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  • Zain Asif

How to Get a 7 in the IB Biology HL/SL Exams ๐Ÿง 

This is not the traditional way people study. It is a highly effective guide specifically customised for IB Biology revision. It got me 7s in both paper 1 AND paper 2. If you use all the teachings and frameworks below, I am going to guarantee you a 7 in biology too.

All my nerdy friends and I used to spend hours of our time summarising and making notes from chapters in the Oxford Bio textbook. These notes were perfectly organised and gave us this false sense of security for the exams. But if I was asked a question about that topic a week later, I'd barely remember anything from the notes I made. This was a problem.

Most of us have a misconception that learning should be easy. When, in reality, learning effectively is effortful. The point of learning is to retrieve information from your brain and the more you do so, the stronger the connections in your head will be. You can watch a video and understand the process of glycolysis one day. But unless you test your understanding by actively recalling that material, you have not learnt it and hence cannot retain it for the exams.

So then how should you actively study to ace IB Biology?


Upfront Summary

Phase 1: Active Testing and Recalling
  • 1.1 Spreadsheet recall method ๐Ÿ”‘

  • 1.2 Recall questions

Phase 2: Consolidating Your Understanding
  • 2.1 Identify the gaping holes

  • 2.2 Revision Guide (Andrew Allott)

  • 2.3 Alex Lee's Youtube Channel

  • 2.4 Learning Hack!

Phase 3: Remembering It All
  • 3.1 You NEED to be consistent

  • 3.2 Spaced Revision

  • Game-changing Benefits

The Triad of Learning

Spreadsheet Recall Method โ€”> Andrew Allott's Revision Guide โ€”> Alex Lee's Youtube


Preparation: Scope and Contextualise

Scope

Plan and list all the topics and sub-topics for any new unit that you are starting. This:

a) Gives you a realistic view of what you need to study specifically.

b) The amount of time it would take to learn.

c) Stops you from getting overwhelmed by all the extra details.

Contextualise

Find the key content points you need to study from the syllabus of the IB Biology Guide so that you only study what you are required to know for the exams and your revision doesn't get side-tracked.


Phase 1: Active Testing and Recalling

Why START with testing?

Always begin by testing yourself on the topic you want to study, regardless of when you learnt it. Even if you don't know or remember anything about a topic, attempt questions and try to recall knowledge. I know this is uncomfortable. Testing yourself when you feel unprepared is difficult at first.

I remember during my med school applications, I procrastinated doing practise interviews until a friend sat me down and forced me to practise. I found them really hard because I didn't feel prepared BUT only after biting the bullet did I actually learn and retain what I was learning.

Attempting practise questions and testing ourselves on major concepts is the same and it's the #1 effective way to start learning. You need to force your brain to recall and actively retrieve any knowledge of the topic you have. This is the most powerful way to understand, learn and retain everything for your exams.

If there's one thing you take away from me, it is that.


1.1 The Spreadsheet Recall Method

Do exam questions before you even start learning about the topic.

This was probably the smartest thing I did during my two years of IB Biology. When I started studying any major topic, I would do extended response questions from paper 2 exams.

Using a collection of p2 long answer questions is perfect. They allow a holistic understanding of the main concepts per unit, which is useful for any other type of question too.

I created a google spreadsheet for all extended response questions from the last 10 years of official IB paper 2 exams. All questions, organised by topic, were listed out in one column and their corresponding answers from the mark-scheme were pasted in column B. I would hide the mark scheme column and try to recall the answers for as many questions without using any other resources.

This is how I would start learning about any topic in biology because as mentioned earlier, actively recalling is the best way to retain anything.

I started using this recall spreadsheet method after watching Ali Abdaal's productivity videos :)
Actively recall everything you know about a topic using essay questions and then correct your understanding using answers from their comprehensive mark schemes.

Putting effort into making the spreadsheet is very very worth it. It took me a few hours and its the single most used resource I've created for myself. It drove the majority of my revision, even up till the actual exams!

So, how do you use the spreadsheet?

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.


1.2 Recall Questions

Add your own "recall" questions to this recall spreadsheet too! Whether you study a topic in class or out of class, make questions for yourself based on what you are trying to learn. You should type out your own answers with assistance from the mark schemes and the verified resources mentioned below.

If you checked out the Actively learn in any IB classroom article here and made recall questions in your classes. These would be perfect to add into the recall spreadsheet!

Ideally, your recall spreadsheet should also be supplemented with your own recall questions but it should mainly consist of the p2 extended questions. Solely using recall questions whilst studying for the IB doesn't make sense. They are more intuitive and time-consuming to make. We can simply be using ready-made past paper questions and answers from clear and accurate mark schemes.

However, using some recall questions and working on them, forces you to put a bit more effort into your learning. Hence, the combination of recall questions and official IB long answer questions in your spreadsheet is perfect :)


Phase 2: Consolidating Your Understanding

So, you started by testing yourself on topics that you've never studied properly and now realise that you barely know anything. You're on the right track. That's how it's supposed to be. To help you learn every single thing you need to know you're going to do three things:


2.1 Identify the gaping holes

Go back to that spreadsheet and evaluate the way you approached the question. What didn't you remember? Did you have a vague understanding? Or was there a specific part of the concept that you couldn't recall? Read all points on the mark scheme to identify where your understanding lacks. Link what you already know with what the IB wants you to know.

If you DO have an 8/10 understanding: I want you to go through the spreadsheet recall method again. Read the mark schemes and practise the questions you got wrong. Fill in your knowledge gaps with the specific things on the mark scheme that the IB wants you to know.

If you DON'T have a good understanding (this is going to be most of you): You need effective resources to help you understand the big picture concepts and build stronger connections in your knowledge. Here are the resources you should use:


2.2 ๐Ÿ™‡ Andrew Allott's Revision Guide >>> Your Notes

The best way to conquer the exams is to have a holistic grip of every major topic that the IB wants you to learn about. This revision guide gives you exactly that, condensing the entire 2-year course in less than 150 pages!

This is the best-condensed set of ready-made notes you will ever lay your hands on. To consolidate your understanding of both major and specific topics, you must use this guide! The author of this revision guide is the same person who wrote the main Oxford Textbook too! He summarises the ENTIRE course in less than 150 pages!

It includes all of the core information in an extremely clear and succinct manner, which is vital to our efficient studying. His diagrams are even used in paper 1 MCQs and his content matches perfectly with the paper 2 mark schemes! Use this guide to consolidate your understanding during your revision session.



2.3 Alex Lee's Youtube Channel

Alex Lee is an age-old IB Biology teacher that has an amazing Youtube Channel breaking down the entire IB Biology SL and HL course.

You should watch his videos to gain a general understanding of the topic as he simplifies complex concepts using entertaining analogies that stick in your head. I hands down would not have been able to understand the Krebs cycle and respiration if it weren't for him. To understand his videos you need a basic level of prior knowledge because if you don't know anything its very easy to get lost in his explanations and examples.


2.4 Supplementary Resources:

Oxford Textbook:

The main textbook, although very comprehensive, includes heaps of unnecessary detail that is useless to directly learn for the exams. However, you can use it to consolidate understanding of specific facts and units that are hard to learn from the revision guide.

Don't get me wrong. It is an incredibly written resource that describes all the topics in a very comprehensive way. But the most effective way to study for the IB Biology exams is to avoid the non-essential details and focus on the big concepts. These will make up the majority of the exams anyways.


Bonus: Learning Hack!

I know I told you to test yourself before you even start learning. But you need to test yourself WHILE you learn and understand concepts too.

It's all well and good to read the concept and go....ya I pretty much got that...cool. However, that doesn't prove anything. You need to truly test your understanding after reading the Revision Guide or watching an Alex Lee video.

So โ€”> go back to the spreadsheet recall questions and test your understanding even more! This would be the most effective. You could also draw a diagram, make a mind map or even explain the concept you just learnt to a friend.

What were the key ideas? What do I still not understand? When you test yourself on what you just learnt, you force yourself to go back and connect the dots in your knowledge even more. Quizzing and asking yourself questions while you learn is essential. It increases your retention of the information by a significant amount, almost guaranteeing a very powerful understanding of a topic.

Any way you do it, actively recalling and testing yourself throughout is the biggest hack to learning everything more effectively.


Phase 3: Remembering It All

3.1 You NEED to do this CONSISTENTLY

Anytime you continue to do revision for a topic, you need to start with using this Spreadsheet Recall method and test yourself continuously. Each time you go through it:

  • Update how many points of the mark scheme answers you remember each time.

  • Change colours of the questions and attempt your weaker (red) topics more often. Work through them all until they're all green!

  • Add any recall questions you made whilst learning the content.


3.2 Space your revision out

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.

For example, if you had a week left for a class test, you should do around x3 small revision sessions for that topic spaced it out in the week. Learn the content through the spreadsheet method and the verified resources.

Look up the concept of "Spaced Repetition" for more information, its a highly researched topic.


Benefits: This will get you a 7!

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

  • 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.

  • It gives us an accurate picture of our own understanding. We are highlighting questions based on what we have actually retained from each topic.

  • The process of your learning is gamified ๐Ÿ˜Ž This seems small, 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.


Conclusion

The biggest hurdle through all of this is to trust the process when trying out something new like this. So I urge you to try it. It may slow down how fast you get through the content initially. But eventually, it'll be a huge time saver, as you will have to re-read this content far less and it will be retained at a greater level. Good luck everyone!

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