The importance of reading widely throughout your studies in AS/A2 Chemistry and Biology

A key element in the reasoning behind the abandonment of the January examinations is that you – the student – will have the opportunity to study your chosen subjects in greater depth, without the ever-present distraction and worry of the next examination looming on the horizon.

Reading widely – not only around your subjects, but different accounts of the same material – should be an important component of the extra depth with which you now have the opportunity to pursue your studies. Although the examination boards each have their recommended textbooks – AS Chemistry and A2 Chemistry, both by Ted Lister and Janet Renshaw (Nelson Thornes publishers), for example, are ‘exclusively endorsed’ by the AQA – it would be a mistake to confine your reading in chemistry to these two books. In awarding top grades, the examiners are looking for flare in the subject: evidence of the ability to apply the taught material to different situations. It’s no use protesting that something came up in the exam that was not covered in the textbook: the underlying chemical principles, which you are expected to be able to apply – in what are perhaps to you unfamiliar contexts – are always covered. The wider your background reading, the less likely you are to be coming across such contexts for the first time in your examinations.

It is of course essential you pay very close attention to the specification for your particular examination board when revising, but with a whole academic year available for your studies it certainly does no harm to go slightly beyond the confines of the spec. This happens in the best schools, anyway – call it ‘Stretch and Challenge’ or whatever you like. What you certainly should not be doing is treating the material as a collection of bullet-point responses to stock questions. Leave that to Pavlov and his dogs.

It is particularly important to read around the subject in Biology, which requires more material to be committed to memory than is the case in Chemistry. Also, if you are studying both Chemistry and Biology, don’t pursue the two subjects in isolation: each has much to contribute to your understanding of the other. Topics with obvious overlap include:

Unfortunately, it is also sometimes the case that the explanations of the relevant chemistry in the biology textbooks leave much to be desired. For example, much of what is said in connection with the oxidation and reduction reactions of respiration and photosynthesis in A2 Biology ‘exclusively endorsed by AQA’ (Glenn and Susan Toole, Nelson Thornes) is at best muddled and at worst incorrect. This must surely cause confusion, especially in students also studying Chemistry. (Indeed a chemistry teacher would have to have concerns over the understanding of a student not confused by this!) Similarly, the ‘skeletal’ diagram of α-glucose given on page 20 of the corresponding AS book contains errors which you certainly do not want to be transferring into your chemistry (problems are also evident in the depiction of glycosidic bonds on page 22).

There is no substitute for reading as widely as possible. Can you explain, for example, the apparent contradiction between what you are taught in Chemistry on the energetics of bond breaking and formation with what you are told in Biology on the hydrolysis of ATP? (You may need to ask a teacher for guidance on this one!)

The greater depth of understanding – together with improved confidence in the material – you will gain by reading beyond the textbooks recommended by your particular examination board will not only improve your prospects in the examinations, it will make you far more interesting and attractive to the university admissions tutors. (It is no coincidence that one is said to ‘read’ a subject at university.)

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