preparing for schol bio – a frequently-asked question

A Frequently-Asked Question at scholarship biology preparation days is, "what do I have to do to write a scholarship-standard essay?" There are a number of ways to answer this one.

Early in the year, I'd start by advising you to read widely in biology, as a way of developing both breadth and depth in your knowledge. There are a lot of resources out there: popular science books; New Scientist and Scientific American articles; science blogs (including New Zealand's own Sciblogs, which has great writing and an excellent range of content; science pages on Facebook (and also the FB Scholarship Biology page)… That, combined with the material that your teachers cover in class, should provide a strong base of knowledge to integrate with the material provided in the exam paper itself.

But at last week's prep day in Palmerston North, while I mentioned those resources, I focused more on how to approach the actual exam paper, and how to plan for and write a well-structured essay. First up, three key steps:

Read the material in the question book, and read it carefully and critically. For each question, what is the examiner expecting you to do? There's usually a reasonable amount of resource material provided: which parts are directly relevant to addressing each part of the question itself?

Plan your answers – there's space in the answer book for this, and you can always ask for extra paper if you need it. Planning is crucial as it helps ensure that your essay will be well-structured, coherent, and clear; it should flow logically, and contain the relevant information from your own knowledge, well-integrated with the resource material. Every year the examiner's report emphasises the importance of spending time planning. (Yes, you have only an hour for each question – but that doesn't mean that you should skim-read the paper & skimp on the planning. Far from it!)

Write your essays – and make sure to do so legibly. In their 2016 report the examiner commented specifically on the need for answers to be legible, even going so far as to remind students of the need to write on the lines in their answer book. And do keep half an eye on the time – once the 60 minutes for that first essay is up, move on to the next one. Start it on a new page. You can always return to the first one if you've got a little spare time at the end of the paper, but if you spend 90 minutes on the first essay you'll never get that time back for the others. 

And secondly – remember to explain your statements. If you have a look at the assessment schedule for a schol bio exam (from the NZQA website), you'll see that for each question it's broken down into 'evidence' & 'justification'. In addition, there's a 'judgement statement' for each question that sets out clearly what a student would need to do to produce a response that's at the level of Scholarship or Outstanding Scholarship. Basically, someone who wrote down a list of points from the resource material and their own knowledge, but failed to explain their relevance, would not be working at the required standard. Remember, the examiner is looking for a comprehensive discussion …a well-planned discussion which is fully integrated and coherent.

So, as part of your revision – practice your writing! Use a question from a previous year's paper: the contexts are new every year, but at this point in the year you'll have covered the expected content from the year 13 curriculum, & planning and then writing a response to your chosen question is a really good way for you to revise that content as you integrate it with the resource material in the paper. 

And all the best for your exams!

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