by Matthew Tsim
Natural sciences is an all-encompassing course and therefore provides a great deal of flexibility and variety, especially through the first two years.
- 1 Module Choices
- 2 Working through the year
- 3 Essays
- 4 Preparing for exams
In both first and second year, there are a slew of different topic areas that you somehow need to make a selection from. Choosing your modules can be easier if you have ideas which areas you’d like to specialise in for Part II and beyond, but there are also considerations as to which topics work better together.
Part 1A modules
The most commonly selected biological sciences module is Biology of Cells. The reason for this is that this module provides a broad introduction to biological science, and therefore a solid basis for many of the future specialisations. Picking your other modules then heavily depends on your interests; for those who are planning on exploring molecular biology often pick Chemistry, while those who are interested in pursuing a whole organism level of study will frequently choose Evolution and Behaviour. There is even the option to study some physics modules. With regards to maths modules, your selection should be based on your mathematical aptitude; one of the worst things to have to deal with in your first year is struggling to understand your maths course whilst simultaneously trying to learn a large volume of information for your other modules.
Part 1B modules
There is a greater range of modules biological modules in second year. At this stage, interest is definitely key to selection, although you should also keep an eye open for modules that may be particularly useful for your future specialisations.
Your interests are important
With module choices, it should essentially boil down to your interests. You will always perform better in a subject that you have a true passion for. However, do bear in mind the future options that each module may provide.
Working through the year
Lectures and note-taking
Go to lectures!
Attending lectures is very important to performing well in NST IA and IB. Whilst the lecture handouts do contain the majority of the essential content, lecturers often throw in additional nuggets of information which can be extremely valuable in essay writing. It can be very tempting to miss lectures and just rely on handouts or notes made by a friend but in practice this doesn’t work so well. You will lose the benefit of additional explanation or information given by the lecturer, and things that your friend finds noteworthy may well not be the same as what you might have recorded had you been there.
Take and consolidate your notes
Note-taking is a very individual process. However, my recommendation would always be to annotate the given material – having your notes in one place will be something you appreciate later on in the year. Annotations on handouts also make the lecture more memorable, and being able to recall the particular way that a lecturer explained a given point can make a big difference.
Try and get the most from the sessions
The practical parts of most courses will appear in exams, and this must be taken into account in you approach to the practical sessions. For some courses you need to turn in specific work after each practical but this is not the end of it! Figuring out what you do and don’t understand about the practicals (particularly why things are done the way they are, and also how to interpret results) is important so you can ask demonstrators any questions that you have. If you only treat the practical work as assignments you have to turn in, then this will make exam term difficult. Also if you are able to link the theory from lectures to each practical, this will also improve your understanding.
Do prepare for supervisions, even if only thinking of some questions to ask
Supervisions are an extremely valuable learning experience and should be treated that way. This does not necessarily mean that you spend extensive amounts of time reading up huge amounts of material before each one, although it does help to at least review the lectures briefly. The most important thing is knowing that what happens in the supervision should be dictated by the students rather than the supervisor – at the end of the day, if the students aren’t finding the supervisions productive then this is no longer a useful exercise. Therefore go to your supervisions with questions and don’t be afraid to ask about anything, even if it may seem like a stupid question. Better to ask the question now than to not know the answer in an exam.
Sometimes not doing supervision work is ok
Your supervisor should plan the work that they set to match the strategy that they have for helping you with your studies. However you may find that in exam term, the work that they set no longer fits in with your revision schedule (for example they may set a revision on a topic that you haven’t covered yet). In these cases, it is ok to politely suggest that you may do some other work that matches your revision schedule. Do not get complacent and let this become an excuse for not doing any work whatsoever – you should still try and turn in some work for your supervisor to look at considering that it is such a critical stage in the year.
Spend a good amount of time on your supervision essays
Supervision essays are also a valuable learning tool. For the first couple of terms, it can be useful to type your essays, and make them as comprehensive as possible. This approach means that your essays will often take the key points of an entire lecture course at a time and combine them into a coherent piece of work. It can also be helpful at this stage to do a small amount of additional reading on topic areas that interest you and include them in your supervision essays where appropriate. When it comes to exam term, there won’t really be time for this, so if you are able to do this during the year you will benefit in the long run.
Use supervision essays for exam practice and to assess your performance
Towards Easter term, your approach to supervision essays should shift towards your exam time approach. This should involve switching to handwriting essays (which will give you a better indication of how long it takes you to write), imposing time limits (this will give you an idea of how you perform under time pressure) and ultimately limiting your use of notes (this is the last stage and should only occur after revision as a way to test your knowledge).
Use all your knowledge
Just because an essay is set by a given lecturer on their lecture material doesn’t mean that you can’t use other things that you know! In fact the easiest way to score some bonus points is to take good and interesting examples that you have learnt in other lecture courses (or even other modules) and integrate them into your essay.
Think about why
A question that you should be thinking about continuously through your essay is “why?”. Being able to explain why a particular phenomenon occurs shows a true understanding of the material and is key step to scoring high marks in your essays.
Have a plan – think big
Planning your essays is crucial. It can be very tempting just to write down everything that you know about a topic for your essay but this approach will not get you into the highest scoring bands. Before you start writing an essay (whether for supervision or in an exam), think about the overall concept that the question is getting at. You can then plan your essay in such a way that your grand idea is articulated throughout your work. This can then be followed up with a conclusion that sums up your grand concept. Importantly your essay should follow a logical and continuous train of thought, providing a coherent argument as to why your concept is important. A basic tip to help with this would be to use the first sentence of each paragraph to relate the point that you’re about to make back to the question – this gives the examiner something to follow, and also allows you to recover situations if you may have gone off topic a little in the previous paragraph.
Lecturers like to see that you’ve made the link between practical experiments and theory. After all, biology is a practical and evidence based science! Therefore, if appropriate, make reference to key experiments that illustrated the points that you’re making. Be careful not to get bogged down too much in the details of these though; this can break the flow of your essay.
For IA and IB, additional reading isn’t very important. The majority of important material is in the lecture notes, and the lecturers usually give additional “off the record” details and examples. However, if you do find a topic that you’re particularly interested in, you should definitely read up about this more; don’t forget that NST IA and IB are all about developing your interests and not just about exams!
Preparing for exams
Revision is a continuous process
Revision starts at the beginning of the year. For most people, this involves simple things, such as consolidating notes, attending supervisions and completing supervision essays. These things all provide a solid basis for your revision, and therefore the more time you devote to them, the easier you will make your Easter term. In the same way, reviewing lecture material over vacations is also critical; whilst you may have forgotten the details come Easter term, it will make your revision faster.
Have a revision strategy
My personal preference has always been to revise all the lecture material. I find that this approach gives me the best ability to answer all multiple choice questions and short answer questions, areas of the exam papers where it is possible to score very high marks. Another advantage of learning the entire course is that you are more able to make use of the overlap between lecture courses, flourishing your essay on one lecture topic with examples from another lecture topic. However, other people prefer to “spot” exam topics. Lecture courses are usually grouped together for exams, with the student only needing to write an essay on one of a given group of courses in the exam. Therefore, an approach can be to pick your favourite lecture course from each group and learn this comprehensively. Another lecture course from each group may be learnt as a backup, but then others may just be ignored. This is a high risk strategy – imagine if there is an extremely awkward question set about your favourite topic – but can be effective as long as you don’t rely on it absolutely. Whatever your approach, have a schedule and stick to it – there is nothing worse than running out of time to cover the material that you wanted to.
Don’t forget about practicals
It can be very easy to forget about the practicals until the day before the exam. This should be avoided at all costs – whilst relatively straightforward, the practical material takes a deceptively long time even to read over once. Make sure you do give this some thought before the day!
Hard work goes a long way
At the end of the day, the Biological NST IA and IB courses are very much content based. There is no secret shortcut to preparing for exams beyond dedicating a significant portion of time to ensuring that you cover all the material.