Excellence via the internet

29th October 2004 at 01:00
Peter Cotgreave goes online to find the best biology revision sites for GCSE students

The internet is supposed to have revolutionised our learning, but despite easily finding scores of websites that claimed to be suitable for GCSE biology, not many of them were as useful as a good textbook that is attractively laid out with clear sentences and simple diagrams. However, given that young people these days are keen to use computer technology, and given that all of the material in this survey is available for free, I think it was worth the effort of trawling through the many useless sites to find the nuggets of gold. Different users will no doubt want different things, but in the end, I thought S-Cool! was about the best, despite its silly name, which will not make surly teenagers think that biology is cool.

Content

The variability in quality was surprising; most of the sites cover some topics very well, and others less well. The best sites had clear diagrams, either sample questions with proper answers or interactive quizzes, and glossaries or other aids to understanding the biology syllabus. Few were consistent, and the only ones that really scored highly for clarity and simplicity across the range were BBC Bitesize and S-Cool! If Biotopics had a clearer layout that was easier to use, it would also be very valuable.

Structure

I was looking for a structure that was easy to navigate, and had a consistency across the topics in the way the material was presented and accessed. Although some of the sites, such as Revision Central, had what at first appeared to be simple structures without fancy gimmicks, this generally turned out to be because they lacked the depth and rigour of some of the better sites, such as Psionica.

Curriculum relevance

Most sites mirror the curriculum almost exactly or make no pretence that they have any relationship to it. Because the national curriculum is such an all-pervading force in modern schools, the sites that do not relate directly to it will obviously be of limited use, but teachers and pupils should not ignore them. Some of them contain interesting examples, and others may possibly catch the attention of those students who happen to be very interested in biology and want to find out more.

Extras

By the time I had navigated these nine sites, and another 20 or so that initially looked promising but turned out to be unsuitable, I was desperate for any feature that really made one of them stand out from the crowd. Most of them struggled to do so, but S-Cool!'s revision summaries, designed for students to print out and carry with them for last-minute revision, were a nice touch, and some of the interactive questions and quizzes will appeal to some pupils.

Peter Cotgreave is the director of Save British Science www.savebritishscience.org.uk

TITLE

8BBC GCSE Bitesize

www.bbc.co.ukschoolsteachersks4bitesize_biology.shtml

CONTENT

The BBC GCSE Bitesize site contains succinct, well written summaries of individual topics, with clear diagrams. Some sections also include a useful glossary, and a few have "exam tips" that provide hints about the kind of questions that typically come up in GCSE papers.

STRUCTRUE

The information has been well organised into themes, such as "ecology" and "humans". Each section is then subdivided into individual topics, such as "hormones" and "food webs", with structured information, sample questions and answers. There are also interactive tests.

CURRICULUM RELEVANCE

GCSE Bitesize is obviously prepared around the structure of the biology areas of the national curriculum. It is part of a wider attempt by the BBC to provide the whole curriculum in bite-size chunks.

EXTRAS

The movies of biological processes, such as mitosis and osmosis, give a slightly better idea of what actually happens than a single diagram can.

VERDICT

BBC GCSE Bitesize is a first-rate resource that will be of use to lots of teachers and pupils. It will be most useful for pupils who have already prepared well and want to spend time doing some high-quality revision.

TITLE

Revision Central

http:revisioncentral.co.ukgcsebiology

CONTENT

Revision Central has extremely limited summaries of topics, some of which are just lists of vocabulary or labelled diagrams.

STRUCTRUE

Fifteen pages are structured around topics such as "human kidneys" and "pollution". Each topic is covered in a list of bullet points that give accurate information but generally cover only the bare minimum students need to know. There is a lack of consistency across the pages about the nature of the information, and better editing would definitely improve the site.

CURRICULUM RELEVANCE

Because this site only covers a handful of topics and in so little detail, you really can't rely on it as a guide to the material students need to study for most parts of the curriculum.

EXTRAS

There are no particularly useful extras, although there are a lot of links to sites, such as those selling secondhand textbooks or providing example essays, which may interest some users.

VERDICT

Revision Central may be useful for very rapid, last-minute revision, but only if you are lucky enough to find the topic you want.

TITLE

School Science

www.schoolscience.co.ukcontentindex.asp

CONTENT

School Science has little content of its own, but it does provide links to useful sites, such as from drug companies and research funders, which vary enormously in their content. The aim is to show how the science learned at school relates to the real world, but there has been little attempt to ensure that the linked sites are all pitched at an appropriate level.

STRUCTRUE

The site is reliant on the availability of suitable pages on other organisations' websites, over which it has no control. Most of the links are high quality, but few really understand what 15-year-olds and their teachers want.

CURRICULUM RELEVANCE

No attempt has been made to map the links and content to the national curriculum.

EXTRAS

Some of the material, such as the "Viagra story", may catch students'

imaginations, but most of them probably won't be bothered navigating their way through the disparate collection of material.

VERDICT

School Science is of limited use, but it may help someone seeking material for a project that is slightly outside the strict boundaries of the curriculum. Students with a particular interest in biology may strike it lucky with this site.

TITLE

S-Cool!

www.s-cool.co.uk

CONTENT

Really useful summaries of most of the main topics that students need to understand can be found on S-Cool! Clearly written and with good diagrams, it allows them to check that they know the main principles before wading into the detail.

STRUCTRUE

Seventeen main subjects, such as "evolution" and "enzymes", are divided into sub-topics. Each subject has a good summary aimed at checking that students know the basic material. Exam-style questions, with sample answers, allow them to test what they have learned.

CURRICULUM RELEVANCE

The individual topics obviously cover the curriculum, but they are not grouped into the usual broad themes, such as "variation".

EXTRAS

The one-page revision summaries can be printed out and used on the way to the exam room.

VERDICT

S-Cool! is a very useful site that has only real drawback: it might be a little time-consuming to do all the quizzes.

TITLE

Psionica

www.psionica.co.ukbiologyks4biology

CONTENT

Psionica's clear sentences and reasonably comprehensive coverage make this a very readable site with extensive notes and tests.

STRUCTRUE

Each of the 22 broad areas, such as "animal reproduction" or "enzymes" is divided into approximately five subjects of manageable size. Each of these has a page of short paragraphs and diagrams setting out an overview of what users need to know.

CURRICULUM RELEVANCE

Psionica is obviously built around the structure of the national curriculum, but it doesn't slavishly follow the prescribed structure.

EXTRAS

There are 10 multiple-choice questions for each of the 22 areas. Once these have been completed, the site gives users marks out of 10, and tells them which answers were wrong, so they can try again.

VERDICT

Psionica is undoubtedly good for students who want a thorough, comprehensive set of materials. It will suit users who take their work seriously, and those who may think their teacher isn't doing a good job, and want to ensure they don't fall behind.

TITLE

Biotopic

swww.biotopics.co.uk

CONTENT

There is a good deal of text and plenty of diagrams on Biotopics. The text is not as snappy, but perhaps more comprehensive than some of the other sites.

STRUCTRUE

Sadly, the layout is terrible, and I almost gave up using the site.

However, once you get past the naff bits called "odd animations and rollover effects", the material is well-structured around curriculum topics.

CURRICULUM RELEVANCE

This site is explicitly based on the Edexcel syllabus, for which it gives comprehensive coverage.

EXTRAS

A wide range of questions are available to test students' knowledge, with the correct answers appearing as you move the mouse over the diagrams, tables and answer sheets.

VERDICT

Biotopics could be an excellent site, if the funny layout suits your way of working. If not, you're probably better off looking elsewhere.

TITLE

Kingsbury

www.purchon.combiologyrevision.htm

CONTENT

Created by staff at Kingsbury High School, this resource is clearly based on the material that teachers really use. For example, the diagrams are obviously drawn and labelled by hand. This gives it a realistic feel that may appeal to many.

STRUCTRUE

Topics such as "muscles" and "photosynthesis" have short summary introductions that link to more detailed pages, including diagrams and course notes.

CURRICULUM RELEVANCE

Most of the national curriculum appears to be covered, and most students will find it useful, but the material isn't always structured in quite the same way as it is in the curriculum.

EXTRAS

Because it was designed for real students at a real school, it includes useful advice not found on other sites, such as "how to revise" and "where to get help".

VERDICT

I suspect more teachers than students will find something useful on the Kingsbury site, and this probably reflects the fact that it was made by practising teachers.

TITLE

Learn.co.ukwww.learn.co.uk

CONTENT

Bullet points and brief paragraphs outline the main, basic points for each subject on Learn.co.uk. In terms of diagrams, it is poor in comparison with most other sites.

STRUCTRUE

CURRICULUM RELEVANCE

Lots of individual topics are featured within each of the 10 major curriculum themes. When you click on unusual words, a small box pops up with a brief definition. Apart from this feature, there is no interactivity, and there are no test questions or quizzes.

Learn.co.uk is strictly based on the curriculum, and will suit students who want to pass biology GCSE without necessarily being interested in the subject.

EXTRAS

Specific "learning objectives" are set out for each of the lessons. These will suit revising students, especially if they are confused about what they really need to know.

VERDICT

Learn.co.uk is a bit dry in some respects, but the learning objectives may prove invaluable for students who need help focusing on the essentials, because they're in a panic or have left it too late to prepare properly for an exam.

TITLE

Spark Notes

www.sparknotes.combiology

CONTENT

Spark Notes contains excellent detailed short essays about individual topics. However, the diagrams are a bit patchy- some are very good, but others are not particularly useful.

STRUCTRUE

Broad themes, such as "plants" and "cell structure", are divided into major topics, such as "the cell cycle" and "fungi". Each of these is divided into individual subjects, although the list of subjects doesn't necessarily give comprehensive coverage of the major topics. There are also succinct definitions of a wide range of vocabulary. Access to some of the content appears to require free registration, but there is no obvious pattern or explanation as to which does and does not.

CURRICULUM RELEVANCE

You'll find most of what you want, if you look for it, but some information is missing. For example, there's no section on ecology. The material doesn't appear to be based on the structure of the national curriculum.

EXTRAS

The wide range of tricky problems will stretch many students, and give them a real sense of developing their knowledge. For each problem, a click of the mouse reveals an answer that is succinct, but properly set out, and which would get the pupil full marks in a real exam.

VERDICT

On some topics, students and teachers will find useful material, but as a general resource Spark Notes is not as valuable as some other sites in this survey.

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