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

How to revise

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):

1. Separate what you don’t know from what you don’t understand

Science topics often require a balance of fact learning and understanding. As you revise, make a list of any parts you don’t understand (anything you “don’t get”). It’s much easier to learn something you understand fully, and you might need some extra help, perhaps from a teacher or even a friendly tutor 😊

Now we’re left with a simpler task –learning the stuff you understand but can’t recall (yet). Don’t worry – the rest of these tips can help with this. Exploring topics in this way also reveals any gaps in your knowledge. This is a good thing! Revision should be a little uncomfortable, that’s how we know we’re challenging our brains.

2. Focus on learning the “basics” first

In science, a lot of later topics rely on knowledge and logic from earlier chapters. DNA is great example. It’s first introduced as a biological molecule, then reframed as a way of carrying information. In A-level biology, we layer lots of detail on top: transcription and translation, transcription factors, mutations, and epigenetic controls. The icing on the cake is manipulating DNA in gene technologies.

The best way to revise science is to check your knowledge of the basics first: DNA is a biological molecule, a polymer arranged as genes and chromosomes. Do you understand this? If not, ask a friendly teacher or tutor for a new perspective. Everything else sits on top of this foundation. With biology, you may be off to a flying start with revision as words related to living things might be easier to remember!

(This is actually how research works too – when a discovery is made about the “basic” biology, it raises questions about everything “above” it, often leading to huge, powerful steps forward.)

3. What kind of learner are you?

What sticks in your mind from your last lesson? Do you remember pictures more than paragraphs? Maybe you like lists? The information in your textbook may be presented in a certain way, but there’s nothing stopping you changing it. For example, you could take the cell cycle or mitosis and turn it into a list of steps rather than a picture, perhaps. Maybe drawing out the food tests with a colourful picture might help to make it stick. Visuals can be very powerful tool in how to revise science.

4. Practise recall, not recognition

Often students say “I revise a lot, but I can’t seem to retain the information”. This is very common and the reason maybe that we’re not testing our brains in the right way. Often, if we’re reading some text over and over, or even using flashcards to see if we remember what we read a few seconds ago, we’re actually testing our familiarity. We recognise the information, we’re comfortable with it. The reward centres in our brains even squirt out feel-good chemicals to celebrate this. But familiarity isn’t going to help in the exam.

how to revise
Sometimes a complete distraction helps.

Instead, we need to practise recalling the information, and the secret to this is a delay. Flashcards are still a useful tool, as are your notes, but practise recalling the information after longer periods of time. Start with after half an hour, then a day, then a week, repeating where needed. The good news is that our revision sessions don’t need to be lengthy – try 15 minutes to read the information. Do something else for an hour (distract yourself!) then spend 15 minutes testing yourself. Spread these sessions throughout the week as your recall gets stronger.

5. Write it out

Reading and re-reading a textbook until you can recite it off by heart is often not the best way to revise. Firstly, there’s a chance you might know the words, but still not understand the topic (see tip #1). Secondly, these are some else’s words you’re learning.

Writing the information out is a much better way to practise your definitions of a gene, the steps of photosynthesis or how a synapse works (for example). Write in your own words, and the physical act of doing so will help you to recall better. A recent study even shows revising with paper and pen beats revising from a screen.

6. Tell a story

Every process in science tells a story. A process has inputs and outputs and something happening in the middle. That might sound over-simplistic, but it fits. Look at photosynthesis, respiration, meiosis, DNA replication… One way to make all of these more memorable is to look for the story in each topic. Start with the inputs (perhaps light, water and NADP) and take yourself through the process (maybe the light dependent reaction) step by step until you get to the outputs (ATP and reduced NADP). Stories are memorable, but also match the structure of the mark scheme. Each mark represents a moment in the story from the beginning to the end of your answer.

7. Test yourself… now!

Most A-level biology exam papers test the application of your knowledge, meaning you bring your mixture of understanding and learnt facts into an unfamiliar setting. This makes past exam questions a great way to develop your recall skills. You’ll need to be comfortable with the questions you get wrong. Check the mark schemes – what did you miss out?

Don’t delay testing yourself with real exam questions. Even if you get the answer wrong, it might be spectacularly wrong in a memorable way!

Past A-level biology exam papers are freely available, with their mark schemes, from the AQA, OCR, and Edexcel (Salters), as well as International A-levels from Cambridge and Edexcel.

8. Pace yourself

When planning to revise, regular short sessions are more effective than a mammoth six-hour session once a week. Spaced repetition makes it easier to combat “The Forgetting Curve” (see below) and recall a larger amount of what you’re taught. It also makes it easier to prioritise recall rather than recognition (see tip #4). Frequent, short revision session are also easier to bring into your weekly schedule. This is true when revising multiple topics or subjects – try to space out similar topics on different days, so that each topic act like a “break” for the others.

how to revise and beat the forgetting curve
Spaced revision combats The Forgetting Curve (adapted from Wikipedia CCBY4.0)

9. Ask yourself “What’s the point?”

It might seem like a rude question to ask your teacher, but it’s the best question to ask when revising – what’s the point? Why is it in the textbook? What’s so special about it? The question “What’s the point?” cuts straight to the important stuff. What’s the point of an enzyme? They control the pace of most of the reactions in our body, without them nothing would work as it should.

“What’s the point?” will focus you on the important information and help you understand how and why things work. It may also be more likely you’ll remember something if you can see its value.

10. Look after yourself

Taking a step back, the exams are important, but they are only a means to an end. Your mental health and wellbeing are more important. If revising feels stressful rather than motivating, it’s unlikely to work. So, find a way to revise that suits you. Use your family to help, or a revision buddy. Find a comfy spot. Reward yourself for your hard work. Between those regular revision sessions do something completely different. It’s likely you’ll still be mulling over the information at the back of your mind, and relaxing may even lead to Eureka moments.

11. Bonus tip! Essays and the holistic approach (for AQA A-level biology students)

Practising writing essays for the AQA A-level biology exam is obviously useful for paper 3, where the essay is worth 25 marks. But practising the essay is also an excellent way to revise in general as it encourages you to think holistically, across different topic areas in the AQA course. As you may have noticed, many of the exam questions bring together topics in combinations you may not have been taught. The essay is excellent practice for this. I’ve written more about how to approach essay questions.

Good luck with your revision 😊

If you’d like some help preparing for your exams, or more help with how to revise, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

All the best,

John

Dr John Ankers is a specialist online biology tutor and academic wellbeing coach. https://wooltontutors.co.uk

Author: Dr John Ankers

Dr John Ankers is a tutor, coach and writer. For writing and consultancy work, please contact me at John@wooltontutors.co.uk

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