Are you taking your GCSE Biology exam this summer and looking for guidance on how to achieve a top grade?
In this article, Keystone Tutors have compiled the best advice for acing the GCSE Biology exam, including how best to prepare, top tips for achieving a Grade 9, and key findings from examiner reports.
How hard is it to get a 9 in GCSE Biology?
Some consider Biology one of the more accessible sciences at GCSE, but there’s lots to learn, and this proves to be the stumbling block for many. Biology repays systematic, thorough, tactical revision. We’ll look closely at how to break down revision and memorise all the material in this article.
What percentage do you need for a 9 in GCSE Biology?
The percentage needed for a grade 9 varies from year to year, depending on how other examinees have done. A grade 9 is awarded to those in the top 5% - or 1 in 20 candidates.
Getting a grade 9 is all about the thorough application of existing knowledge and reacting to data in the exam. This means doing past papers – learn how different questions are worded and structured, and how best to answer them, efficiently, without losing precious time.
Where can I find GCSE Biology past papers?
Your Biology teacher is the first person to ask. Exam board websites are also excellent. Make sure you look for the right exam board and the right specification.
Here are links to the main GCSE Biology exam boards:
Top tip for GCSE Biology revision
Make sure you’re happy with the maths principles in the specification: simple division, multiplication, percentage, proportionality, using equations for percentage decrease in populations, graph skills etc. One of our tutors noted that students do all this in Maths, Physics and Chemistry, but tend not to expect the same in Biology. One of the key “differentials” in Biology GCSE these days is mathematical ability.
This is not all about graphs or tables of reported data. Quite often, you will be asked to take a student’s results table, calculate mean values, make predictions, identify anomalous data, and draw conclusions. This is particularly important for the practicals listed in the specification. You must know these, even if you have not actually carried them out in person. There are excellent YouTube videos of experiments. Do check you are familiar with the equipment. Some papers ask you to read a volume or temperature from a photograph.
GCSE Biology exam techniques to get a grade 9
The secret to exam success is timing.
Take note of how many marks each question is worth, and allocate your time and efforts accordingly. For each of the two exams, there are 100 marks available in 1 hour 45 minutes (105 minutes), so that’s approximately 1 minute a mark.
The questions generally become more difficult as you progress through the paper: the later ones demand more time.
Don’t take too long on the early questions, you don’t need to write more than a few lines to get the marks. Save your time, energy, and words for the long answer questions. These don’t just require more detail. They also need more thinking, connecting and working things out.
Nor should you take too long on multiple choice questions. They’re worth just one mark each. Don’t let a particularly tricky one take up too much of your time. Eliminate the wrong options and then make an educated guess. Or, cover up the alternatives as they are often designed to confuse; state your own answer and if it’s in the list, that’s likely to be correct!
Make a note to go back to tricky questions, if you have time, at the end.
7 key findings from past examiner reports for GCSE Biology
We trawled through examiner reports, as well as past exams, to compile a list of common misconceptions or stumbling blocks. Sorting these out is sure to give you a great head start on revision and help you feel much more confident in your GCSE Biology skills.
1. Candidates read questions too quickly
It’s an examination. You’re in a hurry. The temptation then is to skip or skim-read. Examiner reports, however, are replete with cautionary tales of candidates not reading the full question, or reading it too quickly. Avoid the temptation to skim-read questions or rush to assumptions about what the question wants. One examiner comments: “An unusually high number of students referred to the black paper in the investigation as black pepper, causing some confusion when it came to answering associated questions.”
Read the full question. It is important for candidates to work methodically through information provided in questions. Questions often contain specific information that must be used in the answer.
Some questions spread over several pages, so keep returning to the rubric at the start to check you’re not missing vital information.
Furthermore, do as you are instructed. If the question says “draw three lines”, do just that: “draw three lines”. If a question asks you to measure radius using their value of Pi, don’t use the Pi button on your calculator.
2. Candidates don’t always take careful note of the command words
Different command words demand different responses.
An explanation, for instance, requires more than just a description. A common question in Biology is to link part of an organ or cell to its function, such as alveoli to gas exchange, or root hair cells to water uptake. Make sure you describe the feature and explain why it’s good at its job.
3. Candidates don’t always write clearly, concisely, and precisely
Written expression counts, and clear, concise communication is key to scoring top marks.
For diagrams, label lines should finish exactly on the structure being labelled. For example, if you have to label the heart, be absolutely clear where the pulmonary vein and artery lie, and exactly where the valves are. Similarly, arrowheads should be on the feature itself, not spreading outwards from it.
4. Candidates don’t always develop their answers sufficiently
Applying old knowledge to new situations – that’s the challenge and often the differentiator.
Biology rewards a thorough approach. The number of marks available often indicates the number of separate points needed for full marks. A 6-mark question about photosynthesis is unlikely to require just the bare equation to be stated.
That said, longer answers don’t always lead to more marks. If correct responses are contradicted, marks can and will usually be lost.
5. Candidates could be more precise with terminology
Candidates should use appropriate specific terminology when phrasing their answers. Don’t say amount when it should be volume, nor “strength of solution” if you’re given a molarity.
One examiner report states, “Some candidates incorrectly named the group as gorilla or vertebrate, rather than the scientific group, mammals.” Classification often trips up students, but it is one of the easier topics as questions are often based on solid factual recall.
One extra word may be the difference between getting the mark or not. One question asked candidates to name body defences that prevent pathogens from entering the body. Some wrote hair when they needed to qualify it by stating hair in the nose. Another question required the answer “light intensity”, rather than just light, or sun. And in another question, candidates wrote, incorrectly, that the heat had killed the enzyme. Enzymes are not living things and are, therefore, denatured rather than killed.
6. Candidates trip up on certain common misconceptions
Be sure to master the finer distinctions between life processes, especially photosynthesis and respiration. Never write, “Plants carry out photosynthesis, but animals just respire”: all living things respire! And remember that plants have cell walls and the cell membrane is present in every living organism, including plants.
Watch out for confusion about the function or role of certain biological phenomena – i.e., what they do precisely. Pay particular attention to:
- function of the phloem, including the direction of sap flow in it
- the precise nature of hormones’ names in the specification, such as insulin, follicle stimulating hormone, anti-diuretic hormone
- the roles of insulin compared with glucagon (and not glycogen, which is a different chemical)
- the role of nitrifying bacteria and others in the nitrogen cycle
- mixing up the roles of the left and right ventricles of the heart
- the distinction between active and passive immunity
- the difference between enzymes and substrates
- the difference between a nucleus and a vacuole
- not confusing mitosis with meiosis
Getting lots of experience on practical activities will help, either hands-on or via computer simulations. So check you know what they are, and if you can’t remember, watch demonstration videos on YouTube.
7. Candidates could be better prepared for the maths
Be prepared to carry out the following:
- radii and diameter
- magnification calculations, especially converting units
- surface area and volume calculations
As with GCSE Maths, show clear working for calculations. That way, you can be credited for your method even if the final answer is incorrect.
And note that candidates don’t always pay close enough attention to graphs. Give graphs more than a glance.
GCSE Biology Tuition
With tutors based in London and available online to families around the world, Keystone is one of the UK’s leading private tutoring organisations. Find out more about our GCSE Biology Tutors and IGCSE Biology Tutors.