AS Level Biology – a word to the wise

I did A Level Biology at school many moons ago, and have been teaching AS Level Biology for six years now. I can assure you that AS Level Biology is not an easy option! I find myself repeating the same comments to students year after year, so I figured it was time to write them down for everyone to read.

What is AS Level Biology?

AS Level Biology is simply the first half of A Level Biology. There are eleven content sections covered over an estimated 180 guided-learning hours. Content includes a wide range of biological topics from molecular biology through global patterns of disease. The best place to see the full list of content covered is in the syllabus, downloadable from Cambridge’s AS/A Biology page.

AS Level Biology is tested through three examinations. A multiple-choice paper and a short-answer paper focusing on testing understanding and application of the theory. The third paper is a practical exam covering microscope and experimental work. At AS Level, all students must write the practical exam; there is no alternative to practical option.

The difference between IGCSE Biology and AS Biology

Yes… AS Biology is biology… just like IGCSE Biology is biology. At the end of the day, all different versions of teaching biology on any curriculum at any level are effectively the same: the student learns about the study of living organisms. However, there are differences between how IGCSE and AS Biology are structured and assessed which mean a big transition is required.

Remember how AS Level Biology has only 11 content sections and 180 guided-learning hours? If you look at the syllabus on Cambridge’s IGCSE Biology page, you’ll see that IGCSE Biology has a total of 21 content sections. IGCSE Biology has nearly double the number of content sections, yet the work is covered in only 130 guided-learning hours. This all comes together to demonstrate that AS Biology is taking a much deeper look at the content. AS Biology spends more time on fewer topics, covering each topic to a much greater depth.

This deep and thorough understanding is critical because it is associated with a movement towards a greater testing of application. AS Biology is not just about knowing the facts properly; it’s about being able to apply the facts to situations, even novel situations. A proper understanding of the work means that the knowledge can be applied.

Considering this with a bit of data, let’s look at the assessment objectives for IGCSE and AS Level Biology. There are three assessment objectives, common to both levels: (1) knowledge with understanding; (2) handling information and solving problems; and (3) experimental skills and investigations.

as biology exam objectives

You can see straight away that the AS Biology has a greater focus on handling information and solving problems in the theory papers. This is tested through questions which address the application of knowledge. In order to handle new information and solve problems, you need to be able to apply the knowledge that you have acquired.

This change in focus can also be seen in the difference in weighting between the assessment objectives at the two levels. The weighting indicates the mark contribution proportion of different types of questions across the full set of examinations.

as level biology assessment weighting

Again, we can see that there is less focus on simply “knowledge with understanding” at AS Level. There is an increase in the importance of handling information and solving problems as well as experimental skills and investigations. The application of knowledge is highlighted again as an important skill.

So, what do these differences mean to a student?

Transitioning from IGCSE to AS Level

Many students move enthusiastically from IGCSE Biology into AS Biology and then their world starts falling apart. The psychological difference between the two levels is dramatic. For many students, their experience of practicals has been very little, or in groupwork. Now there is the pressure of an individual practical examination. On top of this transition, parrot-learning the textbook will now barely scrape a pass on tests and examinations.

I actually find that in many cases, a student’s mark for IGCSE English is a better predictor of their AS Level Biology mark than their IGCSE Biology mark! Comprehension, analysis and understanding are such important elements of answering questions in AS Biology. These skills are learned and developed in English and need to be transferred into Biology. A student that understands the work that they are covering and has the skills to really dissect a question and understand what is being asked, is going to be much better equipped for AS Biology.

So… what can be done to make this transition smoother? We’re going to have a look at two things that can help the transition:

  1. Finding links between content sections of AS Biology
  2. Common pitfalls and helpful hints for AS Biology

Finding links between content sections of AS Biology

The more links that you can find between pieces of knowledge, the more memorable each piece of knowledge becomes. When you can construct a set of knowledge with bridges, context and reason, it is much easier to remember everything. There are many varied links between the content topics in the AS Biology syllabus.

The textbooks that I have come across follow the topic arrangement in the syllabus: starting off with cell structure, then moving into biological molecules and enzymes, before cell membranes and transport. The mitotic cell cycle and nucleic acids and protein synthesis finish off the small-scale work. Transport in plants is followed by transport in animals, then gas exchange and smoking lead naturally into infectious disease and immunity.

However, there’s no need to stick to this flow when learning or revising! When I teach AS Biology, I teach the small-scale work in a very different order. I start, in my first lesson, with a discussion of chemistry bond types. I then move straight into biological molecules, working through the structure, and then linking structure to function and biological implications for carbohydrates, proteins and lipids. DNA is covered before protein synthesis and the mitotic cell cycle.

I’ve chosen to change the order and mix up the first sections of the syllabus (and the first chapters of my students’ textbook!) in order to highlight the importance of the biochemistry and give a foundation to work off. So much of the content through enzymes, cell membranes, and even cell structure, links back to the basics of carbohydrates, proteins and lipids.

I like to build up from the smallest components studied, increasing scale gradually to the broadest components studied. Once all the necessary molecules have been built and understood, these are linked together into cells, and then into systems by looking at transport in plants and animals. After gas exchange and smoking, there is a natural flow into infectious disease and immunity and these tie in so beautifully with the beginning which looks at biological molecules.

This scaled approach is the one that I have used in the CambriLearn AS Biology course. Irrespective of the approach you are taking to AS Biology, make sure you look at the details of the knowledge and how the details relate to other topics and build upon each other. Work continuously through revision of earlier topics as you build on them with later topics to ensure that you are highlighting all the connections as you go.

Common pitfalls and helpful hints for AS Biology

Many students don’t come to AS Biology with a comfortable chemistry background. There is a large component of molecular biology, and this underpins many of the later topics. If you have a weak chemistry background, ensure that you pay particular attention to the biological molecules work. Ensure these topics are understood and consolidated before building on them further.

There is often an unfortunate misconception that biology is an easy science. It isn’t! Biology being a science is a topic for another entire article, suffice it to say at this point that biology has its own unique aspects, and also includes aspects of both chemistry and physics. Biology is most definitely not an easy option!

Students starting AS Biology often have an extreme commitment to learning facts, and a love for factual-recall questions rather than application questions. This is often an unfortunate overflow from their studying approach at IGCSE. Please ensure that you take the time to get to know your personal learning style. Be honest with yourself and adjust if needed. Yes, you do need to take the time to learn all the facts thoroughly. At the same time, you also need to build in a dynamic understanding in preparation for application of the facts.

The questions are critical! It is important that you take the time for every question to really read it carefully and thoroughly. Identify the question instruction words and identify the focus of the question. Question instruction words include words such as “state”, “describe” and “explain”. Each of these should result in a very different answer. To identify the focus of the question, look very carefully at the wording. Sometimes elements of the question are there simply to help you refine your answer.

Once you are sure of the question word and the focus, it is important that you give directed and factual, technical answers. Don’t be vague! It doesn’t matter how much you can write about a particular topic, it is writing a response that directly answers the specific question being asked that will get you marks. While studying, use bullet points to answer questions to help reduce your wordiness. Aim for one solid good fact that addresses the question for each bullet point. You can then work to build your very brief bullet points into bullet point sentences, and then into full paragraphs.

Learn how to read a memo! The information in the first few pages about what the mark types mean is important. Ask your teacher to work through some memos with you so you have a better idea of what to look for. Use the memos to mark your own past paper questions, and to add to your study summaries. Be very strict when marking yourself! The learner guide developed by Cambridge (also on Cambridge’s AS/A Biology page) is another valuable resource.

Practicals are a really important aspect of AS Biology. They are critical for consolidating and understanding the theory as well as preparation for your practical exam. Enzymes make a whole lot more sense once you’ve done a series of enzyme practicals! ☺ If you don’t have access to a laboratory, do “kitchen sink” practicals, and use your vivid imagination. Get some yeast and some hydrogen peroxide and set up your own enzyme experiments for example!

For AS Biology, like all the other AS subjects, it is important that you get organised early on. Don’t wait to catch a wake-up after failing your first assignment or test. It is important that you are dedicated from the beginning, ensuring that you are on top of the work. Listen to your teacher and take their advice! Understand that they are there to help you grow and improve in the subject. It can be a painful experience at times, but the goal and intention are success.

AS/ A Level Biology Goal

The final aim of the AS/A Level Biology syllabus specifically refers to creating a sustained interest in biology, so the subject is enjoyable and satisfying. You are supposed to enjoy what you are doing so go ahead and ENJOY studying AS Biology! ☺ Get yourself set up for success and enjoy the learning journey that will take you there.

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AS Level Biology – a word to the wise

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