Student guide to AS Biology
Having made the decision to continue your studies and to gain a higher
qualification in biology you may be feeling a little bit nervous about what’s
to come. But don’t worry – this guide has been put together to try and
answer your questions and help you through the coming weeks so that you
can be successful in your studies.
Biology is the scientific study of life. We are living things ourselves so
biology is about us too! During the AS course, you will get the chance to
delve deeper into why things are the way they are. You will need review
your knowledge from GCSE in order to move on your understanding at AS.
A good grade in biology A level is a requirement for university courses in
medicine, dentistry and veterinary science. A level biology also provides a
useful background to a wide variety of Higher Education courses. With an A level in Biology you could
go on to study: radiography, nursing, physiotherapy, pharmacology, pharmacy, psychology, forensic
science, archaeology, marine biology, ecology, sports studies, biochemistry, accountancy, law or even
teacher training.
About the AS biology course
We follow the OCR AS Biology course. You will study 5 modules over the year, by two teachers.
There are also a number of practical assessments which are carried out in the classroom under exam
You will quickly realise that you (not just your teacher!) should know the exam board specification and
check the topics, terms and definitions required. The specification and your textbook will highlight
important things to concentrate on, such as where to emphasise detail. You can find the specification on
the OCR website:
What are the main differences between GCSE and AS biology?
Although there is much overlap in topics and terms, there is quite a lot of new material that you won’t
have met before. Also, you need to go into more detail regarding the topics you are already familiar with
and your level of thinking and explaining has to be deeper.
New material
There will be many more facts and unfamiliar terms to learn and recall in exams than there were at
GCSE. Examples of new areas include the structure of cell membranes, the immune response and how
the heart functions. Don’t be put off by all the complex terms you will start to come across, they are
important for scientists to communicate precisely what they mean, and as your AS course progresses
you will become more comfortable and confident with using them (see the section on words at the end
of this guide).
You must be prepared to go into a topic or subtopic in much more detail than at GCSE. This sometimes
means using specific examples of what you know in general (e.g. named examples of types of body
tissues). It might involve describing something in much more detail than before (e.g. exactly how your
heart beats and how this is controlled). Another good example is mitosis – if you can’t remember what it
is, have a quick look at your GCSE notes! For AS biology you need to name and explain what happens
in each stage of mitosis and show an understanding of why these things happen. This brings us on to …
Thinking and explaining
As well as going into more detail and giving examples wherever you can, you need to justify your
statements and apply your knowledge and skills to unfamiliar examples. Justifying what you are saying
in AS biology often involves relating structure to function, i.e. explaining why something looks the way it
does or why a particular structure allows it to function. For example, knowing the detailed structure of
the cell membrane allows you to explain its many functions. Now you can apply this knowledge to
discuss how an unfamiliar medical drug might work by changing the structure of the membrane.
Developing practical skills
You will develop your practical skills further in AS biology, such as using the microscope to measure and
calculate sizes of cells. In fact, there is a unit devoted to practical assessment – worth 20% of the whole
AS course mark.
How to achieve at AS level
A different approach to your studies is needed at AS compared
to GCSE science. We’ve already explained that there is much
more detail at AS level so you will need to work hard in lessons
and out of lessons in order to fully grasp the topics.
At AS you need to structure your own personal study. You need
to organise yourself! Get yourself a diary, one with plenty of
room for writing. Remember you will have 3, 4 or maybe 5
different subjects to stay on top of: reading, writing up notes,
exam dates, practical dates, homework, revision and so on.
Time Management
Plan your time. Look carefully at when your biology classes are timetabled and plan appropriate times
around these that you can write up your class notes and complete homework. Too often, students come
to classes having not looked at a topic since the previous week. Try to plan a short session to look over
work before the next lesson. If you develop this habit you will find the topic being discussed in the lesson
makes much more sense.
Make up a weekly planner so that you have blocks of time for each of your subjects. For each subject
you should plan at least as long as the class time allocated (5 or 6 hours per week). If you find you have
some time left over, use it to sort out your personal study notes, revise the week’s topics or read ahead.
The extra time spent regularly improving your understanding is what helps obtain the grades.
Independent learning
In most subjects at A level you will be expected to write notes in lessons and then “write up your notes”
in your own time. But what do teachers mean when we say “write up your notes”?
Writing up notes is an important step in processing your work. You might remember from GCSE science
that processing information makes it more likely to stick in your long term memory. Processing also
means you engage with the concepts. It should involve:
 Re-reading your class notes or hand outs as soon after the lesson as possible.
 Highlighting the key points and any areas you did not understand fully (and asking for help on
 Reading the relevant section in the textbook and other resources (see the Resources section of
this guide)
 Re-writing your notes, include relevant diagrams, keywords and definitions and information that
you have found in the other resources.
 Attempting some questions to see how much you really understand.
The above could be done in any order depending on how you work best. You might find at the start that
it is helpful to do this with a friend.
Remember, A levels in science are considerably harder than GCSE. We expect a much greater
commitment from you in order to be successful. It should go without saying that homework is always
completed, on time and to the best of your ability. If you don’t understand something in your homework
then you should look it up or ask your teacher for help. Your teacher will also ask to see your class
notes on a regular basis.
Students who succeed in their AS courses are those who developed a routine way of working in
their own time so that they were able to add to and enhance their learning. This is independent
learning and it makes a real difference.
Class textbook - You might want to buy your own copy of an OCR Biology textbook although this is not
compulsory. You could buy one from a previous year 12 student, second-hand on eBay or Amazon or a
book shop (ISBN-10: 0435691805). You will be given the opportunity to ‘hire’ a CD ROM at the
beginning of the course that will contain an electronic version of the textbook used in school.
Exam Cafe CD – The OCR textbook also comes with a CD packed with useful
resources to support your learning and exam preparation including revision
checklists, multi-choice tests, sample student answers and examiners’ tips.
Year 11 revision guide – don’t throw this out! Your revision guide will help you
review the basics including chemistry.
Biozone student workbook – This book is great for extra reading and is full of
questions to check your knowledge – perfect for writing up notes. These will be
available to buy from the Science department at a discounted rate.
New Scientist – A weekly science magazine that reviews scientific issues in the
news plus has in depth articles ranging from how being vegetarian could slow
down global warming to the latest ideas about the universe.
Other textbooks – there are lots of older biology textbooks in the library and in the
science department. Don’t dismiss these! They are far more comprehensive than
the new-style textbooks and great for building up your understanding of the topics.

Biology Student Guide to OCR AS Biology