Learning the content for VCE Biology is one thing; mastering the exam is another. Familiarising yourself with the question types and practising written responses is crucial in converting your knowledge to a solid exam score.
There’s no doubt that Biology is one of the more content-heavy VCE subjects. In less than a year, you’re expected to cover the nitty-gritty details on topics ranging from mitosis and meiosis to human evolution. Given the sheer volume of content, it can be tempting for students to spend their exam revision period cramming to commit the concepts to memory, to the utmost level of detail possible. While knowing the concepts and being able to rehash key definitions is certainly important for the exam, equally so is understanding the common question types and practising the structure of your responses. This is the case for all VCE subjects, but particularly for a subject like Biology where the difference between getting 2/4 and 4/4 on a multi-mark question often lies in the way you convey a logical argument. To help you kick off your revision, here’s an overview of the question types on the exam, how to best navigate each question type, tips for making the most of exam time, and some patterns from past papers to look out for.
Those sitting the VCE Biology exam in 2022 should be aware by now that the study design this year has been amended from that of previous years. Although this can be daunting, there are comprehensive resources on the VCAA website (https://www.vcaa.vic.edu.au/assessment/vce-assessment/past-examinations/Pages/Biology.aspx) including a point-by-point description of the new study design and a practice exam. The differences from the previous study design are minor, so exam papers and other resources from past years will still be valuable revision tools.
In 2022, the exam will be held on Friday 28 October from 9:00 am - 11:45 am. As with most VCE exams, the first 15 minutes are allocated to reading time, followed by two and a half hours of writing time. The exam will consist of two sections:
- Section A: 40 multiple-choice questions
- Section B: Short-answer and extended-response questions
Each question in section A is worth one mark, giving a total of 40 marks. The number of questions in section B varies from year to year, but is usually around 10 or 11. Section B is worth 80 marks; so the breakdown of marks is 1/3 section A and 2/3 section B, which is important to keep in mind when allocating your time on the exam.
Navigating each question type
Although it’s an obvious fact that each MCQ is only worth one mark, it’s an important fact to reiterate. The best approach to Section A questions is using the process of elimination to answer each question as quickly as possible. Crossing out the options that are definitely wrong can help you get down to which one is right sooner than trawling through your brain for the specific concept from the jam-packed study design and trying to remember an entire metabolic pathway to get to the answer.
Short-answer questions are one- or two-point responses that are often regurgitations of textbook concepts. There’s almost certainly going to be at least one “define…” question in there, so have your textbook definitions of key concepts ready. Most textbooks have a pretty handy glossary of these terms to help you in your revision. Another common type of short-answer question is the “state” question (e.g. “state three physical barriers to infection”, “state three types of point mutations”). These types of questions don’t need a beautifully written paragraph response; a bulleted list will normally suffice. However, the question will usually want you to do more than name things in each bullet point; explain what each point on your list means or how it functions in the context described.
Extended-response questions are where your written communication skills will be tested. Generally, these questions are worth three to four marks. Each mark is looking for a particular term or concept, so it’s important to know the terms that examiners love (e.g. “complementary base pairing”, “obligate intracellular parasite”). However, it’s not enough to simply regurgitate these terms; you need to use them to form a logical argument. When it comes to extended-response, you can’t get around practise, practise, practise. Once you’ve got the rhythm of your responses, you’ll be prepared for whatever comes on the exam as long as you know the content being tested.
Breaking down exam time
While the idea of 15 minutes without being allowed to put pen to paper may seem frustrating, it’s actually helpful and forces you to formulate your game plan. Use your reading time wisely to familiarise yourself with the questions. One useful strategy is to mentally divide all questions into two buckets: those that are simple enough to tackle straight away, and those requiring more thought. Then, when writing time commences, you can empty the first bucket quickly and spend the bulk of your time nutting out the more difficult questions. Don’t be bound by a rigid structure. Remember, Section A is only worth just over 30% of the total marks, so it’s more important to move on to trickier Section B questions than spending too much time stuck on a difficult MCQ. Try to leave 10 minutes at the end to go over your answers.
Common patterns in past papers
Past papers should form an important part of your revision, and if you do enough of them, you might notice some patterns. For example, evolution questions often introduce you to a species in a particular geographical area of the world and then test your knowledge about phylogenetic trees, mutations, or other similar concepts, applying them to the specific situation. As such, a good approach to preparing for this type of question is having a generic answer to a question about a particular, common concept (e.g., natural selection), then knowing how to modify your response to specific scenarios.
Formulating your Biology exam responses is an important skill so be sure to incorporate it into your revision. Consider booking in a free 30-minute study skills consultation [link to find a tutor page] to discuss your exam strategy for Biology and VCE in general.
Written by KIS Academics tutor Dee Tomic. Dee currently offers tutoring for VCE Maths Methods and Biology. Dee is completing her PhD in epidemiology with Monash University. If you have any questions for her or would like to request Dee as a tutor, feel free to reach out through her profile here.