This isn’t an English class!

You’ve probably already heard this from your teachers – but it’s an important message, so read on…

The ability to write well is one of the most important skills you need, if you’re going to achieve well in the Scholarship Biology examinations. Don’t believe me? Have a look at the examiner’s report for last year’s exam.

For a start, last year, more students were planning their answers – setting their ideas out in a logical way that made writing structured essays much easier. OK, successful students showed that they had a wide, accurate knowledge of biological concepts – but they also showed critical thinking and discernment (the ability to recognise what was useful and relevant, and what they could omit). Their answers were coherent, precise, and logical – they didn't waffle. They didn't 'brain dump': their answers included only what was relevant to the question (not everything they knew about the wider area in biology). And their work was well written: good spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Good English does matter! It's no use having all that information at your fingertips if you can't communicate this effectively to someone else.

The examiner has gone on to describe what unsuccessful students did, and we can learn from this too. To maximise your chances of success, you need to:

  • do more than give a basic description of a phenomenon;
  • be specific – define your terms, and avoid using generalisations;
  • provide examples and evidence to support your statements;
  • use terms correctly, and don't use anthropomorphisms;
  • know your key concepts, and apply them correctly;
  • make connections between key biological ideas;
  • and (my own students hear this a lot) read the question carefully!

Writing a good Schol Bio answer is a learned skill – but it's not an unattainable goal. Read widely, practice, critique each other's work, practice, discuss your own work with your teacher, practice… you'll come out of it as a better communicator and with enhanced critical thinking skills (and I'll look at those in another posting – or two).

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