Each year, the main examining boards publish a document written by the examiners called the "Examiners' Report". In this report, the examiners explain what the most common mistakes are. This article examines (see what we've done?) the past AQA Biology exam from June 2017.

Author: Adi Sen

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Each year, the main exam boards make a public document which is written by the examiners called the “Examiners Report”.

In this report, they tell you what the common errors were, where many students missed marks, what surprised them about the paper, examples of how best to answer questions and past topics. This is different to a mark scheme because it gives you personal insights rather than just the correct answer, which often, can mean a lot more!

These are incredibly useful resources which give you the most valid and up-to-date information, straight from the people who decide on awarding the mark. You should use the Examiner’s Report as much as you possibly can! Print it off and stick it above your desk or next to your bed. Knowing what examiners have consistently awarded marks for in the past 5 years can make the difference between an A and A* – do not underestimate the power of knowledge!

This article examines (you see what we did there?) the AQA Biology June 2017 Past Paper.


General Statements from Biology AQA Examiners

This AQA Biology past paper covered topics 1-4 from the syllabus, along with the practice skills involved. Although many topics are shared with AS level Biology, the questions are at an A-level standard. This paper, along with other science A-level subjects, has had the difficulty and weighting of maths questions raised. This means a solid knowledge of Maths will gain you Biology marks!

A minority of students only just had enough time to complete the paper, and some ran out of time completely. Although the paper is tight of time, the examiners suggest that students should carefully read the “command” word (think: evaluate, explain, describe) before answering longer form questions so that you focus on the answer rather than “fluff”.

Finally, the “list rule” came into effect on this paper. The rule states that if, for example 3 answers for 3 marks, are required and the students gives 5 answers (3 correct and 2 incorrect), they will be negatively marked for the incorrect answers resulting in a mark of 1. Watch out for this when sitting your exam – don’t splurge if you are unsure!

How to prepare for the Biology section of the NSAA >>>

“ER” in this post stands for EXAMINERS REPORT/REMARKS

AQA Biology A-Level Past Paper

ER & ANSWERThis was hoped to be a straightforward start to the paper, but only 22% could name both molecules that make a ribosome. This is something taught at AS level so make sure you read up on the previous syllabus.
ER & ANSWERMany more students (48%) gained all three marks here.
ER & ANSWERA very successfully answered question with 96.3% of students getting the mark.
ER & ANSWER83% of students gained 2 marks for this question but a common problem was “indicating that the introns removed from the pre-mRNA were made of DNA.”
ER & ANSWERStudents must take care to specify alpha glucose or αglucose rather than a-glucose. It was not uncommon for students to describe glycogen as if it were identical to starch and to include references to amylose and amylopectin in their answers.
ER & ANSWERMany students started their answers with reference to branching molecules providing many ‘ends’ for enzymes – this was not relevant and is indicative of students rushing to write all they know, rather than considering what is relevant to answer the specific question asked. Students often know the basic principle of breaking down glycogen but did not use the term “hydrolysis” to gain the first mark. Know your terms!
ER & ANSWERMany students did not gain full marks because they seemed not to read the question sufficiently carefully. It required reference to the cell-surface membranes only, so answers relating to “one cell thick”, “many mitochondria”, or “a good blood supply” were not relevant. To gain both marks students needed to suggest and explain, which many did not do in their answer.
ER & ANSWERThis answer required a multi-step process for all answers. Firstly, students needed to work out that there would be 128 cells after 3 days: 2 cells after the first day, then another 6 divisions. This was where many students struggled.
ER & ANSWERMany students didn’t gain marks because they didn’t focus on the NHE3 carrier protein. Many tried to explain why the ions would move rather than sticking with the question of how the active transport of these ions would work. A classic exam mistake – read the question carefully.
ER & ANSWERSome students showed confusion between the contents in the lumen of the gut and cells lining the gut wall but many were able to gain the first two marks in this question. The second required students to interpret the statistical test; this was often not attempted by students and those who did were rarely completely successful. Even though the stem contained a statement to help students (The scientists carried out a statistical test to see whether the difference in the means was significant), many referred to significant ‘results’, and very few could correctly describe what the P value showed with appropriate use of the words ‘probability’ and ‘chance’.
ER & ANSWEROnly 15% of students gained both marks. The question was carefully worded to lead students to the high salt concentration in the blood entering the capillaries, with the hope that an explanation linked to decrease in water potential of the tissue fluid would be given. Students who went down this route often scored 1 mark but only a few could go on to suggest that, as a result, more fluid would move out at the arteriole end of the capillary. 

ER & ANSWERThe majority of students knew that bacteria divide by binary fission, but often did not include sufficient, or specific enough, detail in their description of what happens during this process to score the second mark. 50% of students gained both marks.
ER & ANSWERThis question required an explanation and so there were no marks for a description of the graph. Many students gave lengthy descriptions and, even if they went on to write creditworthy statements after this, they had wasted much time and energy. The command word was an extremely important component of this question.
ER & ANSWERMany students appreciated that the extracellular proteases would digest protein and this might protect the bacteria in some way, but their answers were not specific enough to gain credit for this idea. Similarly, many appreciated that extracellular protein digestion would provide useful products for the bacteria but did not go on to state that these products would be amino acids that could be used for growth/protein synthesis within the bacteria.
ER & ANSWERMany students could state that the dipeptidases would hydrolyse bonds in dipeptides, but many were not confident what these bonds were, or what the products of this hydrolysis would be. Many did not continue their answer to state the importance of this hydrolysis with reference to the passage of amino acids across the cell-surface membrane into the cells for absorption.
ER & ANSWERA very well answered question with 72.5% of students gaining the mark.
ER & ANSWERThere was good understanding of how this enzyme could be different in different species, however, some students demonstrated their understanding but weren’t precise enough to gain the mark. For example, they failed to reference the ‘tertiary’ structure or the ‘shape’ of the active site. Make sure you fully explain your answer.
ER & ANSWERMost students gained 2 marks. The majority that didn’t missed the mark by not converting 30g to 0.03kg incorrectly. This is a very simple mark to slip up on!
ER & ANSWER46% of students got both marks here. The students that didn’t were clearly were unfamiliar with using the 10x function on their scientific calculators. 14% of students could correctly read from the graph and convert these values into actual numbers of bacteria, but then could not calculate the percentage difference.
ER & ANSWEROnly a tiny 6% of students achieved all 3 marks. As with question 4.2, students wrote extensive descriptions of the data but this wasn’t valid as the command word was “explain”.
ER & ANSWERSome good understanding was displayed on this question but students often didn’t get marks because of the language they used. “Amount” and “level” are not accepted units; pH and light must be qualified, e.g. ‘soil pH’ and ‘light intensity’, and ‘nutrients’ is not an acceptable alternative to mineral ion concentration at this level.
ER & ANSWERVery few students got 4 marks here. The most commonly awarded mark was for identifying that 2,4-D increased the release of ions from wild oats but had very little effect on wheat. The lowest significant difference (LSD) was a novel context, and many students did not read/understand the explanation, and assumed the LSD was a form of standard deviation.
ER & ANSWERMany students didn’t link the context of this question to the practical they had carried out in school so weren’t confident of their suggestions. Again, students were too vague in their responses to gain marks.
ER & ANSWERMany students did not refer to the antigen being presented on the surface membrane of the phagocyte, so could not be awarded mark point 3. Also, many students gave very lengthy answers which weren’t relevant to the question, thus, wasting time.
ER & ANSWERSome students described, once again, how the virus would be presented. 3 and 4 marks were awarded more often than 1 and 2, suggesting better understanding of the actions of B cells in the immune response than T cell involvement.
ER & ANSWERThe responses to this question revealed much misunderstanding of the immune response as a whole, with many references to ‘thinking’ immune systems. Many students simply repeated phrases from the question stem. Credit could be gained for reference to agglutination or phagocytosis as methods of ‘attacking’ the human collagen, since these are the methods of antigen destruction named in the specification. 
ER & ANSWERIn order to explain successfully here, students needed to identify the feature of the tracheal system, and go on to explain how this chosen feature allows for efficient gas exchange. Many students stated that a short diffusion pathway is required, but could not give the feature of the tracheal system that allowed this. The key take-away from the ER in this question is students not going in-depth enough with their answers. The residual knowledge is there but a clear explanation must be made. 
ER & ANSWERMost students saw this question as an opportunity to write about their knowledge of gills as a gas exchange system, rather than focusing on the way of life of the damselfly larvae. Although this led some students to describe how more oxygen could be absorbed, the key to the question was about the increased activity of the damselfly and, therefore, its increased use of oxygen.
ER & ANSWEROnly 7% of students gained 3 marks here. This is partly due to the question being based on “dealing with uncertainties” being new to the specification.
ER & ANSWERThe most common answers that did not gain credit were suggestions that the drawing should contain more detail, or an electron microscope should be used to enable more detail to be drawn. 
ER & ANSWERThe command word here was contrast and so statements showing clear differences between the use of the two microscopes were required to gain credit. Most students demonstrated sound knowledge of the optical and electron microscopes, but few managed to gain all six marks for relevant contrasting statements.
ER & ANSWER70% of students got over 2 marks. Students missed marks by speaking as if the cells were human rather than plant.
ER & ANSWERMany students gave extensive answers relating to how to collect the seeds from the environment, and how to measure the pollution – neither of which was relevant to the question. This was already covered in the previous questions in this section, so marks and time were lost. 

And that’s the end of the exam and the entire A-Level Biology AQA 2017 past paper examiners notes!

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