Updated: Sep 10
Do (your practice exams), or do not. There is no try.
Hello and welcome back! With only a couple of weeks to go till the real deal, there’s never been a better time to consider looking at practice exams.
Before you go, don’t switch off and download all the VCAA past papers just yet! Practice exams are, like every other aspect of your studies in Biology, a trainable skill. You’ll be spending at least 2-3 hours per paper, so there’s definitely an incentive to spend that time well.
Doing it right will guarantee that your time is as high-yield as possible (or else risk turning the next couple of weeks into a painful, painful grind). Instead of subjecting you to the same struggles, I want to have a chat about the grind I went through- in the hopes that you don’t have to. So buckle up: we’re going- much like Newt Scamander- into the wilderness.
You get a paper! You get a paper! Everyone gets a paper!
Before we start going into the tactics of practice exams, let’s answer a question you might not even have considered before.
Why do them at all? Who would willingly subject themselves to even more exam papers?
From my own memory wading through dozens of them, there’s a few key benefits that you don’t get anywhere else:
They’re comprehensive. Practice exams gather a whole year’s worth of knowledge and condense it into a convenient, twenty-page booklet, which is very hard to come by elsewhere.
They’re challenging. SACs tend to test the minutiae of factual knowledge; good practice exams will force you to apply principles to unfamiliar contexts/key words.
They’re rigorous. Assuming you do them properly, you can test how well you cope with a barrage of questions in two hours (and all the skills that come with it).
That said, practice exams are not a ‘silver bullet’ solution to everything. Importantly, I think they are not:
A shortcut for learning content. Very rarely will practice exams test basic, factual knowledge; I don’t think I ever saw “what is the full equation for photosynthesis” except as the starter to a multi-part scenario question. Jumping into practice exams- especially with Unit 3 content that I had forgotten- meant that my first few papers took far longer, and were arguably far less effective.
A substitute for the real deal. Plenty of companies churn out practice exams by the truckload, and to my experience they can vary in quality. That’s to be expected- nobody knows how VCAA thinks other than, well, VCAA themselves. It’s far more important to recognise common question types rather than get bowled over by a particularly obscure problem in a single paper.
In short, if you’re absolutely set on starting practice exams now, make sure you’re fully geared up. I would recommend refreshing yourself on areas you faced difficulties in (quite often, this will be early Unit 3 content) to shake off the rust from your long-term memory.
It’s a numbers game
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. How many practice papers do I have to do to get [insert study score here]? While I wish I could offer a formula that fizzles for a bit and magically spits out a nice, neat target, our circumstances are never mathematically perfect.
The rule of thumb is, of course, that more is better. Around this time, I was replacing other forms of revision, like making notes, with practice exams- there’s only so much you can make into a mind-map in three hours, but comparatively far more content when it’s distilled into a few dozen questions. Importantly, the power of practice exams only shows with repetition, because after the first 5 or 10 you start seeing patterns.
Recognising as many of these patterns as possible becomes- in my opinion- one of the most critical parts of the subject. Certain areas of study have very typical question types- Evolution, for example, lends itself well to a multi-part explanation of natural selection. Likewise, explaining the branches of adaptive immunity, in whole or in part, is an eminently examinable piece of knowledge (as opposed to, for example, a discussion of specific monoclonal antibody types).
Once you identify the key elements of a full-mark answer, you’ll find that the breadth of content in Biology can be condensed into a series of template responses.
Practice with purpose
Ploughing through practice exams might help for some people, but I need some time to reflect and absorb the information.
Arguably, the post-exam correction is even more important than the paper itself. I spent at least an hour combing through every multi-choice and short answer question, and compared my answers to the sample response given (caveat: like exams, answer quality will vary). It also helped if I annotated my papers with a diagram, or even copied down the relevant section of my notes next to a particularly tricky head-scratcher.
This collection of corrected papers I had became my most valuable study tool; it was a living catalogue of my improvements, and it really does boost your morale seeing the scores pick up over time.
Malcolm Gladwell- the guy who popularized the “10,000 hours = mastery” theory- mentions the idea of deliberate practice in the same book. Expertise, he suggests, doesn’t just come with what you practice- it’s also how you do it. A coach who gives you feedback on your form will always be more beneficial than kicking a footy aimlessly.
That’s the magic of practice papers: you can be your own coach. It’s a self-sustaining loop of feedback and rehearsal, but only if you set yourself up in the most optimal way before putting in the hours. You’re going to sink a good three hours of your day into this- why not make it count?
Have a question?
In the final weeks before exams Allen will be hosting 2 Live Q&A sessions to help everyone get fully prepared for exams. If you have a question on how to best get prepared, have been stuck on an exam question or want to clarify an area of content send it through here, and Allen might answer it live!