An exam can be stressful, and when you are sitting more than one NCEA exam, multiplying the exams equals more stress. If this is your first, last, or the in-between year of studying for the biology exam, a great resource to help you revise are past exam papers. It may seem a bit strange to be able to access past exam papers, but they are there to help you. They allow you to gain an understanding of how the questions will be formatted.  This may seem like a bit of a strange thing to focus on, but understanding the layout helps to reduce the stress of the unknown.

By looking over past exams, you will notice there aren’t really any surprises to the questions as they tend to follow a similar format. They introduce a topic and provide some context, then they will then ask a question that is relevant to what you just read. The questions can be tricky in regards to the fact they require you to analyse. A simple one-word answer isn’t going to work. Usually, the questions are after a paragraph style response.

There are different ways to access past papers, you can type straight into a search engine and hope for the best, or you can go to the NZQA official site and start your search there. The NZQA site is geared more towards teachers and uses education jargon, but don’t be put off, take your time to navigate through it. The site is publicly available and free for anyone to use. A good thing to keep in mind is that while the exams are similar, they will not be the same. The context of the question changes every year so rote learning the answer will not help you at all. They are revision tools so let’s break it down for each level.

Here is a complete guide to NCEA Biology

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The starting line: NCEA Biology Level 1

The first year of exams is a little rough. Yay, longer holidays, not so yay, the science exam. For many schools, NCEA level 1 science is a compulsory subject that allows you to learn about the three core disciplines; biology, chemistry, and physics. Which translates into one exam on the three subjects. Traditionally, there are 3 exam papers per exam but for the science exam, you sit one paper from each subject. However, schools are changing up their style and offering science through internal assessments and some even let you pick just one science and not the three-in-one.

When you are looking at what past papers you need to use, check to see if the word external is in the information bar. You can look at internal assessments if you like, but they are usually completed over a longer period of time through investigations and research. Your teacher can walk you through internals unlike in external exams.  For level 1, the assessment you will be focusing on for biology is assessment 90948: Demonstrate understanding of biological ideas relating to genetic variation. From the title, you can gather that this standard is going to be about genetic variation. Key terms and concepts are crucial for getting merit and excellence so when you are revising, make sure you learn the proper terminology as well. Choosing the right ones to practice with is pretty straightforward.  Stay within the past three years because the standards get revised and the format may be out of date if you use older ones.

Find out revision tips on how to tackle biology questions here.

working in a laboratory

Level 1 Science lets you explore biology, chemistry and physics. Unsplash - Science in HDac

Halfway there with Level 2 Biology

Moving on up in the NCEA world is exciting and challenging. With three papers on biology to complete, past papers are a great tool to practice your time management and planning. Level 2 NCEA biology is a big step up from level 1 and learning different terminology and equations is very beneficial. From the information given from the title of the standards, you will discuss gene expression, genetic variation and change, and the life process at a cellular level. The titles of the exam papers help to identify where you should be spending your time revising.

You can read about NCEA biology study guide here.

If you have a look at the standard 91156: Demonstrate understanding of life processes at the cellular level, you can see the different styles of questions. The first question is: Write the word equation for aerobic respiration. Bamn, straight into the direct questions. This is important as it demonstrates the need for you to revise terminology, equations, and concepts. These markers are looking for buzz words, which is the use of proper terms in the right context. This information can be tricky to remember so flashcards are the bread and butter of rote learning. If that is not your style, have a search on the internet for other rote learning ideas.

When we look at the following questions from the standard 91156, you will see a majority are after a written response, paragraph style. Past papers are great because you can practice answering these questions and can use the marking schedule provided to see how you went. Another item you can use with past papers is the exemplar. Exemplars are the real exams of students who have passed with achieved, merit or excellence. You can compare how you have answered the questions to how they have. Pay attention to the structure of the writing and how evidence is written into the answer. For more details on the standards and to access the exemplars, check out the NZQA website. 

Pohutukawa flowers
Understand the life cycles of the world around us through biology. - StevePatterson from Getty Images Signature

Finish line: Level 3 NCEA biology

The skills you have learned transfer across the year levels as each year you get a bit better and faster. The level 3 biology exam requires you to revise a little bit differently from before. For level 2 you were expected to give an explained response, similar to a paragraph in terms of size. For Level 3, you are expected to answer more complex questions so your responses are longer. Planning is important here, you have fewer questions but more to write. In terms of revision time, concentrate on planning. How would you answer this question and what details do you need to provide?

Due to the length of these responses, have a look at some exemplars alongside the past papers. Choose one past paper and the corresponding exemplar, and read the marking schedule. Highlight when they have used keywords and the phrases they use to integrate evidence into their answer. Have a read of the marker's explanation of the grade award. NCEA has seemed to stop providing exemplars onwards from 2017, so when you are using exemplars, keep in mind that these are old exams and try to concentrate on how they responded to the question rather than the questions themselves. The format has changed, you have fewer questions but they are more multi-layered and complex.

For those who are sitting the exam in Te Reo Māori, there are some past papers from 2019 and 2018 you can use. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a past exam for the 2020 exams online. The exemplars provided are from students who have sat the exam in English, so use them as you see fit. There are three papers for you to complete within 3 hours, so practice to get an understanding of how long each section will take you. If you are considering sitting the biology scholarship exam, have a read through our guide.

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Revising with others can help you with your biology exam. Source: Unsplash

Extra support for your exam.

Past papers are great revision tools, as they allow you to plan and practice rearranging your knowledge to suit the question being asked. You should also consider other ways to revise, such as brainstorms, flashcards, labelled diagrams, cartoon sketches, and group study sessions. Revising with others can help you identify gaps in your knowledge or extend what you already know. A tutor can help even further as they are knowledgeable in their speciality and have experience with revision tools. Superprof has a wide range of tutors available for all year levels, and tutoring and/or exam revision. Have a look for your tutor today.

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