Leaving Cert Biology: Unusual questions make it difficult

Unfamiliar bird genetics and ‘old-fashioned’ diagram labelling cause complaints

It was a challenging day for students of biology who emerged from the higher level paper complaining of difficult and, at times, old-fashioned questions.

A question on the effect of iodine on tadpoles was a bit of an “unknown quantity” while students and teachers questioned the value of tasking students with labelling diagrams.

Lily Cronin, chairwoman of the biology course committee at the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, spoke to students after the exam at Presentation College in Killarney and said the students found the paper difficult and at times frustrating.

“The experiment on tadpoles was not familiar to them. It kind of upset them,” said Ms Cronin.

The genetics question was also unusual, as birds were used in the example. Bird chromosomes are the opposite way around to other species. This was a “cause for concern”, said Ms Cronin.

Human alimentary canal

Question 11 involved labelling a diagram of the human alimentary canal.

“This was a very old-fashioned question for a modern biology paper,” she said.

Paula Moriarty, TUI subject representative for biology, felt reasonably prepared students should have been able to manage, but did acknowledge "an emphasis on using information to solve unfamiliar questions" in the exam.

“A question on the mouth parts of caterpillars, for example, was not specifically on the course but students should have been able to apply knowledge to answer that.

"You couldn't have left anything out – as usual students who try to guess what will come up didn't fare well. The question 10 on genetics, because it was unusually related to bird genetics, may have thrown some students," said Ms Moriarty, who teaches at Bridgetown Vocational College, Co Wexford.

Susan Silke, biology teacher at the Institute of Education also noted the difficulty of the genetics question.

“Many students would have found part c of question 10 on genetics extremely challenging. The question mixed up general linkage with sex. In the organism they referenced in the question the female was XY and the male was XX. It was an unusual question and has not been asked before. Students would need to have been very careful and very precise when answering this question.”

The ordinary level was fair and well balanced, according to teachers.

Louise Holden

Louise Holden

Louise Holden is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on education