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  • Zain Asif

How I Actively Study Biology with Google Sheets ⭐

I attribute my 7 in Biology HL solely to the 'Spreadsheet Recall Method'. Instead of wasting time rereading information that never goes in, I used this method to efficiently study content I was struggling with and ended up mastering all of Biology in a mere few weeks.

Table of Contents

What is the Spreadsheet Recall Method?

I created a google spreadsheet with ALL the paper 2 extended-response questions from the last 10+ years of past papers. All questions, organised by topic, are listed out in one column and their corresponding mark-scheme answers are pasted in the second column.

I would hide the mark scheme answers for all the questions of a topic and recall as much of the answers as I could without using any other resources.

It looked something like this:

Why Did I Do All This?

Let's go back to the last term of IB. I was still screwing up my class tests despite studying for hours on end. But after discovering effective-based learning, I realised that the way I was studying was mostly useless.

Retrieval testing or testing yourself by attempting practise questions is the #1 effective way to learn and understand anything.

By forcing our brains to recall and actively retrieve knowledge, we build stronger connections and retain information much quicker. There are mountains of evidence-based studies proving that testing ourselves is the single best way to score higher in exams.

So what is the best way to test ourselves in IB Biology?

Using a collection of paper 2 extended-response questions.

I realised that these types of questions are perfect because answering them requires us to have a holistic understanding of the main concepts from each unit in the syllabus + we could verify our knowledge directly from the official mark scheme answers.

On top of that, these questions account for about 50% of your paper 2 marks and hence 25% of your entire biology grade.

Part 1: Test Yourself

Start every study session by doing all the p2 spreadsheet questions from the topics you are revising today. Before you even look at the topic, DO THESE QUESTIONS. Actively recall before you even start learning or revising. Always try your hardest to put effort and work through each question.

This is how I used it:

[ When you go through and practise with the spreadsheet, you can't see any answers and therefore you are actively retrieving knowledge from your brain. Way more effective!]

Actively recalling the content directly from the mark scheme of the questions will strongly familiarise you with what the IB wants you to say for p2 extended questions.

Instead of writing pages of useless information for each of these question types, you can learn to write simple, short and distinct points that will score you the highest marks.

Part 2: Consolidate Understanding

After trying your very best to actively recall, you will either not know anything or not know some points from each answer. You now have a very useful list of questions highlighted based on your level of understanding. This means you can immediately identify your specific weak and strong topics within a unit and give them the appropriate revision and attention.

It is so important to gain hollistic and complete understanding of the broad theoretical concepts.
  1. Read through each and every point on the mark scheme answer for every question you answered.

  2. Based on the 'red' and 'orange' highlighted questions, make a list of all the weak topics you need to improve your understanding of.

  3. Go study the concepts in these topics 1-by-1 from high yield resources like Andrew Allott's Revision Guide (find a free pdf online) and Alex Lee's Youtube Channel.

For all the underlined points you didn't remember: think about ways you can incorporate them into your answer the next time you attempt the question.

Bonus: Teach the concepts to a friend or explain them to yourself out loud. (Feynman Technique)

Part 3: Spaced Repetition + Keeping Track

This is an extremely crucial step.

You need to go back to the spreadsheet, hide the answers and attempt the questions again.

The only way you'll truly know if you understand something is if you are tested on it again. By repeating the spreadsheet questions, you actively test your knowledge on the topic again and again.

Whether it's right after you revise the topics or it's 2 days later, you need to answer each question without using any resources. However, this time you will have a much better understanding of the key distinct points that the IB mark schemes want you to mention in your answer.

Each time you go through the spreadsheet:

  • Update how many points of the mark scheme answers you remember. Continue to underline the ones you forget.

  • Change the colours of the questions based on your understanding.

  • Attempt your weaker (red) topics more often. Work through them all until they're all green!

Space your revision out. You will have to go through each units questions 3-4 times before you retain full understanding.

Repeat the spreadsheet recall method after you study the unit, then after 3 days, then after 10 and so on until you have all the units covered. Reviewing topical information in timed intervals is vital for high levels of retention. Allow yourself to forget what you learn so your brain has to work harder to recall it.

The more your brain has to "work" to remember the content, the more you will retain.

Part 4: Finding Patterns in the Mark-Scheme

Looking for patterns in the mark schemes will give you a direct insight into the specific points the IB wants you to mention.

There are only so many ways the IB can ask us questions on the same topics year after year. After using the spreadsheet recall method several times, you will begin to notice major patterns. Two out of many examples of patterns:

#1 Specific bullet points in the mark-scheme are reused in questions from the same topic.

If you go through the answers to different questions assessing the same concept, you will notice that the IB repeats some distinct points word-for-word. Essentially, just find similarities in the specific points within mark schemes and make sure to use them in those types of questions.

#2 Finding patterns between the subject guide's topics and the mark schemes of questions

Let's compare the mark scheme of a neuron impulses question with the topics in the Biology subject guide. You will notice that 5/9 bullet points of the 'Neurons & Synapses' syllabus in the guide are REPLICATED in the mark scheme of a neuron impulses question. So by stating these 5 lines from the guide you will automatically get 5 out of the 8 marks in the exam!!

Final Thoughts

HUGE Advantage:

  • You are practising IB exam questions from day 1 of your learning! You will be able to get through 100s of questions before anyone else even starts.

  • The method unexpectedly benefitted me in paper 1's MCQs and paper 2's SAQ sections too! This is because the extended response questions give you a holistic understanding of all the major topics in the subject.

  • The process of your learning is gamified 😎 This seems minor, but making studying more enjoyable goes a long way. Instead of boring textbook reading, every revision session you get to score higher on each question and highlight more boxes green.

Get my Google Spreadsheet (for free)

Putting effort into making the spreadsheet yourself is very very worth it. It took me a few hours and it's the single most used resource I've created. Making it yourself allows you to scope all the topics out and notice patterns a lot faster. The method itself is much more effective from my experience.

However, if you can't create it then simply email for a free copy.

I will send it through with no questions asked. All you'll need to do is make a copy of the google spreadsheet and start using it yourself. I don't want there to be any barriers for you to not have this resource. It drove the majority of my revision up till the actual exams and I would never have been bothered to use evidence-based study techniques without a method like this.


sana faiz sana
sana faiz sana
Dec 07, 2023

I need spread


Jul 07, 2021

Thank you very much! This was so helpful and I will start making one for myself tomorrow. By the way, did you use examsnap question bank or actual past papers to find SAQ questions&MS? The one I'm using now is not very well organised, so it's quite hard to use.


Apr 24, 2021

Out of curiosity, how does this technique help build understanding? Isn't it mostly memorization reliant? I have just started using this technique as my HL Biology course starts next week!

Zain Asif
Zain Asif
Apr 25, 2021
Replying to

Well, part 2 of the method is where we build an understanding of our weaker topics. After testing yourself on each question, identify the concepts you were unsure about and go back to the mentioned resources to gain a more holistic understanding of them. Remember learning = understanding + remembering.

But to be honest, for me, actively testing myself with these p2 questions itself was such a fundamental part of understanding the material too. This practice of retrieving information intuitively helps you create better mental models for your weaker concepts. Good luck with the course!


Mar 28, 2021

Thanks! This is really helpful!

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