Summary of the specification below
An introductory remark
There is a big emphasis on practicals in this new specification. AQA mention that practicals are ‘at the heart of science’. Personally, I hate practicals! And I know it’s a strong word… There is also huge emphasis on mathematical skills – at least 10% of your marks will require the use of mathematical skills (in the context of Biology) and will be at least higher tier GCSE mathematics level. So brush up on your maths!
More specifically though, they really want you to be able to apply these mathematical and practical skills to areas of content that you are not familiar with, i.e. unfamiliar contexts, and be able to draw together different areas of knowledge and understanding within one answer! It sounds difficult. But with practice (past paper questions), you’ll get the hang of it.
Specification at a glance – what’s a specification?
Specification is defined as an ‘act of identifying something precisely or of stating a precise requirement.’, and this is exactly what the specification for your A-Level Biology course does. Every course you take will have a specification released for the subject, and this specification outlines – in essence – the precise requirements of knowledge for your exam.
Your A-Level is specified by AS subject content and A-Level subject content, as you can see below.
As it says, your subject content is split into AS content and A-Level content. Now let’s take a little tangent: AQA offer two separate qualifications, one is an AS-Level qualification, one is an A-Level qualification. Unlike previous qualifications provided by AQA and other exam boards, the AS-Level qualification does not count towards your A-Level qualification. This means that if you sit AS-Level exams – as part of the AS-Level qualification – the mark you get in them will not contribute towards any marks scored in A-Level exams. This also means that some of you will be entered in to sit the AS-Level qualification at the end of year 1; if you are, you will sit two exam papers (AS Paper 1, AS Paper 2) that will examine you on AS content with practical skills weaved in. This will provide a great marker of where you are at in terms of subject understanding. Then you will move on to sit your A-Level qualification at the end of year two (most of you will only be entered in for this A-Level qualification – as I was), and you will sit three papers. Paper 1 will test you on AS content (at a higher level than the AS papers), Paper 2 will be A2 content and Paper 3 will be AS and A2 content, with an essay and emphasis on practical skills. See the next section for AS and A2 content.
Subject Content at a glance – what’s in the specification?
AS Subject Content: AS Notes
3.1 Biological Molecules (notes here)* TBA
3.2 Cells (notes here)
3.3 Organisms exchange substances with their environment (notes here)
3.4 Genetic information, variation and relationships between organisms (notes here)
A-Level Subject Content: A2 Notes
3.5 Energy transfers in and between organisms (notes here)
3.6 Organisms respond to changes in their internal and external environment (notes here)
3.7 Genetics, populations, evolution and ecosystems (notes here)
3.8 The control of gene expression (notes here)
See the specification for further details of subsidiary topics contained within these main topics.
Assessment at a glance – how am I assessed on what’s in the specification?
Below I have attached pictures from the specification regarding the structure of exams for the AQA A-Level in Biology (Formally: AQA Advanced Level (A-Level) GCE in Biology). And then the AQA AS-Level in Biology: (Formally: AQA Advanced Subsidiary (AS) GCE in Biology).
As I mentioned previously, in most cases you will simply be sitting the ‘A-Level’ Biology papers at the end of your second year. Some of you though, may be entered in for both the ‘A-Level’ and the ‘AS-Level’ at the end of year 2… this may be because your teacher believes you are more likely to pass your AS-Level than A-Level, or a number of other reasons.
As you can see above, Paper 1 Paper 2 and Paper 3 all require practical skills. That said, Paper 3 has the largest emphasis on practical/experimental techniques, and tests you on content from the entire specification!
In the A-Level assessments…
- Paper 1 (notes here) contains content from the topics 1-4; that is from 3.1 Biological molecules to 3.4 Genetic information, variation and relationships between organisms (see the specification).
- Paper 2 (notes here) contains content from the topics 5-8; that is from 3.5 Energy transfers in and between organisms to 3.8 The control of gene expression.
- Paper 3 (notes here) contains content from topics 1-8; that is from 3.1 Biological molecules to 3.8 The control of gene expression.
All A-Level exams are 2 hours. Paper 1 and 2 are worth 91 marks, Paper 3 is worth 78 marks. Resultantly, Paper 1 and 2 each make up 35% of your A-Level, and Paper 3 30%.
Paper 1 and Paper 2 comprise 76 marks of short and long answer questions, with 15 marks extended response questions in Paper 1 and a 15 mark comprehension question in paper 2. Paper 3 comprises 38 marks structured questions including practical techniques, 15 marks critical analysis of given experimental data, and a 25 mark monster essay! (It’s not so bad actually…)
Ensure that you complete all of the available A-Level (and AS) papers! And file them using a good filing system e.g. in chronological order, or paper type – using a ring binder folder for example.
Similar to the A-Level, Paper 1 and Paper 2 of the AS-Level also contain practical elements. However the AS-Level assessments contain content only from topics 1-4 (AS content).
As mentioned previously, the AS-Level is a completely separate qualification to the A-Level. But that is not to say that if you are doing the A-Level paper, you shouldn’t practise with the AS papers. This is because, although the AS papers test content at a lower level than the A-Level papers, the AS papers test topics 1-4, which are also tested in Paper 1 and 3 of the A-Level papers. So, if you cannot do the AS papers then it is unlikely you can do the A-Level papers. Therefore, ensure that you start with practising the AS papers, or, skip them at your own peril!!
Notes for A-Level and AS-Level content
AQA Aims of course (don’t dwell on this stuff)
AQA specify these aims in their specification:
Develop essential knowledge and understanding of different areas of the subject and how they relate to each other;
Develop and demonstrate a deep appreciation of the skills, knowledge and understanding of scientific methods;
Develop competence and confidence in a variety of practical, mathematical and problem solving skills;
Develop their interest in and enthusiasm for the subject, including developing an interest in further study and careers associated with the subject;
Understand how society makes decisions about scientific issues and how the sciences contribute to the success of the economy and society.
AQA Assessment objectives (dwell on this a little)
This is what the specification says:
Assessment objectives (AOs) are set by Ofqual and are the same across all AS and A-level Biology specifications and all exam boards.
The exams will measure how students have achieved the following assessment objectives.
- AO1: Demonstrate knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas, processes, techniques and procedures
- AO2: Apply knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas, processes, techniques and procedures:
- in a theoretical context
- in a practical context
- when handling qualitative data
- when handling quantitative data
- AO3: Analyse, interpret and evaluate scientific information, ideas and evidence, including in relation to issues, to:
- make judgements and reach conclusions
- develop and refine practical design and procedures.
Weighting of assessment objectives
Mathematical requirements and exemplifications
AQA have issued a list of examples of mathematical techniques required for the course. The list is not exhaustive so there is scope for them to extend these techniques.
In the images below those sections in bold would only be tested in the full A-Level course.
A-Level practical assessment
(for AS practical assessment see the specification)
This component of your course may confuse you a little. In short, you will complete 12 required practical activities with your teacher, they will assess you using the following criteria (for more information see page 74-75 of the specification) :
- Follow written procedures to carry out the experimental techniques/procedures
- Applied investigative approaches and methods when using instruments and equipment
- Safely use a range of practical equipment and materials
- Makes and records observations
- Researches, references and reports.
The 12 required practicals are given below:
To reiterate what the spec says above, your written papers will assess knowledge and understanding of these practicals and the skills involved in them, so ensure that you have good notes and a good understanding for each practical. It is likely that in your written exam they will adapt the practicals slightly, so it is important first and foremost that you have a solid understanding of the foundation knowledge required for the practical.
The best way to practise for the practical paper is to complete past papers! You have 4 past papers available for the A-Level paper 3’s (Specimen Paper, Specimen [set 2], 2017, 2018), and 8 AS papers (Specimen Paper, 2016, 2017, 2018) – paper 1 and paper 2 cover practical elements remember. So that is 12 papers!
Why does the specification matter?
If you have managed to read all the way through and arrive here – great! Hopefully the answer to this question is obvious now. If not, and you’ve skipped straight here, then at some point set aside some time to take a read through this – it won’t take that long!
So this post is all about understanding what knowledge is required for your exam, i.e. what the specification calls the subject content. You must know this! It is vital for so many reasons! Some obvious some maybe not so obvious. A not so obvious one could be that…
if you have a structure in your mind of what is in your specification, it becomes vastly easier to remember content. For example, if you were to remember simply the name of the 8 main topics of the course (3.1 Biological Molecules – 3.8 The control of gene expression), you could then structure all of your knowledge around where exactly it falls within these 8 topics. This will then allow you to form links between topics and ultimately lead to a stronger understanding of the course content.
Another reason I believe this to be the most important thing is that it gives you a possible method to structure your notes; the worst thing is to have a disjoint set of notes – with sections of the course here and sections there!! You need to have an order for your notes. You may decide to follow the order of the textbook you use, but I would always advise you to use the specification to structure your notes.
Another reason! Is that by familiarising yourself with the specification and ordering your notes in accordance with it, you avoid missing any topics, and you find that actually sometimes textbooks miss out content!
That’s all I can think of for now, but check out some further resources below like checklist for ensuring you’ve completed all of the topics given in the spec, or my AQA AS and A-Level Biology project which contains a link to all of my Biology resources.
A checklist to ensure that you have completed all available past papers and all of the notes that you need to make for the course.
My complete AQA AS and A-Level Biology project, which includes past papers, notes and exam tips.