preparing for scholarship exams

By Alison Campbell 08/09/2010

It’s that time of year again, & I’m working on my resources for the sessions I’ll be giving (in Hamilton on September 19th) & over in Hawkes Bay in October) on preparing for the Scholarship Biology exams. By now many of you will have made the decision to sit these exams, & I hope I’ll see some of you at my preparation days 🙂 (I’ve sent invites out to your teachers; and I believe Marcus is running a day for Physics students as well.) Anyway, I’m just reading the examiner’s report for last year’s paper & thought I’d share some of their comments with you, by way of helping you to focus on what’s going to be required in the exam.

(PS yes, Marcus is running a Schol Physics preparation day – it’ll be on October 2nd. Contact him through his blog if you’d like to know more about this.)

And remember – this isn’t going to be like the Level 3 paper. You’re expected to right  (argh!) write extended responses (aka essays) to each of several questions. Don’t be put off by the fact that these questions will probably be about something you’ve never heard of in class. The questions provide a context for you to use in demonstrating your understanding of the biological facts, concepts & terminology that you have studied with your teachers over the course of the year. Take a look at this post on lactase persistence as an example. You may not have looked at this one in class, but you will have learned about the various genetics concepts, & those associated with the workings of natural selection, that were used to answer the question. Seriously – you’ll have the background information that you need; the trick is to apply it in novel contexts.

And that’s something that those who gained Schol Bio last year, did well. According to the examiner, candidates who gained Scholarship with Outstanding Performance (OP) wrote very thorough, comprehensive discussions of the concepts in the question, and that integrated their own knowledge and the resource materials provided into that discussion. (Hint: almost all questions will include resource materials of some sort – they’re there for you to use! But at the same time, you shouldn’t be simply presenting large chunks of those resources as direct quotes; that doesn’t in any way show that you’ve understood the information they contain.)

The questions usually contain bullet points: these are the examiner’s way of directing you at key issues that they wish you to address. And the successful OP candidates did just that, writing about each bullet point of each question. They also showed a really good breadth & depth of knowledge and used biological terms correctly & appropriately (& hopefully spelled correctly too!).

And all successful students (whether or not they achieved OP) had a lot of other things in common. They all answered all the questions – if there are 3 questions in the paper, there’s no way someone would get Scholarship if they hadn’t attempted to address all the questions, & all the parts (those bullet points) of each question. The best way to ensure that you achieve this is to write an essay plan for each of your answers, & that’s something that all successful candidates had in common. Writing that plan may take 5-10 minutes out of the time for each questions (for past Biology exams that would still leave you 50 minutes to actually write the answer), but it’s time well spent. It means that you can be sure that your answer is well-structured & links ideas properly. (One of my pet hates is an essay that’s really just a train-of-consciousness piece, with arrows all over it directing me to the next paragraph that I should read! Argh!!) It also means that you’re more likely to spot places where, like last year’s successful candiates, you can incorporate data from the resource materials.

And planning helps you to focus on & think critically about your own knowledge – what you should include, & what should be left out. At all costs, resist the temptation to simply do a ‘brain dump’ & write down everything you know that might be remotely relevant 🙂 By the way, it’s fine to use diagrams to explain your answer – last year many candidates made good use of flow diagrams to illustrate the workings of auto- & allopolyploidy.

Whay else? Made sure that you use biological terms & concepts correctly. For example, you’ll almost certainly need to be able to explain how natural selection operates in the context that you’re addressing (don’t just give a vague or generalised answer – put it in context!), & to use terms like mutation, gene, allele, niche & so on in a way that shows you clearly understand their meaning & significance.  And last year’s students were also able to show that they had a good understanding of experimental design.

So – a lot to be aware of. But please don’t panic! You’ve got plenty of time to prepare for this, & you’ve got good teachers who’ll be able to support you. And for those of you in the Waikato/Bay of Plenty regions – I’ll look forward to meeting many of you on September 19th 🙂