The HSC Biology 5 marker. You know the ones, the ones which are not quite the 8 mark extended responses, and yet which are more intense than those easy 4 markers..

But how do you really nail a HSC Biology 5 marker?

Well. You’ve come to the right place! Here’s how to write a killer HSC Biology 5 marker! 

First things first

You must know your enemy.

There are actually two types of HSC Bio extended response questions. I’m not sure if they have proper names, so let’s use the ones that I’ve given them for now:

  • Factual Questions
  • Assessment Questions

The Factual Questions are asking you to synthesise dot point information from the syllabus to explain a phenomenon. That is, you are putting together small bits of information that you have to make a big picture. Like a jigsaw puzzle.

The Assessment Questions want you to synthesise syllabus information to make an assessment of a phenomenon. That is, you are being asked to judge something.

So, how do I do it?

Glad you asked. There are 4:

  1. Break down the question
  2. Synthesise your answer from what you know
  3. Communicate it clearly
  4. Proof and let it go

Let’s look at each step in a bit more detail:

Step 1: Break down the question

Type of question

What type of question are you presented with? Shorter responses like a HSC Biology 5 marker gives you more leeway to just straight out state the answer without an intro

What key word does it begin with? The key word (discuss, describe, explain, evaluate) can hint what examiners want from you.

For example, a ‘Demonstrate’ would require you to use an example, while an ‘Explain’ question needs you to draw relationships between things

See NESA’s guide for a glossary:

Relevant dot point

Which syllabus dot points are relevant? Distinguishing which dot point you should address isn’t always clear

Sometimes content from Module 5: Heredity and Module 6: Genetic Change will overlap due to their interrelatedness as long as you specify your answer and don’t contradict yourself, it should be ok

Don’t forget to ask yourself: What is the question really asking?

Step 2: Synthesise

Collect all of the information that you know for each of the relevant dot points

Create the points that you’ll need to answer the question, keeping in mind that there should be a logical progression: if A, then B, then C, and so D.

Step 3: Communicate clearly

Use simple language and don’t say more than what is necessary

A good rule of thumb is to pretend that you are trying to explain that concept to your friend: would they understand it if you started at point B? (Unless they’re very bright and have already learnt this, then usually not. So start at point A)

Step 4: Proof and let it go

Read through your HSC Biology 5 marker to make sure that it makes sense

Move on to the next one and be okay with what you’ve produced – time to move onto the next one or get feedback for that one

Okay, that’s kind of cool but I still don’t get it?

That’s alright! Let’s try applying these to some questions.

Question 28: Explain the relationship between replication of DNA and evolution (5)

This HSC Biology 5 marker comes from the 2012 HSC Biology exam, and we’re going to walk through each of the 4 steps together.

Step 1: Break down the question

This is a Factual Question because it is asking us to gather all of the information that we know about replication of DNA and evolution in order to explain the relationship between them.

The relevant syllabus dot points are pretty clear:

HSC Biology short answer questions


HSC Biology short answer questions

The HSC Biology 5 marker question is asking for us to explain the overlap between these two dot points. Simple enough, right? Yes – but only if we have a good grasp of each of the concepts. Let’s assume that we do.

Step 2: Synthesise

Pretend that we have a good grasp of these two concepts independently. We’ve got all our information collected and ready to be put into our HSC Biology 5 marker response.

Let’s move to creating our points. 

A Band 6 student knows how to create a logical progression in their answer. Basically, they’re really good at telling a story with their knowledge. For example:

DNA replication is a mechanism of inheritance where genetic material is passed from one generation of cells to the next.This is a good opening sentence because it gives an overview of the points to be explained further, and it starts broadly.
The process of DNA replication is…*insert brief explanation*This is your chance to demonstrate your knowledge of how genetic information is passed on. I would briefly cover the replication of nucleotide base sequences based on a template strand and the principle of complementary base pairing that makes this easy and accurate.
During DNA replication, errors can occur..*insert brief list of the errors which can occur*This provides the link to evolution because the errors give rise to more variation within a species).
The Darwin/Wallace theory of evolution states that…*insert your succinct explanation of the theory*This introduces the concept of evolution. Remember to link its premise of variations within species with the previous point.
Thus, the process of DNA replication allows for evolution to occur over time.If you have a nice snappy conclusion sentence which ties everything together, this is where it will be put to use!
To make it a bit clearer, the idea progression of this answer is:
  1. What DNA replication is
  2. How it occurs
  3. Its relationship to evolution
  4. What evolution is
  5. Tied up into a nice little parcel

Yes. It’s that simple. But don’t get too excited just yet, we’re not quite finished yet.

Step 3: Communicate clearly

In the above example, I tried to use language in my HSC Biology 5 marker that is as straightforward as possible. If the DNA molecule unwinds, then say that the DNA molecule unwinds.

You will never be marked down for using simple language that doesn’t sound ‘smart’. You will be marked down for fluffing around and not getting to the point.

Here is an example of not-so-good writing:

“DNA replication is an incredibly sophisticated process that occurs in homo sapiens and it means that we can replicate our DNA and our cells, and therefore is used to pass genetic material from one cell to another, which therefore means that we can get the information from…”

Biology does not have the time for flowery writing, especially in a HSC Biology 5 marker. If you are not getting your point across in less than 3 lines of handwriting, take a deep breath to clear your mind and start again.

If you’re ever in doubt, read what you’ve written out loud and imagine if someone else were saying that to you. Would you have paid full attention to them for that whole time? If not, then it’s back to the drawing board!

One last thing on clear communication: you might feel like what you end up with is just your synthesised dot points but in sentences. This is exactly what your answer should be. 

Step 4: Proof and move on

Once you have proofed your HSC Biology 5 marker, you have done everything that you can do. It’s time to let it go and move on to the next question OR hand what you’ve written over to the person who is going to correct it for you.

In an exam or test situation:
  • You do not have time to proof it more than once
  • Have confidence in your answer and run with it, you will be able to collect many more marks that way
In a practice situation:
  • Do not let yourself be tempted to agonise over it
  • It is much more effective if you hand over what you’ve written as your marker will have a better idea of where your strengths and weaknesses lie
  • This will help you save time, which means you will get through more practice questions!

Examiners can usually tell when students have come back and added on extra information (that doesn’t need to be there). In an exam, have you ever done this:

“DNA replication is how one cell is passed from another…

Variation in the population can occur via errors in the DNA replication process…

The Darwin/Wallace theory of evolution…


And instead of ending your HSC Biology 5 marker response, you add in extra information randomly:

“The main enzyme involved in DNA replication is DNA polymerase”.

I know I have. Our aim is to be confident in our answers so that we won’t have to add random information to the end of our responses, and we won’t twist and turn over a sub-par response.

Awesome! But what about the other type of questions?

You’ve practically read my mind! Most of the tips apply equally to HSC Biology 5 marker Assessment Questions, with a few additional points here and there.

Let’s find ourselves an example to work with

Question 30: Explain why the combined use of quarantine and vaccination programs is a more effective way of controlling disease than using only one of these strategies. (5)

This question comes from the 2016 HSC Biology exam, and here we go through each of the steps again!

Step 1: Break down the question

This HSC Biology 5 marker is essentially asking you how these two strategies work together to control and prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

Note: this is definitely an Assessment Question. Unlike a Factual Question where you are explaining a phenomena, you are making a judgement about why it is better to use both strategies rather than just one.

Now let’s look at the syllabus to figure out which dot point is relevant:

HSC Biology short answer questions

What limitations do vaccines have and what can quarantine do that vaccine can’t?

A great answer will point out the relationship between these two strategies instead of just talking about them separately.

Just from this one question we have heaps of questions that we can grab answers for.

How does quarantine work? What entails vaccinations? What limitations do they have? Where do they pick up each other’s slack?

This leads us nicely into the next step.

Step 2: Synthesise

You might be thinking, “I don’t even know where to begin!”. But don’t fret!

How about starting with each of them independently. What do you think about vaccinations and what do you think about quarantine?

They’re… cool? I guess?

Then let’s maybe start by talking about them separately, and then explain why they fit together like ebony and ivory in your HSC Biology 5 marker:

The structure for an Assessment Question is actually quite simple:

  • What is quarantine and how does it work? We keep people and animals for a while to make sure they aren’t secretly growing a serious infectious disease inside them. Australia is vulnerable to heaps of diseases because our wildlife aren’t used to it. I don’t think us ozzies appreciate a disease here or there either. Address some key concepts like isolating things and why quarantine is important to preventing diseases from getting in to the country

  • What is vaccination and what mechanism(s) does it work by? What is immunity and how is active immunity involved? Be sure to mention herd immunity

  • What is the relationship between the two? In the case that some nasties are introduced, good thing we have immunity. What would happen if only one strategy was used? (I also can’t really tell you the answer because this question makes you really think about it)

Step 3: Communicate clearly

As above, you need to be very straightforward with your language in your HSC Biology 5 marker.

However, beware that it is more difficult for Assessment Questions because the danger of waffling is more imminent.

Additionally, it would be good to keep in mind that the examiners are not interested in how many good connecting words you know (therefore, thus, and so, thereby, etc).

They want to know that you have thought about the content that you have learned. And trust me, if you know enough about the DNA story, you will think about it for ages.

Step 4: Proof and move on

You’ve got this. There are no incorrect answers for this type of question, only uninformed and unjustified answers.

Phew. That was intense.

Yes, it can seem overwhelming. But all that you can do is take the plunge and try it out.

There is never any harm in attempting a question over and over again. In fact, you’ll find that it becomes second nature – you’ll be talking in these 4 steps before you know it!

After that, it’s just practice, practice, practice to perfect your HSC Biology 5 marker response!

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Gia-Yen Luong has been an Art of Smart coach for 3 years, supporting students of all ages in a range of subjects including HSC English, Legal Studies, Biology, Chemistry and General Maths. She is in her final year of a mega double degree in Law/Science (Neuroscience). She graduated high school with an ATAR of 99.9 and spends most of her time trying to convince people that it’s wholly possible to get such a mark while still having a normal life. She enjoys reading and truly believes that she was born to be a blogger. She’s a true nerd and is very much okay with it.