Which Exam Board is the Hardest for A-Level Biology? AQA vs CIE vs Edexcel vs OCR

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A-Levels are course-based advanced level qualifications, which might lead to further educational development following one of the several paths, including university, training, or work. Considering the experience of A-Level Biology students, it can be stated that doing well on the Biology exam is quite hard due to the nature of the material and the structure of the exam itself.

Luckily, there are several examination boards to choose from in case if you are interested in applying for an A-Level Biology course. The material that each board requires, as well as the exam format, differs accordingly.

But how do you choose between the 4 main options?

It really depends on the personal preferences along with skills and abilities, so it will not be that easy to give you a direct answer. This article will provide some general information regarding each of the examination boards offering A-Level Biology qualification, which might be quite helpful for you to make the right decision between multiple alternatives: AQA, OCR, Edexcel, or CIE exam boards.

AQA – Assessment and Qualifications Alliance

Starting with AQA, also referred to as Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, it is one of the examination boards offering A-Level Biology course. Among various groups of students, this option is considered to comprise the easiest and most straightforward exam board. There is a number of reasons to think so.

For instance, the fact that the students, as well as teachers, can have easy access to study materials and complementary resources makes the AQA exam board pretty convenient. Another reason for choosing AQA is that the course is well organised, and the questions provided on the exam are not that challenging; Rather, almost every problem is content based which does not cause much confusion among the students.

Even though the AQA examination board is go-to for the majority of students and study centres, it cannot be stated that this might be true for every student.

The core content for the AQA examination is the following:

  • Biological molecules (monomers and polymers, carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, nucleic acids, ATP, water, inorganic ions);
  • Cells (cell structure, cell cycle, transport across the cell membrane, cell recognition and immune system);
  • Organisms exchange substances with their environment (surface area to volume ratio, gas exchange, digestion and absorption, mass transport);
  • Genetic information, variation, and relationships between organisms (DNA, genes, and chromosomes, DNA and protein synthesis, genetic diversity and adaptation, species and taxonomy, biodiversity);
  • Energy transfers in and between organisms (photosynthesis, respiration, energy and ecosystems, nutrient cycles);
  • Organisms respond to changes in their internal and external environments (stimuli, nervous coordination, skeletal muscles);
  • Genetics, populations, evolution, and ecosystems (inheritance, populations, evolution, populations in ecosystems);
  • The control of gene expression (alteration of the sequence, control of gene expression, genome projects, gene technologies).

Continuing with the assessments required for completing the A Level course in Biology are provided in the table below:

Paper 1Paper 2Paper 3
What’s Assessed
Any material from topics 1-4 (including applicable practical skills)
What’s Assessed
Any material from topics 5-8 (including applicable practical skills)
What’s Assessed
Any material from topics 1-8 (including applicable practical skills)
Assessed
Written exam
91 marks
35% of A-Level
Assessed
Written exam
91 marks
35% of A-Level
Assessed
Written exam
78 marks
35% of A-Level
Questions
76 marks (short + long answer questions)
15 marks (extended response questions)
Questions
76 marks (short + long answer questions)
15 marks (extended response questions)
Questions
38 marks (structured questions, practical techniques)
15 marks (critical analysis of experimental data)
25 marks (1 essay chosen from 2 options)

OCR – Oxford, Cambridge, and RSA Examinations

OCR, also referred to as Oxford, Cambridge, and RSA Examinations, also offers an A-Level course in Biology. In contrary to the AQA exam board, OCR is not as favourable for most of the students because of the additional study material. On the other hand, lots of students and teachers have admitted that even though there are some extra topics in the OCR Biology course, the exam questions are more straightforward compared to AQA.

To make your choice easier, the outline of the material that is covered throughout the A-Level Biology OCR course is provided below:

  • Development of practical skills in Biology;
  • Cells, chemicals for life, transport, and gas exchange (cells and microscopy, water, proteins and enzymes, nucleic acids, the heart, transport systems in mammals and plants, gas exchange in mammals and plants);
  • Cell division, development, and disease control (cell division and differentiation, meiosis, growth, and development, evolution and classification, pathogenic microorganisms, the immune system, disease control, cellular basis of cancer and respiratory diseases);
  • Energy, reproduction, and populations (cellular respiration, metabolism, fertility, photosynthesis, food production, environmental management, population increase, plant reproduction);
  • Genetics, control, and homeostasis (inheritance, population genetics and epigenetics, gene technologies, the nervous system, monitoring visual function, homeostasis, hormonal control of blood glucose, kidney functions/malfunctions).

The structure of the examination itself is also essential along with the material that is covered throughout the OCR course. Therefore, the table below summarizes the assessments given during the typical OCR examination in A-Level Biology:

Component 01Component 02
Fundamentals of Biology
Section A: multiple-choice questions (worth 30 marks);
Section B: short answer questions and extended response questions (worth 80 marks).
Scientific Literacy in Biology
Pre-release Advance Notice Article (worth 20-25 marks);
Short answer questions and extended response questions (worth 100 marks).
Component 03Component 04
Practical Skills in Biology
Emphasises practical skills;
Short answer questions and extended response questions (worth 60 marks).
Practical Endorsement in Biology
Non-exam assessment

Edexcel – Pearson Edexcel International

Edexcel, also referred to as Pearson Edexcel International, is another organization that offers A-Level courses in Biology. The benefit of the program is that it is suitable for schools/colleges outside the UK. Despite this, the exam board of Edexcel has been identified as the trickiest one among the 4 boards that are discussed in this article.

One of the reasons to think so is that Edexcel requires contextualization of the material since the questions on the exam are not as straightforward as in the case of AQA or even OCR. Along with that, the organizational pattern of the course is not that convenient, which makes the studying process time-consuming.

To get a better idea of the material that is required for the Edexcel A-Level in Biology, check out the outline of the units below:

  • Lifestyle, Transport, Genes, and Health;
  • Development, Plants and the Environment;
  • Practical Biology and Research Skills;
  • The Natural Environment and Species Survival;
  • Energy, Exercise, and Coordination;
  • Practical Biology and Investigative Skills.

There is an assessment after each unit, each worth 40-90 marks depending on the specific section. These assessments comprise the following:

  • Objective Questions
  • Structured Questions
  • Short-Answer Questions

CIE – Cambridge International Examinations

CIE, or Cambridge International Examinations, is another organization providing A-Level courses in Biology. A-Level in Biology offered by Cambridge is an international exam-based qualification for students from all around the world. The examination requires a complete understanding of concepts and different biological applications. Furthermore, one of the features highly appreciated by CIE is creative thinking and problem-solving skills.

Considering the depth of the CIE A-Level in Biology, it is recommended to complete the course only if you are planning further studies at a university or aim to follow a career in scientific fields.

The primary concepts covered through the CIE A-Level in Biology are listed below:

  • Cell structure;
  • Biological molecules (testing, carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, water);
  • Enzymes (mode of action, factors affecting enzyme action);
  • Cell membranes and transport in plants and mammals (fluid mosaic membranes, movement of substances into/out of cells);
  • The mitotic cell cycle (replication and division of nuclei and cells, chromosome behaviour in mitosis);
  • Nucleic acids (structure and replication of DNA);
  • Protein synthesis
  • Gas exchange (gas exchange system, smoking);
  • Infectious diseases and immunity (diseases, antibiotics, vaccination);
  • Energy and respiration
  • Photosynthesis (energy transfer process, limiting factors, adaptations);
  • Homeostasis (in mammals and plants);
  • Inherited changes (phenotype, gene control)
  • Control and coordination (in mammals and plants);
  • Selection and evolution (variation, natural and artificial selection);
  • Biodiversity, classification, and conservation
  • Genetic technologies

The components of the A-Level exam consist of 5 papers which are summarised in the table below:

Paper 1Paper 2Paper 3Paper 4Paper 5
Multiple Choice
20 questions
4 possible options
15.5% of the total mark
Structured Questions
Variable number of questions
Variable mark value
23% of the overall mark
Advanced Practical Skills
Practical work
2-3 experiments
11.5% of the overall mark
Structured Questions
Variable number of questions
Variable mark value
Free response style question (worth 15 marks)
38.5% of the total mark
Planning, Analysis, and Evaluation
Variable number of questions
Variable mark value
Based on practical skills of planning, analysis, and evaluation
11.5% of the total mark

Conclusion

Even though the article provides information about the material covered in each of the A-Level Biology course along with the grading criteria, it is always a good idea to check the advantages and disadvantages of the A-Levels directly.

So, in case if you struggle to decide between the 4 exam boards mentioned earlier, the table summarizing all the pros and cons of these examination boards is provided below:

Pros and Cons
AQARelevant depth of the material;
Covers less material compared to OCR, Edexcel, and CIE;
Final essay assessment (might be disadvantageous for students who do not enjoy the interpretation of their knowledge onto the paper);
More straightforward questions compared to Edexcel and CIE, but more confusing than in the case of OCR.
OCRCovers additional topics compared to AQA;
Exam questions are easier and less confusing;
There is no final essay assessment;
More straightforward questions than in the case of AQA, Edexcel, or CIE.
EdexcelThe exam board is too vague;
Not structured and organised appropriately;
Information is less accessible than in the case of AQA and OCR;
There are 6 assessments that make the examination even harder and more time-consuming.
CIEInformation is less accessible than in the case of AQA and OCR;
5 assessments, including the one that requires demonstration of practical knowledge.

In any case, the difficulty of each examination board is entirely dependent upon specific individual’s interests, skills, knowledge, abilities, and preferences. Someone might prefer multiple-choice questions over short/long answer questions, while another one might be keen on practical assignments or essay questions.
AQA is relatively easy for students studying pure Biology, Psychology, Sociology, or similar subjects. On the other hand, OCR is preferable for the ones enjoying Maths, Chemistry, Physics, or related courses.

References:

Assessment and Qualifications Alliance. (2017). “AS and A-Level Biology”. Retrieved from: https://www.aqa.org.uk/subjects/science/as-and-a-level/biology-7401-7402

Oxford, Cambridge, and RSA Examinations. (2018). “A level Specification – Biology B (Advanced Biology)”. Retrieved from: https://www.ocr.org.uk/qualifications/as-and-a-level/biology-b-advancing-biology-h022-h422-from-2015/

Pearson Qualifications. (2015). “International Advanced Level Biology – Specification”. Retrieved from: https://qualifications.pearson.com/en/qualifications/edexcel-international-advanced-levels/biology.html

Cambridge International. (2016). International AS & A Level Biology. Retrieved from: https://www.cambridgeinternational.org/programmes-and-qualifications/cambridge-international-as-and-a-level-biology-9700/