The key to successful Biological study

By Alexandra Christopoulos
Catch Up With Top Achievers: 2019 HSC Edition

👈 Introduction | TOC | Business studies and General tips from First in the State 👉

Introduction

My name is Alexandra Christopoulos and I am a 2018 Graduate of the HSC. Since the age of five until graduating year I had attended a school in the city known as Ascham School. High school for me was an unforgettable experience filled with countless adventures and friendships I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life, but it was simultaneously one of the most stressful times of my life.

Through my experiences with high school I have come to the belief that there is too much anxiety and pressure surrounding students sitting their HSC. When this is coupled with hardly any direction or advice on how to study effectively it can inevitably lead to many students, like myself at the time, feeling hopeless and overwhelmed when it comes to studying for their end of school examinations.

That being said, I was lucky enough to have parents who sacrificed nearly everything for me to be able to attend a good school, which provided me with the opportunities to seek out the right people for advice on what study methods were the most effective when endeavouring to prepare for my biology examinations.

My hope here is to convey which study methods I found were best for studying biology, and what I consider to be the most effective way to manage and plan your time when it comes to sitting the HSC. My goal is to provide all struggling students with the right foundational skills for biology study, so that they can have an equal opportunity to gain the most that they possibly can from the HSC and all future studies.

Since I was a little girl my ambition has been to help people, to protect and support others especially when they are feeling the most vulnerable. For this reason, I have always been passionate about pursuing Law and most especially bioethics, so that I can combine my love for biology and the pure sciences with assisting those in need.

Upon discovering that the ATAR requirements for such a degree were increasingly high, I realised that there was an urgent need to fine tune my studying and preparation skills in order to gain the very most from my HSC. I know many others will be confronted with the same challenges I have faced, so these next few pages will act as a guide to shape how you approach your study and work ethic.

1. Surviving the HSC

Initially when I was confronted with the looming prospect of HSC, I was overwhelmed, extremely overwhelmed! All those countless exams, rankings, averages, scaling, and moderation. At times it seemed ridiculously complex, and biology in relation to this was no different. However, the major misconception about HSC biology was that it’s all about memorisation. This should not be accepted as the truth, as simple memorisation will provide you with around band 4 levels results. In order to achieve those band 6 results, more focus should be placed into approaching stimulus based questions and the technique to do so, rather than just simply learning content.

Another misconception about HSC Biology was that it should be avoided because “it doesn’t scale well.” This I can comfortably say is a completely false notion. From my experiences and from those of my peers, scaling should not be a determinant in choosing subjects; choices should be based on passion and ability. Scaling will not downgrade any results if you are proficient in the subject. That is my primary rule to consider when ‘surviving the HSC.’ This same rule applies for subjects that apparently scale well. In these subjects you will not automatically do well because of the scaling. You still need proficiency in the subject for scaling to work for you, or otherwise it will send you backwards.

The second rule I have is study smart, not hard. I know this is a completely overused phrase, but it could not be more true when approaching months upon months of consistent study. Study and revision should not be torture, and yet again, contrary to popular belief it should not necessarily consist of pages upon pages of notes scrawled down. Study rather should be catered to the type of learner you are: whether you are tactile, auditory or visual. Yes, studying will inevitably involve some writing and note taking, but should not be exclusive to it. But I will explore this in more detail further on.

Finally, one of the most important tips I have on surviving the HSC is to do with stress and motivation.

The period between trials and the HSC for me was one of the toughest times to find motivation.

After putting all my effort into study for trials doing it all again seemed simply unimaginable. This is where finding motivation is important. When it comes to sustaining motivation, the most important method in doing so is ensuring a healthy balance between exercise, health, friends and family and study. In my experience this helped maintain perspective and avoid feelings of helplessness and exhaustion that come from constant study.

The same applies to stress management. Stress was particularly an issue for me and I found the most effective way to deal with it was to maintain perspective, whether that was through talking to older friends or family about their experiences with the HSC, or taking a walk on my local beach to clear my head. When it comes to your own methods for stress relief and building motivation, it’s important first to ask those closest to you for advice and find ways that are best for you to clear your head when it gets overwhelming, taking breaks when needed. It doesn’t matter if those breaks are as short as a few minutes to chat with a friend or grab a snack, as long as they allow you to step away from study for at least a moment or two.

2. HSC Biology

As stated, HSC Biology is a subject that has many presumptions surrounding it, whether it is in regards to difficulty, scaling or study techniques. What I plan to achieve in this section is to question some of these assumptions, and explain how I would approach Biology as a subject in terms of confronting difficult topics and attitudes towards learning. I would also like to provide some last-minute tips from my experiences in the classroom while being taught the biology content.

When it comes to confronting difficult topics, most people become overwhelmed and afraid of the topic and try to limit their exposure to the content. Whether it’s through avoiding study regarding the topic, or simply ignoring homework, or study questions or task. This is counterintuitive and will send you backwards in terms of navigating biology.

To combat this fear, I can place no stronger emphasis on asking questions, not just in the classroom but outside of the classroom. When I was overwhelmed in biology, the content regarding meiosis was a frequent offender, and initially like everyone else I freaked out. But after realising that this would get me nowhere, I begin to ask myself,

“what don’t I understand?”

Then I would write various points down and research as much as I could about them, not just on the HSC websites, but also all over articles and journals, even rudimentary kid’s websites if I was really stuck!

The truth is, when starting to learn something that you know you’ll struggle with, the best thing to do it to break it down into smaller bite size chunks, and deal with these individually, so that the content seems less intimidating. If this fails, bring these questions to a teacher and ask them if you would be able to work through the questions you have together.

This is where the importance of asking questions becomes so crucial. Through asking yourself about what you don’t know and writing things down, you have essentially provided yourself with a map to the holes in your knowledge. This in turn can be brought to a teacher, or a peer who is proficient in the subject, showing them clearly how they can help you.

This approach of questioning enables you to unlock information that you would not otherwise access, or not think to consider. In my experience this technique of self-questioning is invaluable to learning biology content, answering test questions, and succeeding overall in the subject.

Finally, when it comes to general advice in achieving great results in Biology, I would say there are three things that come to mind: note taking, organisation, and practice.

In biology, clear and concise notes, that are organised, are of paramount importance. In my opinion, study notes are a reflection of your mind, if they are messy and do not follow a proper structure, this will affect how you learn the content. Your knowledge of biology content will be broken and jumbled, and will most certainly contain gaps (but I will discuss this with some more examples further on).

In terms of organisation, the advice I have just mentioned can apply with any subject. Planning how you study, what you study and when, at least a month in advance, can allow you to have a set timeline in which you achieve your goals. This removes the possibility of running out of time to study and cramming last minute, as well as ensuring a peace of mind when it comes to learning the overwhelming amount of biology content, as you will know you have an opportunity to cover it all in your schedule.

Last but definitely not least, is practice!

In my HSC examinations I walked into the Biology exam calm and confident. Why? Because I had drilled the whole syllabus, dot point back to front and upside down. I practiced and quizzed myself whenever I got the chance, whether I was on the bus, re-reading what we had gone over in class, or talking to my mum and dad about topics I had learnt about. By the time the last HSC study holiday begins, you should have practiced the content so much you could do it in your sleep. But this is only half the battle, and next comes the practicing of past papers, one after another! Can you see the common element? Repetition and practice. It will reinforce your learning as well as give you the confidence that comes with knowing your content well. Therefore, knowing you have done more than enough to drill the types of questions you could be asked.

3. The Foundation to Effective Study

The foundation to any effective study, biology or otherwise is good notes. As I have said above the key to setting your biology study on the right track for success is good notes. This means clear multi-coloured organised notes written in brief dot point form with headings, sub-headings, and even little footnotes or brackets, to provide extra clarity if needed. When I prepared for my HSC the two questions I would ask myself when looking at my notes were:

Can I see exactly what this page is about before reading it?

And

Do I know what part of the syllabus this is by just looking at it?

If the answer was “yes”, my notes were obviously clear and ready to learn off, if not I would then ask myself what was confusing about them and make the necessary changes.

Here is an example of what my notes looked like for the Chemistry HSC. (See below)

(HSC Chemistry notes)

As you can see there are clear diagrams made with a ruler, clear labels, asterisks to further explain things I might find tricky later, and bullet point notes distinctly segregated into each syllabus dot point. Here we can see that these notes would be optimal to learn from, as they provide everything in a structured manner so that we can find what we need to with ease.

4. Preparation

One of the worst feelings as a student studying for the HSC is during the holidays. Study holidays! Having never confronted the notion of studying through an entire holiday it can be extremely daunting. It honestly would seem like a torturous experience for anyone looking at the prospect of having such a holiday. Which is why the most important skill I want to discuss when it comes to HSC preparation is making timetables. Timetables for me were like the ‘holy grail’ of studying. They provided everything for a demotivated student: the promise for an end date for study, an assurance that all necessary content will be covered before the exams, and finally that every day will have a plan already prepared with breaks, so that you will not become overwhelmed with the sheer volumes of work on a certain day.

But when it comes to making timetables there is a technique that I believe is the most effective as we can see below:

Alex’s study time table

In my time tables I usually plan by hour so that a daily plan can be made that is more exact and detailed. This way you know exactly what you are doing and when, however you could also plan a timetable in blocs (i.e. a morning bloc, a midday/afternoon bloc and an evening bloc). This element of the timetable is flexible. However, the most important element to a timetable is that you have longer breaks not just for meals (thirty minute breaks at least). But also, quick five minute breaks for when you feel distracted or tired within those study blocs (these don’t need to be noted in your timetable). Also, there should be a period at the end of the day which allows for review time to go over notes just to reinforce what you have covered during the day.

5. Preparation of Answering scarier questions

The next idea I want to cover in this section is how to approach an HSC Biology past paper and especially those harder 8 marker exam questions near the end of the paper.

When approaching an HSC paper there are a lot of different views as to how to approach the questions, and in what order to approach each section. My opinions regarding this section are subjective, however, in my experience I believe these methods to be the best based on my own results and study methods, those of my peers and those taught to me by my teachers.

A biology paper consists of three sections: multiple choice, short answer questions, and an option which also consists of short answer questions. When starting a paper, I believe that it should be completed in order, multiple choice coming first.

That said, the multiple-choice questions should be done carefully with deliberate emphasis placed on the wording of the questions. Especially in biology, very subtle word choice can change the implications of a question. This was always one of my biggest issues as a student. When looking at the biology multiple choice questions I always thought they were easy and could be rushed through.

At times when I did past papers I would often skim read a question, tell myself that I knew what they were asking me and then jump on an answer, and quickly move onto the next question. This was a serious problem because I would often miss key subtleties in the question and lose several marks. I was so focused on rushing through the paper.

In the Biology exam you will have more than enough time to complete the paper, with extra time to check over your answers. This means you can take a few minutes to read and circle key words in a multiple-choice question. In fact, I couldn’t recommend doing this more highly! Circling key words in the question takes one second and helps reinforce what the question is actually asking you, whilst limiting the chance that you could misread or misinterpret the question.

The next section in the paper is the short answer questions. They begin this section with ‘lower order thinking’ questions, such as identify the waste products in blood and how they are transported. These questions if you know your content, you will be able to do in your sleep, they are aimed at roughly band 4 level difficulty and should be completed with ease. However, as you move into the paper the questions becoming ‘higher order thinking.’ So, when approaching the harder and longer questions at the end of section two in the paper, I have a few techniques that will help remove the sense of panic and fear when you are confronted with a question in which you are unsure of what is being asking of you:

i. Circle the directive word

When looking at these larger 7–9 mark questions they will most definitely be in the band 6 level of difficulty. In knowing this, students need to understand that this is the place where they prove that they are capable of presenting a more complicated response. The first step is to identifying the directive word: is it evaluate, discuss, or assess? Once this is done we need to break down what each word really means. In almost every case the ‘higher order’ 7–9 mark questions have the directive word “evaluate” or “discuss” these both have different meanings.

“Evaluate” means that you must discuss the positives and the negatives of a biological concept and then finally make it very clear whether the positive elements outweigh the negative ones. To make this abundantly clear to the marker I always state from the outset that I have “evaluated” the pros and cons I have just explained in my response, and then state the phrase: “upon evaluation of these ideas it is clear that…” which is followed by the relevant ideas in the question

“Discuss” is a similar directive term, but differs from term evaluate (remember that to evaluate involves making a judgment of some kind after outlining and explaining the pros and cons of a biological topic). “Discuss” is a more neutral term, and does not involve making a judgment, so including one would be useless, and the marker would assess that you have not considered carefully enough the directive term of the question.

Finally, the term “assess” differs a little to the previous two terms evaluate and discuss. To assess involves identifying the key elements or reasons as to why a statement is correct or incorrect, and coming to an ultimate conclusion from this. For example, if a question asks to “Assess the importance of…” this means that that you need to state all the reasons why this concept is important or unimportant (chose one stance) and provide examples as to why this is true. Then this should be followed by a final statement along the lines of: “Based upon the evidence discussed it is clear that…”

ii. Underline key terms from the syllabus

The next step is to figure out what part of the syllabus the question is targeting. The easiest way to do this is to underline what biological terms you can see in the question. For example, is it discussing the immune response, or meiosis or even evolution? Key words like “inheritance” or “Darwin” or even something as simple as “the human body” give us clues on what parts of the syllabus the question is targeting.

QUICK TIP: if you are ever unsure if a question is referring to a specific element in the syllabus or not, expand your answer to address more than one element, as markers will not remove marks for irrelevant information they will just ignore it which does no harm to you if you were incorrect and the information was not entirely relevant.

By now the question on the page should look something like this:

Assess the importance of the work of Beadle and Tatum to the ability to produce a specific transgenic species. (NESA, 2017 HSC BIOLOGY)

iii. Make a plan of your response

Before you rush into writing straight away after completing the first two steps, it is important to make a quick plan in dot points of what you want to cover. On the side of the page (or even in a spare writing booklet), quickly jot down your judgement (if needed) on a question as well as the main points, in order of relevance that you want to cover. This ensures that your writing will be structured and clear to follow for the marker, and clarity is always an easy road to quick marks.

Advice and Last Minute Tips

When looking back at my experiences with the HSC, I cannot stress enough how important it is to have a positive mindset towards exams. I went into my first exam terrified and on the verge of tears. That mindset was poisonous and I believe it greatly affected my performance in my English exam. So, to help future students from forming a toxic approach to exams, here are my last-minute tips for the night before the exam, and exam day itself.

The night before the exam should not be the time for cramming or frantically doing past papers but rather should remain as an opportunity to read through notes and look over any summaries to reinforce last minute concepts.

Another important rule I have is to never stay up late, it is much more productive to get enough sleep so you can stay alert for the next day rather than trying to overload your brain with information.

Moving on to the exam day itself, I would start by having a solid breakfast, and talking to a friend or family member in order to be calm and help ground yourself. I would not look through notes as any study would be useless at this point of time and would serve only as a means to cause stress, especially if you stumbled across a concept that you did not understand. In my case, I would talk to my mother before my exam for reassurance and then listen to some music or talk to a friend before I went in.

For all students facing these exams soon the last piece of advice I can give is to trust in yourself and the study you have done. If you are reading this now, know that you obviously have a drive and passion to do well in your studies and if you approach your exams calmly and with a positive mindset you can and will achieve your HSC and secondary education goals.

Copyright © 2021, Tree Niu Bee Pty. Ltd.

👈 Introduction | TOC | Business studies and General tips from First in the State 👉

Catch Up With Top Achievers: 2019 HSC Edition by Adam Ma, Fionn Parker, and 12 other HSC State Rankers can be purchased in other formats directly from Catch Up With Top Achievers.

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