As the summer sun starts to increase the daily temperature and the songs of ice-cream trucks lull NCEA students into a false sense of holiday spirit. In reality, the pace steps up a notch or 4, as all over the country, students prepare for their NCEA exams. The subject on whether or not exams are necessary is contentious, as we don’t really have exams when we work. We do, however, have to be able to recall information quickly and accurately, and complete projects on strict deadlines within small time frames.
So while the ideas of exams themselves may have you sitting on the fence about their necessity, the skills of being able to create, remember, connect, analyse, critique, and organise under pressure are not. Biology is a science that leans quite a bit into writing, compared to chemistry and physics which lean a little more towards mathematics. All three sciences require you to be able to express your opinions supported by relevant evidence. So what is the best way to go about this? Let’s break down the best ways to tackle NCEA biology questions.
Step 1: Break down the biology question
You may be thinking, well duh! But it is when we are under stress that our brain panics and we don’t read the question properly. Incomplete answers unfortunately do occur and it definitely hurts when you don’t receive the mark you wanted because you didn’t answer the question completely. So what is the first step? Read through the questions and then sort out how many things you need to discuss to answer them. As you progress through NCEA the questions become more complicated. For example, if we look at a question from the Level 1 NCEA biology exam from 2020, we can see that there are multiple things we have to do.
Compare and contrast the life processes of bacteria and viruses to explain why bacteria are useful in treating sewage, while viruses are not. In your answer:
- describe the life processes that enable bacteria to be effective in treating sewage
- explain how environmental factors, such as oxygen availability and temperature, impact on the effectiveness of treating sewage using bacteria
- discuss the life processes of bacteria and viruses to justify why bacteria are useful in treating and processing sewage, while viruses are not.
So we can see the overall theme of response will be looking at the differences between bacteria and viruses. Now have a look for keywords that help you to understand HOW the markers want you to do that. Here you need to compare and contrast the life of bacteria and viruses in the context of treating sewage. What about their life processes make them good, bad, or maybe even average at treating sewage? This is where your prior knowledge comes in as the markers will be looking for the correct terminology, especially if you are aiming for merit and excellence.
What is it called when a virus reproduces? What is the name for the bacteria that like oxygen and the bacteria that doesn’t? (Aerobic and anaerobic bacteria if you have forgotten). Remember the focus is to compare and contrast between the bacteria and viruses in regards to their life cycle in this particular situation. All the information you add-in needs to link back to this. It isn't just about what works, explain the negative implications with your knowledge of their life cycles to support your points.
Step 2: Planning for NCEA biology questions
Breaking down the question leads you to step two. Now you understand what you need to do, time to figure out how. Organising your response is a good idea as it is easier, time-efficient, and enables you to order your response in logical sequences. We humans like writing that makes sense and follows a linear trajectory. When your response is all over the place it becomes distracting and hard for us to keep up with what is going on. There are multiple different ways you can organise your response.
You can write down all the information that relates to the questions down first and then organising it. Each person has their own preference so experiment around until you find what works best for you. Brain dumps are great for jotting down information so you don’t have to constantly search the memory banks for the definitions, for example, what is ATP? (An energy-carrying molecule found in the cells of all living things, but I’m sure you already knew that).
Aerobic respiration occurs in the mitochondria, while anaerobic respiration occurs in the cytoplasm. Cyanide is an inhibitor of the enzyme cytochrome c oxidase, an important enzyme in the aerobic respiration process. Discuss how cyanide would affect both anaerobic and aerobic respiration, and the production of ATP. In your answer:
- describe the function of an enzyme
- explain how an enzyme’s structure allows it to carry out its function
- discuss how enzyme inhibitors affect enzyme function and biological reactions.
Now this lovely question comes from the 2020 NCEA biology exam for level 2. And as you may have guessed, it too is about cells. If we compare the difference between the wording of the exams in Level 1 and Level 2, it is a big jump. This is why planning is a great tool to help you organise your response and the earlier you start practising, the better you get at it. While this is a complicated question, they are not looking for an essay at level 1 and level 2, so you want to be on point and sharp with your response. If you are sitting level 3 biology, they kinda do want an essay (well a logical and well-detailed response to a complex question that would be difficult to answer in a single paragraph...).
It seems a bit odd to start discussing cyanide before you have discussed the bacterias respiration cycle. The principal question is about the effects of cyanide on bacteria respiration and the production of ATP. Again it is about the logical flow of information. To help you with the flow, try to bullet point the information you have written down in order of the way you want to write. Look to the question for guidance if you are unsure where to start. It even gives a little helper; function, structure, inhibitors.
Bonus round: Revision
Unfortunately, little tips and tricks can only get you so far. Example: Write the word equation for aerobic respiration. This is from the 2020 level 2 biology exam. You either know it or you don’t. When it comes to the revision of formulas and terminology, flashcards are a great option. If you choose to make them by hand, you have a slight advantage as we tend to remember things better if we write them down. From a practical standpoint, apps are also useful as you can revise when you have a spare moment, such as on the bus, waiting for someone, etc. With this type of revision, rote learning is about the frequency, not the duration. It is better to do it often for shorter periods of time. If you are more into drawing, try to draw and label diagrams, even create little stick cartoon strips of an event. It helps stick to your memory if it is unusual (mitosis in my toes, meiosis in my ovaries, ring any bells?).
NCEA Biology tutors
While this advice is geared towards exams, it is helpful for internal assessments as well. Breaking down the question, organising ideas, presenting your research, all follow a similar path. One of the major differences is the time you have and the information you have at hand. If you are thinking that maybe a bit more help is what you are after, check out Superprof, they have the tutor for you. With a range of experienced and motivated tutors to suit your level, aspirations, and even duration, have a search through to find the one that works best for you. With in-person or online options, you can find someone who can work around your abilities and constraints.
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