Maximising Results in A Level Biology


July 4, 2015 by Doug Napolitano-Cremin


So a few weeks ago I attended an INSET training delivered by John Medlicott (@Johnmedlicott) which was focused on, as the title of the post suggests, maximising results in A Level Biology. The following is a summary of the highlights of the day and my thoughts on how myself and my department will be trying to develop our practice.

The morning was taken up, naturally, with discussing the changes that are taking place with A Level sciences. John talked about the new specifications being a good opportunity to innovate. I particularly enjoyed this discussion as I am a firm believer in seeing the changes to A Level as a fantastic opportunity for Science departments. Granted, there are a lot of changes to contend with at the moment. Our Science department is currently trying to juggle the re-write of schemes of learning for Key Stages 3, 4 and 5! Yet, despite the heavy workload and increased stress levels involved, this work is a great opportunity to try new things, to break out of old habits and to improve the learning experience of our pupils.

A particular area mentioned by John as being one that teachers could develop is that of Flipped Learning. I have read much about Flipped Learning over the last few years, some good and some bad. I did like the way it was discussed in this session however as the emphasis was on the use of Flipped Learning for formative assessment. Including small assessment tasks with the material that had to be studied would enable teachers to plan the tasks for the following lesson. Tools such as Memrise, Socrative, Google Classroom and Edmodo were mentioned as ways to do this. A site that was mentioned in this session that I hadn’t heard of before was DNA Tube. As John put it, DNA tube is like YouTube but with all the nonsense (i.e. non-scientific!) videos stripped out. This could be a really useful resources for planning Flipped Learning tasks. As a department, we are looking at incorporating Flipped Learning in to our schemes of learning. The key to getting it right will be careful planning. We are putting a lot of time in to finding the right resources and designing the most appropriate tasks to assess the learning that has taken place. We also need to clarify what the consequences will be if the work is not carried out as, if there are no consequences, it is very likely that the work will not be completed by pupils. We are hoping that Flipped Learning will enable us to spend more time in class helping pupils to develop the many skills that have been detailed in the new specifications and also to differentiate our intervention.

A huge change in the new A Level specifications is the increased focus on practical work. A very positive change, but one that does present numerous challenges for us as a department. John gave plenty of advice regarding these changes which I have summarised below:

  • The compulsory endorsement is likely to be pass or fail (rather than not reported).
  • Practical skills WILL be assessed in exams through questions focused on different methods and techniques.
  • When monitors from exam boards visit schools they will be expecting to see evidence of mapping of skills in schemes of work and evidence of how teachers are tracking pupil progression through these skills.
  • Lab books should not be seen as perfect pieces of work but should instead be evidence of progression throughout the two years of the course. They should be treated like working documents.
  • If optional practicals are not completed pupils will still need to know details of methods.

The issue of lab books is one that we have discussed in-depth as a department. The vast majority of our A Level pupils are given iPads when they begin their A Level courses, so we had considered going for digital versions of lab books, possibly using Google Classroom or something as simple as Evernote. However, I have decided to stick with a traditional hard-back notebook. Primarily because we want to mirror the university lab experience as much as we can. There were also too many variables with the digital option for us to navigate.

After the break, we had a session focused on pedagogy and exam technique. We focused on different strategies that could support learners of all abilities. Some ‘high impact, low investment’ techniques were described and the trusty old Post-It notes were employed to full effect. Some of the strategies we discussed are summarised:

  • Peer tuition – pupils can write questions or areas of difficulty on a Post-It note. Pupils pair up and attempt to help each other with their questions. Each pair then pairs up with another, and again they discuss the questions/difficulties they had. This can continue until either all questions have been answered or a small number are left. The questions left could be discussed by the teacher there and then or used as the basis for the next lesson.
  • Pose, Pause, Pounce and Bounce – questioning was discussed in-depth. The importance of planning questions was highlighted but for me the take home idea was ‘Pose, Pause, Pounce and Bounce’. The technique is described in detail here by @TeacherToolkit. It is something that many of us probably do in the classroom already without thinking about its usefulness, but I want to be more deliberate in the use of this technique in the future.
  • Pupils can often lose marks in exams, not because they do not have the knowledge required, but because they are unable to understand what the question is asking. A few possible activities were suggested:
    • Give pupils examples of the stems of past exam questions, leaving the actual question out. Pupils then have to read the stems carefully and write an appropriate question based on the stem. This helps pupils to focus on the importance of reading question stems carefully. Questions could then be discussed by the rest of the class. The activity can be extended by asking pupils to then write mark schemes for their questions and these questions.
    • Set up stations around the room, with a long-answer exam question placed at each station. Pupils are given a short amount of time to start writing an answer for each question – start a question and move on. By the time pupils get back to their original question they will have read numerous examples and will hopefully have a better idea of how to start an answer.
    • MARCKS – When marking pupil assessments, don’t tick correct answers, simply put how many marks have been achieved for each question. Give papers back to pupils in pairs. Pupils don’t get their own papers back. Give each pair a mark scheme and the pupils work together to identify how they each achieved or lost marks. Throughout this process they annotate their scripts using a code to highlight how marks were lost: M – Maths. A – Application. R – Reading the question. C – Clarity of expression. K – Knowledge. S – Statements per mark. Pupils draw a table on the front of their paper that they use to tally the reasons why they lost their marks. Pupils then set themselves a SMART target and detail how they will achieve that target. Teachers can record the majority reason for each pupil losing marks and the SMART targets chosen by pupils. These could then help to inform reports, future intervention etc.

During the course of the day I also discussed with a few of the other teachers in attendance the use of mentoring and learning logs. I am really keen for us to start a programme of mentoring for pupils. This has already happened in previous years but I would like to have all department staff involved. We will obviously have to think carefully about how we identify pupils, what support we will offer pupils, and how we will track the progress of these mentoring sessions.

As mentioned earlier, this is an exciting time to be a HoD in Science. The INSET session summarised in this post was a great starting point to get new ideas and also clarify ideas that were already taking shape. These new specifications are an opportunity for us to develop a first class experience for our pupils and I hope that over the new next month or so I can update you all with how we plan to do that.

As always, thoughts and suggestions are always welcomed in the comments section!


4 thoughts on “Maximising Results in A Level Biology

  1. Mumta says:

    An excellent read and full of useful ideas that I will extend to our KS5 Sow! Any thoughts on sharing resources!?


    • Thanks Mumta. I am hoping to write another post about how we are organising our new A Level course and will I’m sure add resources to that. Keep an eye out over summer as I will probably set up a resources section on the blog too.


  2. Bio_Joe says:

    Thanks for sharing. Some great ideas I shall be pinching.


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