 2024.

Buon Natale!

Sammy, John and Woolton Tutors

 

Sammy Ankers is a specialist Italian tutor 
 Woolton Tutors

Woolton Village, Liverpool, UK and online.

 

Five practical ways to help your child with exam stress

Exams, class tests and mocks can be stressful. For better or worse, they’re often a test of resilience as much as knowledge. Parents can help in a number of ways to manage their child’s exam stress.

It might not be easy – your child may “push back”. Explain that you want to help; perhaps show them this post. Hopefully you’ll find something useful here that you can work on together.

  1. Remember that they are the expert on the subject, so you don’t need to be.

Often parents ask me how they can support their children in subjects like maths or biology if they themselves didn’t take them at school (or if they did, it was a long time ago). To provide support, you don’t need to be experts – your children already are. Instead, you can be their “spotter” – like a gym buddy! Ask them what they need to work on, what list of facts they need to know and surprise them with questions out of the blue. While you aren’t providing teaching, you are motivating and encouraging your child.

  1. Help with time-keeping and list-making.

Students approaching exams often have a lot on their mind, so practicalities like organisation and time-management get pushed aside. Here, parents can help massively with their child’s exam stress.

Gently help them to create a working routine – ask which topics they feel they need to prioritise and help them to make a list. Keep referring back to this list (even if you don’t know anything about the topics yourself – this doesn’t matter!). If they are frustrated with a topic ask them if the issue is knowledge (“making it stick”) or understanding (do they “get it”?). Breaking topics down in this way helps your child to prioritise and manage issues. Sharing these lists is also a great way to work alongside teachers and tutors – it gives us something to focus on in the next tutoring session. Continue reading “Five practical ways to help your child with exam stress”