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## Maths? I thought I picked A Level Biology?

Since the A Level reform in 2015, there has been much more emphasis on the use of mathematics in all of the sciences. Maths skills now make up **10% of the Biology A Level**, which means you are guaranteed to encounter at least one maths question in each paper you sit. Doesn’t seem fair? Maths and biology actually sit very well together. Whether it’s measuring the diameter of different cells using a graticule, determining the significance of experimental data, or calculating a dilution for an enzyme reaction, maths can be found in pretty much every section of the course.

### Can I do A Level Biology without A Level Maths?

If you are not studying A Level Maths, don’t panic! Ofqual (Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation) guidance states that the maths content in biology must be at least 10% Level 2 or above. Level 2 is GCSE grades 4-9. Since all students should have completed GCSE Maths before starting A Level Biology, a good proportion of the maths you will encounter will be revision. **You don’t need to do A Level Maths to do well at the maths questions in biology.**

### Can I take A Level Biology if I’m not good at maths?

Yes! The way the maths questions are examined, you can usually earn marks just for trying, which is why questions often require you to show your workings. Also, **maths is a skill you can improve**. All skills take practice. Not everyone will succeed on the first try, and that’s okay. We don’t criticise babies for falling over when they’re learning to walk or encourage them to stop because they’re no good; so, we shouldn’t criticise ourselves or give up when we don’t know how to solve a problem immediately. **You can do this.**

## What maths do I need to know for A Level Biology?

Each exam board will clearly lay out what maths they will cover within the specification. They should also tell you which formulae you need to remember and which they will give you. All exam boards essentially cover the same broad areas:

- Data handling
- Numerical and arithmetical computation
- Graphs
- Algebra
- Geometry and trigonometry

This sounds intimidating, but if we make it less formal and simplify the list:

- Units, standard form, decimal places etc.
- Significant figures, tables, uncertainties, averages, probability and statistics*
- Plotting, reading and interpreting graphs
- Rearranging formula, recognising common symbols
- Surface area and volume calculations

Not so bad. You have probably encountered the majority of these skills before and they’re all covered individually in PMT’s Maths Skills for A Level Biology On-Demand Course.

### *Hang on, statistics?

Each exam board uses different statistical tests, so you need to check the specification to see which ones apply to your exams. At a minimum, there will be:

- A
**correlation test**: For example, as I change my independent variable, does the dependent variable also change? As the weather gets colder, do hot water bottle sales increase? This could be Spearman’s rank or a different correlation coefficient. - A test to
**compare observed and expected results**: We expected 50% of puppies in a litter to be curly-haired. 4 out of 7 were, does this match? This is usually a Chi-Squared test. - A
**comparison of means**: Does the mean snore volume of cats differ from the mean snore volume of dogs? This is usually a*t-*test.

We use statistics to **check for significance**. Does the investigation actually mean something, or are the results just a matter of chance? There’s usually one question every year. You will not be expected to remember the equation, but you will be expected to know the common symbols used (Σ for the sum of, for example).

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Statistics looks intimidating, but the process is usually a straightforward addition of numbers to a formula or table. Again, practice is absolutely key. It’s also worth spending time understanding **why** we do each test. This makes the interpretation of results much easier.

#### No problem, I can just input all the data in one go into my calculator and…

Bad idea. Even if you are super confident with your calculator, the most frustrating thing as an examiner is students who miss all the marks because their answers are just a little bit off. If you input a single number incorrectly and don’t notice, all I can mark is the answer you have given; if it’s wrong, it’s often awarded 0. The reason exam questions ask you to show your workings is because there are marks for this. If a question is worth 3 marks, a spot on correct answer will get you the 3 marks. If your answer is wrong, you can still get 2 marks if you’ve done the right steps with an erroneous number. **Show your working out. Every time.**

#### What if I don’t know how to answer a maths question?

Start it, at least. Use the numbers you’ve been given somehow. Take a measurement. Something. Even if the steps are wrong, add an answer to the answer line – never leave it blank. Check if the question asks for a certain number of significant figures – there may be a mark awarded for any number to the correct significant figures. There may be a mark for recognising which number goes where in an equation. It’s worth a try and much better than leaving it blank.

### Struggling with Maths in A Level Biology?

Designed in collaboration with an expert examiner, our **Maths Skills for A Level Biology On-Demand Course **covers all the mathematical knowledge and skills students need for their A Level Biology exams. Book now and enjoy a **10% discount** with the code **SKILLS10**.

## What’s the best way to revise maths in A Level Biology?

**Practice.** Past papers are good. Even before the A Level reform, maths featured on the papers.

**Be cautious when using pre-2017 biology papers for revision**, as the content and some question styles have changed. Levelled response questions, for example, are new and didn’t exist before. However, the principles of maths haven’t changed. For topics like surface area to volume ratio, standard form, percentage change, and measures of average, old exam questions are just as valuable for practice. Don’t forget about **AS papers** too; even if most students don’t take them anymore, the papers are still written to the same standard.

If you get a question wrong,** figure out why**. Which bit was a misstep? Understand what went wrong (wrong method, numbers, misinterpretation) and remember it so you can avoid similar errors in the future. Don’t do a question once, then forget it. Keep practising the same questions until you can score 100% of the marks 100% of the time. Look for **repeating patterns or structures** in the marks schemes. Then, when you sit the exam and see a familiar question style, you will know where to start.

## Tips for A Level Biology maths questions

If you take away nothing else from this article, as an examiner, the things I’m always happiest to see are:

- Working out clearly shown
- Attention paid to decimal places or significant figures
- Attention paid to units!
- Any answer – there’s nothing more heartbreaking than an empty page

Good luck, and don’t panic!