Oh Biology! You’ve made your flashcards, poured over your notes and memorised the content. Now it’s exam day, and it’s time to prove to the markers just how much you know!
Learning to interpret a question and correctly structure a response is almost as important as knowing your stuff. At the end of the day, your response is the only way to show your understanding to the markers, so you need to know how to do it right!
Below I’ve outlined a step-by-step guide to how I approach biology questions, using this example question from the NESA ‘Additional Sample HSC Examination Questions’ booklet:
‘The application of reproductive technologies in plant and animal breeding limits genetic diversity.’
To what extent is this statement correct? (6 Marks)
But don’t just read it. Take note of the demand of the question, key words and the mark weight. You can even underline these with your pen. Take a second to figure out exactly what the question is asking of you. If two concepts are mentioned, think about how you can connect and relate these ideas.
In our example there is no direct verbal demand, but the last sentence tells us they are looking for us to evaluate whether the statement is correct. The key words are ‘reproductive technologies,’ ‘plant and animal breeding’ and ‘genetic diversity’. The two distinct concepts here are reproduction and genetic diversity, which we will need to connect in our response. We can also see that the question is worth 6 marks, which will give us an indication of how much to write.
The ability to get into the mind of the marker is one of the most valuable skills you can have when it comes to writing strong responses. Take a moment to look at the parts of the question you have underlined and use these to predict the marking criteria; once you have a good idea of what the criteria will be, you can make sure you’re meeting it.
Taking a lot of practice texts and having a go marking them yourself using the criteria will help you practice this skill, and you’ll start to notice a lot of trends and common demands of the criterium.
In our example, we know we are dealing with an evaluate question, so it safe to assume there will be a mark allocated to the inclusion of a clear judgement statement which is justified. Our key concepts are reproduction and genetic diversity, and it is likely there will be marks allocated to demonstrating an understanding of both concepts.
We need to keep the mark weight in mind when deciding how much depth of understanding we will need to show – the more marks a question is worth, the more marks allocated to your understanding of concepts. Because we are asked to talk about the Impact of reproductive technologies on genetic breeding, it’s also safe to assume there will be a mark allocated to your ability to explain that link.
Let’s take a look at the actual criteria and see how it compares:
Now that you’ve taken a moment to think it through, it’s time to pick up the pen. When you’re faced with a 5+ mark question, it’s a good idea to think of it as a mini essay! You’ll need to introduce your answer/judgement, include examples where possible, explain your answer, and then wrap it all up in a concluding sentence. Unlike English, you do still have the option to structure parts of your answer under headings, in tables, diagrams or flowcharts- and you should use these to your advantage where possible! Here’s a guide to the structure a response should generally follow:
Statement: Summarise your answer to the question in one sentence, and include a clearly stated judgement where relevant.
Terms: Including definitions of your key terms is a surefire way to demonstrate to the markers that you understand it, and I’d recommend including at least one in every 5+ mark response.
Example: Including specific and named examples which you refer to throughout the response can help elevate your answer! Examples can sometimes even be requested within the marking criteria, even if they haven’t been explicitly asked for in the question.
Answer the question: Use scientific terminology, clear wording and incorporate diagrams and tables where possible!
Koncluding* sentence: Sum up your answer to the question and reiterate your judgement statement if relevant!
Now let’s have a look at a sample answer to our question. I’ve noted where the response follows each step of STEAK.
“(S) While application of reproductive technologies in plant and animal breeding may increase genetic diversity in the short term, it is likely to decrease genetic diversity in the long term and thus, the statement is correct. (T)/(E) These technologies include artificial pollination, which is the transfer of pollen from the anther of one plant to the stigma of another, and artificial insemination which is the collection of semen and its delivery into the reproductive system of a female, using equipment. (A) In the short term, reproductive technologies can increase diversity by overcoming geographical barriers, allowing combinations that wouldn’t naturally occur and enabling interbreeding by geographically separated organisms. Reproductive technologies can also produce hybrids and introduce new alleles to populations. However, it is much more likely that genetic variation will be decreased in the long term, simply due to the attractiveness of the selectively produced offspring. Both aforementioned technologies can be used to increase the number of offspring with the desired characteristics that can be generated by one parent and therefore can result in decreased genetic diversity in the population. Other individuals in the population do not contribute to the next generation. (E)
For example, semen from the same bull can be used to impregnate hundreds of cows, or pollen from one male flower is more likely to be transferred to a female flower. When an ideal set of organisms is created, they are likely to be used to produce all offspring for higher agricultural value in terms of profit, nutrition, yield or any other number of factors. This leads to highly homogenous populations. Additionally, these more ideal, selective organisms have a higher propensity to outcompete natural species and other less ideal organisms, leading to even more homogeny. (K) Despite the potential for positive impacts, the prominence of this homogenous consequence reveals that the statement ‘The application of reproductive technologies in plant and animal breeding limits genetic diversity’ yields true.
So, there it is! Use the time you have now to go through some exam questions and practice these techniques, and by the time you reach the HSC you’ll be a natural. Good luck!