Preparing the next cohort of A level Biology students

A Level Biology: Preparing the new cohort for success | OUP Blog

The start of term brings me a new cohort of excited A Level Biology students with shiny new shoes, wonderful new pencil cases and fresh, sometimes oversized, uniform. In my school, our sixth form uniform is smart office dress. I imagine they are already picking out their first day outfit, still glowing from the receipt of their GCSE results ready to start the next phase in their education.

What has been the lived experience of this new cohort of A level Biology students?

As this summer draws to a close, I have been reflecting that this year 12 cohort coming through have had a hugely different experience of their GCSE studies. Their year 9, in which many schools start their GCSE course in, was hugely disrupted, with over a terms worth of learning not happening in school. Remote learning at that time was patchy at best, as we all struggled to adapt to the new normal. As students progressed into year 10, they had to endure teaching in year group bubbles, often in the same room all day with teachers rushing around school. I remember one of my year 10 Biology lessons always started at least 10 minutes late, because of where I was in school the lesson before.

Furthermore, there were year group closures and the whole closure of schools in January and February 2021. Higher quality remote learning happened then, but it was disruptive, nevertheless. I was only able to move back to lab teaching in Summer 2021.

However, Year 11 was more like normal, with increasing certainty throughout the Autumn term that the external exams would happen. By Spring 2022, there was the release of the ‘Advance Information’, an entirely new concept for me as a teacher and for students, which very much changed the GCSE experience for these students.

How does the GCSE course students follow affect future success in A level Biology?

Most students that take A level Biology have completed GCSE Biology, but every year a few students join the course who have completed GCSE Combined Science. By comparison, there is more content taught in GCSE Biology as opposed to the biology content of the GCSE Combined Science.

Moreover, the GCSE Biology exams are longer and, in some respects, have a greater demand in terms of question style. For example, AQA has two extended response questions per paper in GCSE Biology, whereas Combined Science: Biology only has one extended response question per paper.

The different routes have been there for many years, and the few students who take A level Biology from the combined route have always needed careful planning for and academic mentoring. In reality, this year the problem is further compounded by differences in the advance information and following on from that, the examination foci that these students uniquely experienced.

What were the differences between the AQA GCSE Biology and AQA GCSE Combined Science: Biology advance information?

Looking at the higher content for the first Biology papers in AQA in Summer 2022 the following can be seen:

Paper 1:Biology HCombined Science: Biology H
Major Focus of the Exam4.1.1 Cell structure
4.1.3 Transport in cells 
4.2.2 Animal tissues, organs and organ systems
4.2.3 Plant tissues, organs and systems 
4.3.1 Communicable diseases
4.3.2 Monoclonal antibodies
4.1.2 Cell division
4.2.2 Animal tissues, organs and organ systems
4.4.1 Photosynthesis
Topics not assessed4.2.2.3 Blood Cancer Antibiotics and pain killers Discovery and development of drugs Response to exercise Microscopy 
4.1.3 Transport in cells
4.2.3 Plant tissues, organs and systems Viral diseases Fungal diseases Protist diseases Human defence systems Uses of glucose from photosynthesis Response to exercise
Paper 2:Biology HCombined Science: Biology H
Major Focus of the Exam4.5.2 The human nervous system
4.5.3 Hormonal control in humans
4.5.4 Plant hormones
4.6.1 Reproduction
4.7.2 Organisation of an ecosystem
4.5.3 Hormonal control in humans
4.7.2 Organisation of an ecosystem
4.7.3 Biodiversity and the effect of human interaction on an ecosystem
Topics not assessed4.5.2.1 Structure and function The brain The eye Hormones in human reproduction Contraception The use of hormones to treat infertility Negative feedback Use of plant hormones Advantages and disadvantages of sexual and asexual reproduction Sex determination
4.6.2 Variation and evolution
4.6.3 The development of understanding of genetics and evolution
4.6.4 Classification of living organisms Adaptations Impact of environmental change Biodiversity Deforestation Maintaining biodiversity Trophic levels Pyramids of biomass Sustainable fisheries Role of biotechnology
4.5.2 The human nervous system Contraception Sexual and asexual reproduction DNA and the genome Genetic inheritance Inherited disorders Sex determination 
4.6.2 Variation and evolution
4.6.3 The development of understanding of genetics and evolution Adaptations Land use Deforestation

I know that my school, like most others, had nearly finished content before the advance information was released, therefore students should know all the content equally well.  However, I also know that the revision programme I completed with my year 11 GCSE Biology class and my year 11 Combined Science classes were significantly different and very much focussed in on the advance information. Even revision classes after school were split and planned around this information. This was the right decision at the time but has unintended consequences for the A level cohort.

Moreover, I know that a lot of the content early in the specification was taught remotely to my students, meaning that the quality of that learning first time around was questionable.

Another point to reflect on, is that I teach AQA GCSE at my school. We often get other students joining us from other schools for their A level studies. Not all of them did AQA GCSE, they will have had different advance information and examination experience.

How can we help these students be successful A level Biologists?

Quality first teaching is always key for any group of students. Engaging lessons, with challenge and skill development are the sure route to success. However, as educators we need to do a lot of work behind the scenes to pitch these lessons appropriately. Here are some of my thoughts on how I will be doing this slightly differently this year.

  • Curriculum planning changes. Tracking where the advance information fits in with the A level content for both GCSE Biology and GCSE Combined Science: Biology, so that teachers can be aware of where the gaps might be so that they can plan effectively to address them.
  • Planning for the students in the class. Identifying which students have come from the combined science route allows teachers to plan activities which support them, without making them feel that they are failing. For example, pairing up a combined student with a triple student as working partners.
  • Modelling good learning skills. A year 12 class in September are not fully formed A level students, they need to be taught skills in note making, effective use of textbooks and approach to answering examination questions.
  • Checking that they get it. This is an essential part of all lessons that informs further planning, and this year with the advance information ‘gaps’ it is even more essential.
  • Inspire them. Teachers who are passionate about their own subject inspire passion in their students. Don’t destroy their enthusiasm for the wonder that is A level biology by them spending lesson time note-taking from a PowerPoint you read out to them. I remember a university lecturer of mine saying that that is a sure way to transfer information from the lecturer’s blackboard (no PowerPoint in those days) to a student’s note paper, whilst not involving the brain of either party.
  • Do practical work. I noticed a gap in students’ practical ability in the way that they manipulate equipment and problem solve with last year’s A level class. Well planned practical work elicits discussion, and students who talk good Biology, particularly when they argue over the minutiae of what is correct with each other, learn more deeply. Then they can express it more effectively in examination questions. Also, the change in classroom focus during practical work also allows opportunities for teacher probing the learning of individual students in a less stressful way than in whole class discussion, where students may be reluctant to say what they think whilst the rest of the class are listening.

Katrina Farmer is a teacher at a large comprehensive school in Warwick. She has taught A level Biology for many years and written and reviewed some of the OUP Activate content. Her focus as a teacher is in developing students as empowered learners, seeing herself not as the all-knowing oracle but the guiding hand for students to work it out for themselves, far exceeding her own knowledge and ability.

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