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Published: Monday, September 10, 2018

Helping your students understand exam command terms

What is the main difficulty for your A level Biology students?

If they’re typical, it’s probably the ability to understand exam command terms and to produce high-quality biological analysis in their answers.

How can we help them in their approach to these more difficult evaluative questions?

As teachers it is important that we ourselves are clear about what the terms mean. It is well worth spending some time on this, maybe re-writing the exam board’s definitions into more student-friendly versions.

Start using the command words from the very first lessons, then drip-feed them throughout the year, and use them consistently, so that students become confident with them.

The terms could be incorporated into your learning objectives, assessing students’ progression in their conceptual understanding; e.g.

L.O. What are nucleotides and what is their function?

·         All – Describe the structure and functions of nucleotides

·         MostCompare the structure of nucleotides

·         SomeCalculate the percentage of nucleotides found in a given polynucleotide molecule

How can we help our students comment on data in a logical, systematic way?

The following scaffolded points might be helpful:

  • Look at all the data you are given. Refer to all of it in your answer. (Biozone questions are really good for practising this.) Remember that data includes the written question stem, as well as tables of numerical data, graphs, diagrams and drawings, and photomicrographs
  • Consider what areas of the specification are being covered by the question. Think what key words you could use in your answer. (Producing a list of the relevant terms makes a great shared or class activity)
  • Plan your answer in a clear and logical way:

o   Describe the data, manipulating it if you can. E.g. calculate a rate, or a percentage change, or look to see if error bars or 2 data sets overlap. Say what is the same or different between data sets

o   Explain the data, using biological terminology and showing that you understand the processes involved

o   Make links between the description and explanation to justify a conclusion which you reach

It is useful to have a candidate’s exam script to teach new students how to approach these more difficult questions.

Can they see where the candidate has described or explained a particular point? Where have they used the data? What have they calculated? What conclusion has been reached? Is it linked to their biological understanding? What have they not done well?

Finally write your own (perfect!) answer and give it to them to check against the markscheme.

By drip-feeding this training throughout the year, you will save yourself and your students a great deal of stress next summer!

By Judy Vatcher, Head of Biology, City of London Freeman's School