This year's Leaving Certificate Biology exam (HL) was well received here in St. Columba's College. A fair and reasonable test of the candidate's two year's of study, this exam would have troubled few, although there were one or two challenging elements to the paper. However, the most significant element of the exam was its over reliance on recall as a means of assessment - with only a smattering of higher order questions. I thought the State Examinations Commission were making headway after last year's well thought out paper but they may have taken a brief step backwards this time round. However, it still marks an improvement from two or three years ago. Here's what came up.
Section A, the short questions, were reasonable but were heavily reliant on recall. As always, accuracy is important in this section and candidates with their definitions "learned off" would have done well here :-( . Food and biomolecules was assessed in Question 1 - a reasonable question, although the phrase "chemical composition" might have caught out a few weaker students. Question 2 was a straightforward question on cell diversity and tissue culture and shouldn't have caused too many problems for prepared students. Question 3 assessed the structure of the long bone - a nicely structured question - and again not too difficult. Ecology featured also in Section A (unusual to see two questions from Unit 1) and was fine - assessing the human impact on the environment. Question 5 was another well thought out question, this time on plant structure - specifically monocot stems. There was a need for a logical approach to the question but it still shouldn't have caused too many problems. Section A concluded with a question on variation and mutations, It was ok, but part (c) required the knowledge of two types of mutation - which is not on the syllabus. It will be interesting to see how this is marked. Overall though, the short questions fell in line with previous years and should have provided capable students with the confident start they needed.
In Section B, the trend of a general question continued. Question 7 contained ten short questions on a range of practical activities. Sadly though, it was all recall and no where near as effective as question 7 in last year's paper. However, it was broadly welcomed by the students but I would prefer that they might include an unseen practical which would assess the students ability to use the scientific method. Question 8 looked at the growth of leaf yeast - a fairly straight forward question although the graph might have confused a number of pupils. Section B concluded with a very simple question on the effect of temperature on enzyme activity - broadly welcomed and very straightforward.
Section C began with a very simple question on DNA, genetics & genetic engineering. Again, the emphasis was on recall of definitions and a well prepared student should not have been troubled in the slightest. Question 11 assessed ecology. It was a mixed bag - part (a) was simply three definitions, part (b) a nice question on "exotic species" requiring students to use their scientific logic (thank you SEC) and part (c) assessed the students practical ecology experience - a question easily prepared in advance. Question 12 I liked as well. It assessed both photosynthesis and respiration and once again included a section which would have required the students to think outside the box. However, the majority of the marks (45 out of the 60) will be awarded for lower order questions and simple comprehension. Question 13 assessed the students knowledge of the nervous system and again relied heavily on recall. This question contained one of only two diagrams the candidates were asked to draw (as far as I can see anyway) - which is unusual. Again, anyone who had prepared this topic wouldn't have been troubled. Question 14, as always, had a choice of three parts. Part (a) was a straightforward set of recall questions on plant reproduction, part (b) a set of recall questions on early human development and part (c) a set of recall questions on Rhizopus and a simply diagram. The final question on the paper again has three choices. Part (a) assessed human digestion (and was fine), part (b) assessed blood cells (mostly recall) and part (c) was a series of simple comprehension questions on homeostasis.
Overall the paper would have been received well by well prepared pupils and should have given enough choice to those not so well prepared. However, I am concerned once again by the over reliance on recall and simple comprehension questions. Why are students not asked to compare, contextualise or, heaven-forbid, think critically? Biology is an ideal subject to assess in this way and it baffles me how over reliant the exam remains on basic recall. It seems purpose if more important than substance.