Updated: Sep 10, 2021
The road ahead (and why it’s not as scary as it seems)
How’s it going? I’m Allen, third-year Biomedicine/languages nerd/#AusPol hack at the University of Melbourne. Before that glow-up though, I was just another VCE student- much like yourself- trying to make sense of a truckload of Biology notes.
I sat my Biology exam in Year 11. Ten weeks out from the exam, I had almost failed two SACs, got about 60% on a few more, and was altogether quite confused. I had to turn all these words (macrophage? Chlorophyll? Recombinant?) into a full picture, while balancing a naturally stressed-out personality, and staying afloat for my Unit 1/2 subjects.
At my teacher’s encouragement, I went to her with a copy of the study design, read through it, and circled everything I was unclear about. We ended up circling half the document. That was demoralising, but at least I knew exactly what I had to tackle.
In the end, I finished with a study score of 49. I don’t think this makes me especially talented or academic (I’m still a clueless potato half the time), but I do think having that plan- and having the support to persevere with it- contributed immensely. As such, what follows in the next couple of weeks is a mix of my experiences, thoughts, and regrets, to hopefully give you confidence that improvement is possible.
Mapping out a path to victory
Ten weeks out, I was confronted with the gaps in my knowledge. The next step was closing those gaps, and learning to prioritise: what did I need to brush up on, what did I need to consolidate, and what did I have to learn from scratch?
Around this time I took the annotated study design and compiled all the circled parts into a document. It looked something like this:
The yellow highlights indicated something I found particularly difficult and in need of concentrated revision. The entire biochemistry section was listed on there- the only time I had tried remembering the full aerobic respiration pathway was the night before the relevant SAC (to mixed results). It seemed like I needed to buckle down and commit myself to memorising some key pathways.
Side note: For anyone interested in a life sciences-related field, I would recommend making a determined effort at knowing the respiration sequence. Like a particularly annoying pet, it reappears when you least expect it.
The other part of constructing my plan was looking through my past SACs. This was possibly even more confronting than the study design; seeing red scrawls all over my answers and the occasional annotation (‘needs work’, ‘unclear’, ‘???’) made for uncomfortable reading, to say the least.
Incidentally, I think this is where SACs show their greatest value; I was able to summarise the specific areas and skillsets which I needed work on. Besides respiration and photosynthesis (so many strange words!), my past performance exposed my confusion about the B/T-cell responses, how to figure out a pedigree chart, and cellular processes. All of that was added to the document.
Now, my aimless frustration at not guessing the right answers was being turned into a list of concrete, achievable goals.
Information, and how to make sense of it
It’s easy to just sit around and be overwhelmed by a huge to-do list. I certainly was- in total, there were about 5-6 topics I needed serious work on; another 2-3 in which I had more specific concerns, and the rest which were broadly fine.
This translated very readily to a schedule: two weeks of high-priority content, two weeks of medium-priority, and so on. I was probably far too ambitious (‘learn photosynthesis and respiration by X date’); but the more specific your intent is, the more focused this process becomes. My goal was to start general revision before the final SAC, so I also had a soft deadline to tick off/un-highlight my study design document by.
I also happened to make some serious changes to my study habits at this stage. I broke out my textbook questions for the first time in a year, and revisited the basics as much as possible. I also started drawing diagrams instead of writing plain text on my notes- this, incidentally, is a habit I’ve carried through to my university career.
In hindsight, this process should have begun far earlier (reading textbooks is painful stuff), and had I known about the plethora of resources- such as this one!- available online, I would have looked into them more. There’s no shame in being slow, and it’s okay to take as much time as you need to understand something tough. For me, the biggest time commitment in this process came from doing practice exams (more on this later).
What to take away
Biology is one of the few subjects where the study design sketches out all of the required knowledge. Use this to your advantage; break it down and shape your revision plan around it.
Ten weeks before the exam, the most critical piece of information I learnt wasn’t anything biological- it was viewing the course as a series of steps, that I could take on one at a time. It wasn’t a solution to everything, but it definitely gave me the confidence to work on what had seemed like an insurmountable task.