Category: General

New organisation of the IGCSE Biology posts on my blog

It has become clear to me that the majority of iGCSE students reading the blog are not those I teach.  This is great to be honest and exactly what I wanted.  So it seemed unhelpful to organise the blog around the teaching groups at my school so I have had a go at re-organising it in what I hope will be a more useful way.

Categories and Tags

I have sorted all my iGCSE Biology blog posts into 5 categories that relate to how the EdExcel iGCSE Biology specification is organised.  I have also “tagged” each post with the specification points that it covers as well as the key words in the post.  I hope you all find this more helpful.

Blog posts on the way

I have plans for more blog posts to ensure a comprehensive coverage of the entire iGCSE specification.  So you should expect to be able to read soon about

  • The Characteristics of Life
  • Respiration
  • Alveoli and Gas Exchange
  • Chromosomes
  • Human Reproductive Systems

There are a few more beyond this as well…..

Please do contact me via the blog if you have requests for posts or indeed with any questions you have.  The best part of the blog is when students from all over the world contact me via the “Leave a Reply” box at the bottom of each post.  I try to reply to all queries as soon as I can.

Keep working hard and enjoy your Biology.

Start of 2015-16 school year – welcome back!

I have been neglecting my blog for which I apologise.  There are posts relating to all the topics I am covering with my iGCSE classes at the moment.

F block boys could look at this post on cells.

E Block classes should look at the posts on photosynthesis to help with revision for your end of topic tests:

D block boys have plenty of options to read:

Please add comments to these various posts, ask questions and interact with the material on the blog.  Happy studying!

GFP fly


Just doing the pGLO practical this morning with my Y12 group and came across a great photo of a fly that has been genetically modified to express a gene from a species of Arctic jellyfish.  The fly now makes a protein called GFP that causes it to flouresce green.

Possible topics for IGCSE Biology paper 2 2015

Predicting the topics that might come up in an exam is always a risky business.  The most important thing to remember is that the examiners can ask questions on any topic at all in the paper 2 exam – this might include questions on topics they have asked already in the first paper .  The iGCSE specification is so large that it will be impossible for your understanding across the entire range to be assessed.

Having said that, I think it is sensible to focus your revision on topics that have not been assessed at all in paper 1.  My Head of Department has carefully been through the paper 1 (which I thought was an excellent exam by the way) and has come up with some suggestions as to what kind of questions might appear in paper 2.  (Note the important use of the word might…..)  Here is his list:

  • A question about blood, vaccination, pathogens, bringing in bacterial and viral structure, maybe comparing them to animal cells?
  • Something to do with enzymes, nutrients (monomers, polymers), some detail on elements of the digestive system that have not been covered?
  • Water uptake, osmosis, transpiration stream, potometers?
  • Photosynthesis biochemistry, maybe an experimental question, linking with respiration (hydrogencarbonate indicator experiment for example?)
  • Nervous system – reflex arc and eye structure and function are both ripe for a good question
  • Homeostasis question, on thermoregulation or kidney function
  • A question about cloning that links in with cell division, mitosis and meiosis, asexual versus sexual reproduction
  • Natural selection, evolution, selective breeding, maybe linked to an environmental context (e.g. global warming), or food production (e.g. fish farming)
  • Food webs and energy flow, along with a carbon/water/nitrogen cycle component
  • A respiration question that ties in with yoghurt and/or beer production

I think this is a really sensible list and a good way to start your revision for paper 2 in June.  Look at each of these topics carefully, make sure you understand the details in the specification and then have a go at past paper questions on each of these subject areas.  I will try to get some new blog posts up that address these bullet points in the next week or two (fingers crossed…)  There is already quite a lot in the blog if you use the “Search PMGBiology” function at the top of the home page.

Good luck and keep working hard!

Ten Rules of Bad Studying (adapted and plagiarised from Barbara Oakley PhD)

On the back of the document Barbara Oakley used to describe good studying and learning (see previous post) she also described Ten Techniques seen in Bad Learning.  These should “all be avoided as they can waste your time even while they fool you into thinking you are learning”.  You have been warned…

1. Passive re-reading. Sitting passively and running your eyes over a page.  Unless you can prove to yourself that the ideas are moving into your brain by recalling the main ideas without looking at the page, re-reading is a waste of time.

2. Letting highlights overwhelm you.  Highlighting text can fool you into thinking you are putting something in your brain,when all you are doing is moving your hand! A little highlighting here and there is ok but so often I see students who have basically coloured their notes in….  Use sparingly to flag up one or two important points per page, but no more than that please….

3. Merely glancing at mark schemes and model answers and thinking you could do it.  This is one of the worse errors students make while studying according to Dr Oakley.  You need to be able to solve a problem step-by-step (or answer a question one point at a time) without looking at the solution or mark scheme.

4. Waiting until the last minute to study.  Well we are less than 18 hours away from the main iGCSE exam so I hope none of you have done this!  Would you cram at the last minute if you were competing at an athletics event?

5. Repeating solving problems of the same type that you already know how to solve.  I see this a lot in Biology – students repeatedly practising the easy questions on topics they already know they understand. Waste of time!

6. Letting study sessions with friends turn into chat sessions.  Revision with friends can be fun as it allows you to check your problem solving, quiz each other and expose flaws in your thinking.  But there is a risk and that is that the fun can come before the learning and then you are all wasting your time….

7. Neglecting to read the textbook before working on problems/past papers.  I see this a lot too – students dive into past papers from the internet without bothering to read the textbook or try to learn the topics thoroughly. Would you dive into a swimming pool before you learn how to swim?  The textbook is your swimming instructor – so pay attention and work at it.  Past papers are conning you that you are revising if this is the first thing you do.

8. Not checking with your teachers to ask for help.  Teachers expect students to come to ask for help – it is our job to help you prepare for exams after all.  The students we worry about are the ones who don’t come in for help.  Don’t be one of those students.

9. Thinking you can learn deeply when you are being constantly distracted.  “Every tiny pull toward an instant message or conversation means you have less brain power to devote to your learning. Every tug of interrupted learning pulls out the tiny neural roots before they can grow.”

10. Not getting enough sleep.  I have written about this several times before and it is a biggy…. I am delighted Barbara Oakley shares my point of view.    Your brain pieces together problem-solving techniques and understanding when you sleep.  It also repeats and practises what you have put into your mind before you sleep.  Prolonged fatigue builds up toxins in the brain that disrupt the neural connections you need to think quickly and well.  If you don’t get a proper sleep before a test or exam, nothing else you have done will matter.  So please take note and go to bed tonight!

10 rules of Good Studying (plagiarised and adapted from Barbara Oakley PhD)

I was lucky enough to hear Dr Oakley speak at the #TLAB15 conference in March.  She has written extensively about the neural processes involved in good learning and this list of 10 points is an abridged and adapted excerpt from her book “A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel in Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra)

1. Use recall.  Read a page, look away and recall all the main ideas.  Highlight very little, check your recall frequently in different places and at different times.  An ability to recall – to generate the ideas from inside yourself – is one of the key indicators of good learning.

2. Test yourself. On everything. All the time. Flash cards are your friend.


3. Chunk your problems.  Chunking is understanding and practising a solution so that it can come to mind in a single step.  After you solve a problem, rehearse it.  Pretend its a song and learn to play it over and over again in your mind so that the information combines into one smooth chunk you can pull up whenever you want.

4. Space your repetition. Spread out your learning in any subject a little every day, just like an athlete.  Little and often is the way to deep and full understanding.

5. Alternate different problem-solving techniques during your revision.  Never practice learning a particular topic for too long.  Mix it up and work on different kinds of problems.  Handwrite a problem/question on one side of a flash card and the solutions on the other.  Go through tests and assignments, looking at errors and checking why you made them.

6. Take breaks. Some Biology topics are difficult to understand and few people will get them first time.  If it doesn’t make sense first time, don’t worry, take a break, work on something different and come back to it.  Your mind is very powerful and can work on problems in the background even when your focus is elsewhere.  This is also why little and often is such a good rule for learning.

7. Use simple analogies.  If a concept is difficult, think to yourself – “how can I explain this so a 10 year old could understand it?”  Using analogies really helps.  Don’t just think the analogy, say it out aloud and write it down.


8. Focus. Turn off all beeps and alarms on your phone and computer and set a timer for 25 minutes.  Focus intently for the 25 minutes and try to work as diligently as you can.  When the timer goes off give yourself a small, fun reward.  Chocolate works well for me…..

9. Eat your frogs first.  Do the hardest thing early in the day when you are fresh.


10.  Make a mental contrast.  Imagine where you’ve come from and contrast that with the dream of where your studies are going to take you.  Post a picture or words in your workspace to remind yourself of your dream.  Look at this when you find motivation flagging.

Final advice before IGCSE Biology paper 1 tomorrow

Well we are nearly there….. 24 hours to go until the main IGCSE Biology exam (worth 120 of the total 180 marks).  I hope you are all excited and looking forward with optimism to being able to show the examiner how much you understand from the extensive specification.  What should you be doing in this final 24 hours?

The most important thing is that you all get a good night’s sleep tonight.  Please do not stay up late cramming -it does not work! The evidence base for this is completely clear: you will perform better tomorrow with a normal night’s sleep tonight.  So please stop work an hour before you intend to go to bed, relax for an hour watching TV or socialising and then go to bed……

This afternoon you should want to look over a paper or two to familiarise yourself with the kinds of questions and the mark schemes.  I would have a final look again at the summer 2013 and summer 2014 paper 1B scripts.  Look at your answers and the kind of ways you lost marks.   In particular focus on the longer answer questions (for 4,5 or 6 marks) and look at the mark schemes.  Often there are marks available for saying obvious things but only if the correct vocabulary is used correctly.

Remember the PMG list of banned words:

Amount (oh no, please don’t ever write this in an exam – think – do you mean mass/volume/concentration?)

Level (do not talk about the level of something, you always mean “concentration” and concentration is a noun that actually means something!)

Substance – what substance are you talking about?  oxygen? glucose?

Gases – in questions on gas exchange or transport, please do not write about “gases” – say which gases you mean!

Nutrients – not really a banned word but one that needs very very careful use…..  A nutrient is a food molecule, for example glucose, an amino acid or a lipid. Nutrients like these are transported dissolved in blood plasma in mammals but if asked about it, don’t use the word but actually state which molecule you are talking about.  None of these nutrients are absorbed into the roots of a plant.  Plants absorb mineral ions (nitrate, phosphate, magnesium, potassium etc) through their roots into root hair cells by active transport.

Look over your revision notes a few final times to familiarise yourself with the key words.  Focus your final revision on the key areas that you know will definitely come up:  there will be a genetics question, there will be an experimental design question, the chances are that fish farming and fermenters will be there as usual……..

If you have worked hard for several weeks (and I know many of you have) you have little to fear in the exam from a lack of knowledge.  The thing to fear is losing marks due to rushing, due to not reading the question and due to not giving yourself time to think.  None of you will be rushed for time I promise, so please


  • read every word in every question
  • give yourself time to think before answering – even easy marks can be lost by rushing!
  • plan longer answer questions to make sure you cover all the key points using the correct jargon – think before you write anything, “what are the key terms in this topic?” – and then make sure you use them correctly in your answer

Good luck!  By the end of tomorrow you will have completed two thirds of your GCSE exams in Biology and that should be a happy thought……