Debbie Chalashika, Biology teacher, Bradford Grammar School
Equipping A Level students with the resilience required to fail and bounce back with even more determination is challenging, particularly when so many feel under pressure to excel in their studies. Today’s students do not always realise that failure is a valuable part of success.
Frustrated by students copying mark schemes or their textbook and then passing the work off as their own, I embarked on a mission to teach students to recognise how they learn best. In this blog I will share one of the A Level Biology resources that I use and some of my approaches.
Having never attempted snowboarding in my life, I wouldn’t expect to develop my snowboarding skills without having a go, falling over a few times, dusting myself down and then repeating this process, learning from my mistakes as I go. I am sure reading about snowboarding might be useful, but to excel in the required skills I would need to practise the art.
This seems obvious when referring to snowboarding and it should be no different when developing the skills to excel in biology at A Level. Practise the skills, fail, learn from mistakes made and have another go – and don’t give up until you can do it.
Having information at your fingertips to feed an appetite for curiosity must be the best thing about the internet, but giving students access to an endless supply of mark schemes may make it a foe. It would be great if students were embracing an effective approach to self-regulated learning, but in many cases, they are rote learning questions and mark schemes to recite in an exam or test, without developing the required thinking processes and depth of understanding of the concepts for successful application. In essence, students seem to be losing the ability to think for themselves.
For me as a teacher, when facing students who just regurgitate a mark scheme or the textbook and expect to get full marks for something that shows little understanding, the challenge is sourcing exam questions that haven’t been seen by the students. I predicted that students would not have seen questions from legacy OCR Unifying Concepts papers before, so I began to model how I, as an adult, would tackle the questions and the thought processes required.
The downloadable resource is adapted from a question in a Unifying concepts in biology paper from June 2008.
Whilst the legacy papers offer novel scenarios that are unfamiliar to many students, so giving an opportunity to address the application of knowledge, the marking schemes should be used with caution. As biological systems evolve, so do mark schemes and the mark schemes for the legacy papers are far too simplistic. In this resource, I have modified some of the questions and the mark scheme, to make them a little more realistic.
You can access the original question online. I haven’t been able to find an online copy of the original mark scheme, but it can be found with the resource.
This legacy exam question that can be found online introduces the valuable concept of free radicals linked to the familiar notion of the impact of changes to DNA point and proteins (i.e. linked with the spec point 6.1.1 (a)).
The novel situation introducing the curious creatures that mole rats are and data in table 4.1 and figure 4.1 forces students to engage with the information given in the question, information that some learners seem to fail to even notice. Data analysis and evaluation of investigative methods are skills required in all biology examinations (specification point 1.1.3 and 1.1.4).
Oxygen dissociation curve (spec point 3.1.2 (j)) is a familiar concept for students, but presented here in a novel context that requires understanding for successful application.
Having acquired knowledge of the specification content and an understanding of the command terms, how do you teach students to develop the skills required in application? Some students have the cognitive abilities to do this with little teacher input, but how do we as teachers help those diligent, conscientious students for who there is no doubt that they put in the hours required, but then they just don’t succeed?
Having distributed the resource and given students some time to consider how they would tackle the questions, I model my way of thinking using the BUS method. (MARCKS is an excellent evaluative tool, also available at the TES link.)
Projecting the resource onto a whiteboard is a great way for students to learn how they should engage with questions:
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Debbie is passionate about all things related to biology and instilling a love of the subject in young people. She has taught in secondary schools in both the UK and Botswana for almost 30 years and for the last 18 years has worked as an A Level examiner for OCR. As Head of Personal Development in an independent school in Bradford, Yorkshire, she is an ardent supporter of encouraging students to reflect on how they as individuals learn best, empowering them with a lifelong love of learning. Feel free to get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org