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Planning advice

The VCE Biology Study Design outlines the nature and sequence of learning and teaching necessary for students to demonstrate achievement of the outcomes for a unit. The areas of study describe the specific knowledge required to demonstrate a specific outcome.

Developing a curriculum and assessment program

Teachers should use the VCE Biology Study Design and Support Materials provided on the VCAA Biology study page to develop a curriculum and assessment program that includes appropriate teaching and learning activities to enable students to satisfactorily demonstrate the key knowledge and relevant key science skills identified for each outcome, as well as assessment tasks that comply with the VCE Assessment Principles to assess students’ level of achievement. Schools have flexibility in tailoring the teaching and assessment program to the school’s context and academic calendar.

In developing a program, teachers should design a range of activities that provide opportunities for students to develop understanding of scientific concepts, progress their science skills and build their knowledge and skills in scientific investigations, critical and creative thinking, ethical understanding, individual and collaborative scientific endeavour and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge, cultures and history.

Attention should be given to activities that are relevant, use contemporary resources and are meaningful to students’ current and future lives; activities that include a diverse range of local, regional, state and national contexts, and activities that use a variety of contemporary resources. Appropriate learning activities also include activities that scaffold student learning while encouraging independent learning. Activities that use student-generated representations can be useful to demonstrate their level of understanding of the relevant knowledge or indicate where more scaffolding or guidance may be required.

Teachers should consider developing a weekly course outline for each unit. When developing a program, teachers are advised to ensure all units in VCE Biology are constructed on the basis of at least 50 hours of class contact time, including assessment.

The following sections offer general advice on developing a curriculum and assessment program.

Student safety and wellbeing

When developing courses, teachers must consider:

  • duty of care in relation to health and safety of students in learning activities, practical work and excursions
  • legislative compliance (for example, chemical storage and disposal and copyright); sensitivity to cultural differences and personal beliefs (for example, discussions related to bioethical issues)
  • adherence to community standards and ethical guidelines (for example, environmental responsibility when undertaking fieldwork and observation of relevant protocols, sensitivities and ethical codes of conduct and practice when dealing with investigations involving human disorders)
  • respect for persons and differences of opinion; sensitivity to student views on the use of animals in research (for example, providing alternatives to dissections).

For more detail regarding legislation and compliance, refer to pages 4 and 5 of the VCE Biology Study Design 2022–2026.

Integrating key science skills and key knowledge

Each outcome in VCE Biology draws on a set of key science skills for Biology listed on pages 7 and 8 of the study design. The development, demonstration and application of the key science skills must be integrated into a teaching and assessment program and applied in a variety of contexts, including through practical work. A number of approaches to teaching and learning can support the development, demonstration and application of key science skills, including a focus on inquiry where students pose questions, explore scientific ideas, draw evidence-based conclusions and propose solutions to problems. An appropriate balance of theoretical and practical activities relating to the Units 1–4 Key science skills should be included in teaching and assessment programs.

Students should be expected to demonstrate progressively higher skill levels across Units 1 to 4. Teachers are encouraged to map the specific teaching and assessment of the Units 1–4 Key science skills across all units, ensuring that all key science skills are covered in the delivery of a program of study and that skills are covered at progressively higher level. Making explicit to students when and how they are developing each of the Units 1–4 Key science skills can also enable student-directed learning and encourage students to monitor their successful achievement of each skill.

Examples of teaching and learning activities that include the development, demonstration and application of key science skills integrated into key knowledge have been provided under Teaching and learning.

Literacy in VCE Biology and scientific literacy

Literacy in VCE Biology

VCE Biology involves learning technical language and understanding data representations that describe complex and interrelated processes over time, as well as relationships between complex structures from sub-micro particles to macro structures to whole system analysis.

Information sources related to biology use a range of representations such as diagrams, tables, graphs, photographs, video sequences, simulations and text to describe biological phenomena. Teachers are encouraged to support student learning of this multi-modal language by unpacking how each representation works to support students to be able to use multi-literacies (text and images) in developing explanations of biological concepts.

Strategies for supporting students include:

  • providing students with opportunities to read, view, write, speak and listen to a wide range of texts and media to source and compare information, including traditional textbooks and online journals in addition to news websites and blogs, videos and social media channels
  • students generating representations and explanations that illustrate student thinking in ways that allow the teacher to clarify and provide feedback
  • guiding and collaborating with students to construct different scientific explanations, illustrations and data representations, enabling students to compare and evaluate information from different sources to understand how ideas can be represented in different ways and to distinguish between scientific and non-scientific ideas.

Scientific literacy

Scientific literacy refers to peoples’ understanding of scientific concepts, phenomena and processes, and their ability to apply this knowledge to new and, at times, non-scientific situations (PISA, 2018). This involves students:

  • being curious and asking, investigating or determining answers to questions generated from their observations about everyday experiences
  • describing, explaining, hypothesising and making predictions about scientific phenomena
  • critically evaluating the quality of scientific information and data on the basis of its source and the methods used to generate it
  • identifying scientific issues underlying local, state and national issues and decisions, and expressing their own views that are based on scientific and technological understanding
  • understanding and evaluating articles about science in the public domain and discussing the validity of the conclusions
  • proposing arguments based on evidence and drawing valid conclusions from data.

Strategies for supporting students’ development of scientific literacy include:

  • students working collaboratively and ethically in practical activities and discussing observations and results
  • students participating respectfully in group discussions and debates
  • teachers questioning and inquiring to encourage students to make observations, to question the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of science-related phenomena, and trying to make sense of them using their knowledge and research.

Contemporary science contexts

Teachers are advised to provide students with learning opportunities that allow them to critically evaluate the stories, claims, discoveries and inventions about science that they hear and read in the media, and to examine the relevance of science in their everyday lives. For the purposes of VCE Biology, contemporary science relates to research that has been reported within 12 months of use in the classroom. New and innovative contemporary research and ideas have been infused throughout the activities included under under Teaching and learning.

Victoria is a nucleus of biological research and there are many experienced and internationally respected researchers working across the state to address current and timely biological problems and issues relevant to VCE Biology. Inclusion of localised, contemporary science and the facilitation of interactions with scientists and their scientific research allows students to appreciate the values and ethics of becoming a scientist, provides opportunities to be future-focused and may lead them to consider possible careers in the many practices of biology.

Sources of information

Although original biological research reports are accessible, many require subscription and most are written for a research audience. For the purposes of VCE Biology, teachers and students may access reports, videos and summaries of contemporary biological research and expert commentary through popular science publications (for example, Cosmos, The Scientist, Nature and Scientific American) as well as online science media outlets where areas of interest can be filtered (for example, Australian Science, Nature Briefing, ScienceAlert and Science Daily). A range of other science organisations such as ABC Science, CSIRO and Museums Victoria also provide access to contemporary scientific research via email subscription.

Other sources of information include:

  • Current biological science research and collaborative community-based projects can be accessed through the internet and are often reported in the media, particularly in the local press where updates on local government initiatives and projects are published.
  • Search ’biology organisations Australia’ and scroll through the list of organisations to select those of relevance to your teaching and assessment program.
  • Contact local groups for information and data related to local issues; for example, Landcare Australia identifies local groups by entering a postcode.
  • Citizen science programs are available all over Victoria. Search ‘citizen science, Victoria, biology’ to locate opportunities available, noting that some opportunities involve interstate collaboration. Several programs facilitate connections between scientists and students, which enables students to see the passion and skills scientists have for their field/research.
  • Regular media sources such as podcasts and webinars enable students to communicate with biological scientists, enabling students to see the passion and skills scientists have for their field/research. Scientists may discuss the practical challenges and solutions (if available) and the potential of their research or project findings.

Adapting contemporary scientific research for learning and assessment

Biology research and innovations can be used in a variety of ways. Students can read and review the purpose, design, findings and interpretations of the selected research. Media reports or research communications provide adequate details for this to occur. Academic research articles can be sourced online and the abstract, findings and conclusions are often suitable for student interpretation.

Teachers should consider the following when adapting contemporary scientific research for classroom use:

  • review information source: check the science, check the suitability for students, check the readability for students, check the availability (how will this medium be shared with students?); teachers may need to edit the information source to make the readability and length manageable for students to access
  • decide how to use the information source: as a role play prompt (to explore stake holder positions in a bioethical issue), as a comparison to known information (for example, a new application of included key knowledge), as an example of high-quality investigation design or analysis strategies, or as secondary data for analysis and interpretation
  • guide students to review information communications, checking reliability and authenticity while learning how to reference and acknowledge sources.

Teachers may adapt contemporary science research and reports to create assessment tasks; for example, case study analysis and evaluation, evaluation of research, response to a bioethical issue or report using secondary data, where students are expected to apply their understanding of biological concepts in unfamiliar situations. As the information sources are available in the public domain, schools must ensure that any assessment task developed is unique to the school and student cohort so that authentication risks are minimised. This may be achieved by selecting and adapting aspects of an information source as a basis for the stimulus materials used for the assessment task and/or altering type of assessment task generated from the stimulus material; for example, considering whether structured questions, a flowchart, an oral presentation or a sequence of PowerPoint slides may be appropriate for assessing the relevant key knowledge and key science skills.

Problem-based learning

A problem-based learning approach is conducive to linking scientific concepts to examining contemporary science-based issues in society. Scenarios can be developed from actual case studies reported in scientific journals, from local scenarios and issues or from a fictional case study or scenario. A problem-based learning approach can also be used to develop specific key science skills. The key science skills selected should link to relevant biological content.

The following steps are useful when using a problem-based learning approach:

Step 1: Define the question/scenario/problem carefully: what are you trying to find out?

Step 2: Refine the question/explore possible options

Step 3: Plan the actual investigation/narrow your choices

Step 4: Test ideas and obtain further information

Step 5: Write a conclusion that draws upon discussions/research/experiments

Problem-based scenarios do not necessarily have a single solution. A class problem-based learning approach can be used to generate different questions for students to investigate, particularly for experimental investigations.

For examples of how a problem-based learning approach can be included in a curriculum and assessment program, see Teaching and learning.

Ethical understanding and teaching bioethics

An ethical issue arises in situations where there are competing ways to respond to a situation and the best course of action is not always clear. An ethical issue becomes an ethical dilemma when it is not possible to act in a way that does not contravene a value or ethical principle, presenting us with a decision about which approach or principle to prioritise over another (See page 5 of the VCE Biology Study Design for the approaches to bioethics and ethical principles that should be considered).

Students should also understand and be able to recognise that approaches to bioethics and ethical concepts are general in nature and are separate to any codes or legislation that may inform the ethical conduct of scientific investigations.

Teaching bioethics often includes an emphasis on classroom and group discussion guided by a series of questions. The benefits of this approach are that it exposes each student to a wide range of ideas, values and perspectives and develops students’ ability to engage in bioethical issues and dilemmas in a respectful and tolerant manner.

Teachers should use their own judgment to select bioethical issues and learning activities that best suit their school and student cohorts, as well as to select the type of bioethical issues that will best support discussion between students in their particular classroom. For a classroom discussion to be successful, the teacher needs to facilitate it carefully and in a positive, safe atmosphere. Some good suggestions for setting classroom norms and managing classroom discussions can be found in ‘Actually, it’s OK to disagree. Here are 5 ways we can argue better’ (Hugh Breakey, The Conversation) and the Managing Classroom Discussions webpage of the Science Learning Hub – Pokapū Akoranga Pūtaiao (University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato).

The VCE Biology Student Ethical Issue Reflection Tool is also a useful alternative or supplement to classroom discussion, in particular when a teacher would like to observe a student’s independent ethical thinking about an issue.

Approaches to bioethics

The three major approaches used in VCE Biology are consequences-based, duty and/or rule-based and virtues-based, see page 15 of the study design. These approaches aim to support students to identify bioethical issues, explore them in context, consider their different perspectives, reflect on courses of action and choose a position on the basis of reasoning and reflection.

Consequences-based approach

Guiding questions when applying or considering this approach may include:

  • Who or what is affected by this issue?
  • What are the possible benefits for those affected?
  • What are the possible harms for those affected?
  • Which option(s) will produce the most good and least harm?
  • If one is harmed and another benefits, how do you decide who or what matters most?
  • What action should be taken?

Duty- and/or rule-based approach

Guiding questions when applying or considering this approach may include:

  • Who or what is affected by this issue?
  • What duties (codes, laws, rules, principles or conventions) relate to this issue?
  • What action should be taken?

Virtues-based approach

Guiding questions when applying or considering this approach may include:

  • Who or what is affected by this issue?
  • What qualities make someone a ‘good’ or virtuous person?
  • What decisions or actions in relation to this issue would help make you a ‘good’ person?
  • Is virtue necessary to do ‘good’? Is it alone sufficient?
  • What actions do particular ‘good’ dispositions (for example, honesty, kindness, patience) suggest?
  • What action should be taken?
  • What personal qualities might be required to undertake this action (for example, courage)?

Ethical concepts

Teachers should note that ethical concepts and approaches are interrelated. For example, the consequences-based approach that considers the most benefit and the least harm involves the concept of beneficence, while beneficence can also be thought of as the virtue of benevolence. This interrelatedness means that students can produce insightful and thoughtful analysis and evaluation of bioethical issues through the consideration of ethical concepts alone, or by using one or more of the three approaches to bioethics alongside relevant ethical concepts.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge, cultures and history

Teachers are encouraged to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge and perspectives in the design and delivery of teaching and learning programs related to VCE Biology. VAEAI is the peak Koorie community organisation for education and training in Victoria. VAEAI has produced the Protocols for Koorie Education in Victorian schools to support teachers and students to learn about local, regional, state, national and international Indigenous perspectives.

VAEAI also provides Cultural Understanding and Safety Training (CUST) professional learning and resources for teachers to undertake when considering how they may best include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives in VCE Biology.

Lisa Daly from Cultural Minds also provides some useful advice when considering how to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives in VCE Biology, in particular noting that:

‘… It is important to understand there is a distinct difference between teaching Aboriginal culture and teaching about Aboriginal culture. It is not appropriate for a non-Aboriginal person to teach Aboriginal culture, that is the traditional or sacred knowledge and systems belonging to Aboriginal people. For these kinds of teaching and learning experiences it is essential to consult and collaborate with members of your local Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community. It is appropriate, however, for a non-Aboriginal person to teach about Indigenous Australia, its history and its people in much the same way as a teacher of non-German heritage might teach about Germany, its history and its people … As teachers, the onus is on us to learn about Indigenous Australia, in just the same way we inform ourselves about any other subject we teach …’

Other resources when considering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives:

Aboriginal Victoria, Culture Victoria, Museums Victoria, Australian National Herbarium, Department of Environment, Water, Land and Planning (DEWLP)  and Forest Fire Management Victoria, ABC Science, and NITV

There will also be Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander knowledge, culture and perspectives that are appropriate to include and consider from other states in terms of a national Australian context, or other Indigenous perspectives from other countries that are appropriate from an international context.  

A range of suggested activities that incorporate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives have also been provided for Units 1–4 under Teaching and learning.

Data and measurement

Drawing evidence-based conclusions and evaluating claims involves the analysis of data and identification of sources of uncertainty and possible bias.

Students should be aware of possible bias when designing investigations or evaluating the investigations of others. Bias attributable to the investigation, sample, method or instrument may not always be completely avoidable, but students should consider possible sources of bias and how bias is likely to influence evidence.

The ‘Terms used in this study’ section of the study design (pages 14–17) defines important measurement terms. These terms relate to student investigations as well as to evaluations of others’ investigations and scientific claims presented in the public domain. While these terms are consistent with the terminology used by scientists, they are adapted (i.e. simplified without deviation from internationally agreed definitions) for VCE Biology.

The main reference sources are International Vocabulary of Metrology – Basic and general concepts and associated terms, VIM, 3rd edition, JCGM 200:2008, and Evaluation of measurement data - Guide to the expression of Uncertainty in Measurement.

Measurement terms related to the analysis and evaluation of quantitative data are defined on pages 14–15 of the study design. Students are expected to apply measurement terms to the analysis, interpretation and evaluation of their own and others’ investigation data. Unpacking the terminology for VCE Biology – Data and Measurement provides further advice and examples.

Processing and evaluation of data

In processing, evaluating and discussing their own and others’ data VCE Biology students may be required to:

  • distinguish between qualitative and quantitative data, and between primary and secondary data
  • use a calculator for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, and to calculate and recognise ratios, percentages, percentage change and mean
  • understand the use of decimal places and rounding to the nearest quoted decimal place
  • recognise and use numbers in decimal and standard form
  • understand and use the prefixes: giga (G), mega (M), kilo (k), centi (c), milli (m), micro (μ), nano (n)
  • understand and use units of concentration including grams per litre (g L-1), parts per million (ppm), parts per billion (ppb) and parts per trillion (ppt)
  • interpret negative numbers in calculations
  • make estimations of the results of calculations
  • select and use the most appropriate units for recording data and the results of calculations
  • record data in a suitable table, with appropriate units in the row or column headings
  • record data from experiments to an appropriate and consistent precision
  • translate information between graphical and numerical forms
  • construct and interpret diagrammatic representations of data, including pie charts, line graphs, scatter graphs and bar charts, using both technology and hand-drawing (with a 2B lead pencil)
  • recognise and use the most appropriate form of diagrammatic representation of data
  • record and interpret tally charts, and transform information into other forms of data presentation
  • plot scatter diagrams to determine whether there is a correlation between two variables, and distinguish between a positive correlation, a negative correlation and no correlation
  • understand the difference between correlation and causation and that a correlation does not necessarily imply a causative relationship
  • understand the concept of representative sampling.

Representation of data

To explain the relationship between two or more variables investigated in an experiment, data is presented in such a way as to make any patterns and trends more evident. In drawing conclusions, students examine patterns, trends and relationships between variables with the limitations of the data, methodology and method in mind. Conclusions drawn from data must be limited by, and not go beyond, the data available.

Tabular presentation of data

  • Each column of a table should be headed with the physical quantity and the appropriate unit, for example, time (seconds).
  • The column headings of the table can then be directly transferred to the axes of a constructed graph.

Graphical representation of data

Although tables are an effective means of recording data, they may not be the best way to show trends, patterns or relationships. Graphical representations can be used to more clearly show whether any trends, patterns or relationships exist.

The type of graphical representation used by students will depend on the type of scientific investigation methodology and the type of variables investigated:

  • pie graphs and bar charts can be used to display data in which one of the variables is categorical
  • scattergrams can be used to show an association between two variables
  • line graphs can be used to display data in which both the independent and dependent variables are continuous
  • lines, or curves, of best fit can be used to illustrate the underlying relationship between variables
  • sketch graphs (not necessarily on a grid; no plotted points; labelled axes but not necessarily scaled) can be used to show the general shape of the relationship between two variables.

When drawing graphs, students note that:

  • pie charts should be drawn with the sectors in rank order, largest first, beginning at ‘noon’ and proceeding clockwise
  • pie charts should preferably contain no more than six sectors
  • bar charts should be drawn when one of the variables is not numerical
  • bar charts should be made up of narrow blocks of equal width that do not touch
  • common types of relationships in environmental science include linear, non-linear and cyclic patterns
  • not all experiments will show a correlation between variables; it is possible that another variable causes them both or the correlation may be attributable to chance alone
  • the existence of a correlation does not necessarily establish that there is a causal relationship between two variables
  • unless instructed otherwise, or unless other conventions or usefulness apply, the independent variable should be plotted on the x-axis (horizontal axis) while the dependent variable should be plotted on the y-axis (vertical axis)
  • all graphs should have a title that includes reference to the independent and dependent variables
  • all graph axes should be labelled with the physical quantity and the appropriate unit, for example, time (seconds)
  • the scales for the axes should be appropriately spaced to allow more than half of the graph grid to be used in both directions
  • points on a graph should be clearly marked: students may use crosses (×), dots (Ÿ) or circled dots (¤)
  • a line of best fit (trend line) should be a single, thin, smooth straight line or curve and does not need to coincide exactly with any of the points; a roughly even distribution of points either side of the line over its entire length should be drawn
  • points that are clearly anomalous should be further investigated in order to ethically deal with data; if possible, the experiment to generate the data point should be repeated
  • graphs should not be forced through (0, 0) even if this is a data point.


Practical work

Practical work is a central component of learning and assessment in each unit. Practical activities may be used to introduce and consolidate understanding of a biological concept and to develop scientific skills. Practical activities may also be used to develop assessment tasks such as the production of a scientific report or poster based on logbook records, reflective annotations from a logbook of practical activities and the analysis of data/results including appropriate graphical representations and formulation of generalisations and conclusions. They also provide an important opportunity to develop 21st-century transferrable skills and capabilities, with post-secondary educational institutions and future employers looking for critical thinkers who can process and understand data and problem-solve.

A ‘practical activity’ refers to any teaching and learning activity which, at some point, involves students in observing or manipulating the objects and materials they are exploring. The observation or manipulation of objects might take place in a school laboratory but could also occur in out-of-school settings such as the student’s home or in the field. Practical activities are not limited to experiments, as this is often relates to the testing of a prior hypothesis. While some practical work is of this form, other examples are not. The methodologies listed on pages 9 and 10 of the VCE Biology Study Design include those that provide opportunities for practical work across Units 1–4 specifically: classification and identification; controlled experiments; correlational studies; fieldwork; modelling; product, process or system development; and simulations.

The VCE Biology Study Design does not specify the methodologies, methods or materials required to complete practical activities in each Area of Study since each school has a unique resourcing capacity. In addition, different methodologies may best suit the key knowledge and relevant key skills in each areas of study; therefore, teachers should use the flexibility afforded in the study design to decide when students will develop, use and demonstrate their understanding of each of the scientific investigation methodologies.

Simulations, remote experiments and virtual experiments may be used as the basis for experiments where physical resources (for example, equipment, facilities or access to appropriate sites) are limited. Students may also be provided with sample experimental data, where physical resources are not available, so that students may represent the data in chart and/or graph form, analyse the results and report their conclusions.
As a guide, teachers should ensure that there is at least one practical activity for each sub-heading of key knowledge in each Area of Study.


While maintaining a logbook is standard scientific practice for recording primary data, for the purposes of VCE Biology the use of logbooks has been extended to include note-taking by students related to the collation of secondary data. This also assists teachers to authenticate and assess students’ work.

The presentation format of the logbook is a school decision and no specific format is prescribed. Its purposes may include:

  • providing a basis for further learning; for example, contributing to class discussions about demonstrations, activities or practical work
  • reporting on an experiment or activity
  • responding to questions in a practical worksheet or problem-solving exercise
  • writing up an experiment as a formal report or as the basis of a scientific poster.

Data contained in a student’s log book may be qualitative and/or quantitative and may include the results of guided activities or investigations; planning notes for experiments; results of student-designed activities or investigations; personal reflections made during or at the conclusion of demonstrations, activities or investigations; simple observations made in short class activities; links to spreadsheet calculations and other student digital records and presentations; notes and electronic or other images taken on excursions; database extracts; web-based investigations and research, including online communications and results of simulations; surveys; interviews; and notes of any additional or supplementary work completed outside class.

The logbook may be maintained in hard copy or electronic format; however, it is noted that standard scientific practice is to maintain a hardcopy logbook to avoid falsification and/or alternation of results. All logbook entries must be dated and in chronological order. Investigation partners, expert advice and assistance, and secondary data sources must be acknowledged and/or referenced.

For Unit 4 Area of Study 3, the student’s logbook entries are assessed as well as their scientific poster.
For more information and advice regarding the assessment of Unit 4 Outcome 3, see Assessment.

Employability skills

The VCE Biology study provides students with the opportunity to engage in a range of learning activities. In addition to demonstrating their understanding and mastery of the content and skills specific to the study, students may also develop employability skills through their learning activities.

The nationally agreed employability skills* are: Communication; Planning and organising; Teamwork; Problem solving; Self-management; Initiative and enterprise; Technology; and Learning.

The table links those facets that may be understood and applied in a school or non-employment-related setting to the types of assessment commonly undertaken in the VCE study.
Assessment taskEmployability skills selected facets

Analysis and evaluation of a selected biological case study

Initiative and enterprise (identifying opportunities not obvious to others; being creative; generating a range of options; translating ideas into action)
Planning and organising (collecting, analysing and organising information)
Problem solving (developing practical situations; showing independence and initiative in identifying problems and solving them)
Technology (having a range of basic IT skills; using IT to organise data)
Communication (reading and interpreting documentation; using numeracy effectively; sharing information; Speaking clearly and directly; writing to the needs of the audience)

Analysis and evaluation of generated primary and/or secondary data

Planning and organising (being resourceful; collecting, analysing and organising information)
Problem solving (developing practical situations; showing independence and initiative in identifying problems and solving them)
Self-management (evaluating and monitoring own performance; taking responsibility; having knowledge and confidence in own vision and goals; articulating own ideas and vision)
Technology (having a range of basic IT skills; using IT to organise data)
Communication (reading and interpreting documentation; using numeracy effectively; sharing information; persuading effectively)

Comparison and evaluation of biological concepts, methodologies and methods, and findings from three student practical investigations

Planning and organising (being resourceful; collecting, analysing and organising information)
Problem solving (developing practical situations; showing independence and initiative in identifying problems and solving them)
Self-management (evaluating and monitoring own performance; taking responsibility; having knowledge and confidence in own vision and goals; articulating own ideas and vision)
Technology (having a range of basic IT skills; using IT to organise data)
Communication (reading and interpreting documentation; using numeracy effectively; sharing information)

Analysis and evaluation of a contemporary bioethical issue

Planning and organising (collecting, analysing and organising information)
Initiative and enterprise (identifying opportunities not obvious to others; being creative; generating a range of options; translating ideas into action)
Problem solving (showing independence and initiative in identifying problems; testing assumptions taking the context of data and circumstances into account)
Technology (having a range of basic IT skills)
Communication (reading and interpreting documentation; writing to the needs of the audience; empathising; persuading effectively)

Communication of the design, analysis and findings of a student-designed and student-conducted scientific investigation through a structured scientific poster and logbook entries

Planning and organising (managing time and priorities; collecting, analysing and organising information; planning the use of resources including time management; adapting resource allocations to cope with contingencies; implementing contingency plans; developing a vision and a proactive plan to accompany it)
Self-management (evaluating and monitoring own performance; taking responsibility; having knowledge and confidence in own vision and goals; articulating own ideas and vision)
Initiative and enterprise (translating ideas into action; implementing contingency plans)
Problem solving (showing independence and initiative in identifying problems and solving them; testing assumptions, taking the context of data and circumstances into account)
Communication (sharing information; using numeracy effectively; writing to the needs of the audience; persuading effectively)
Learning (being open to new ideas and change)
Technology (Using IT to organise data; applying IT as a management tool)

*The employability skills are derived from the Employability Skills Framework (Employability Skills for the Future, 2002), developed by the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Business Council of Australia, and published by the (former) Commonwealth Department of Education, Science and Training.

Scientific investigations

Investigations are integral to the study of VCE Biology across Units 1–4. Some of these investigations will be designed by students. A scientific inquiry approach involves asking or responding to a question and then performing and reporting findings in response to the question. In any investigation, primary data may be generated and/or secondary data collated to test hypotheses, predictions and ideas; to look for patterns, trends and relationships in data; and to draw evidence-based conclusions.

Students may work individually or as part of a group or class to complete an activity but findings, analysis and conclusions should be reported individually. If optional assessment tasks are used to cater for different student interests, teachers must ensure that they are comparable in scope and demand.

Scientific inquiry approach

The VCE Biology Study Design is structured as a series of curriculum-framing questions that reflect the inquiry nature of the discipline. These questions are open-ended to enable students to engage in critical and creative thinking about the biological concepts identified in the key knowledge and to encourage students to ask their own questions about what they are learning. In responding to these questions, students demonstrate their own conceptual links and the relevance of different concepts to practical applications.

Using a scientific inquiry approach enables students to:

  • engage with science-based questions
  • prioritise evidence in responding to questions
  • formulate explanations from evidence
  • connect explanations to scientific knowledge
  • communicate and justify explanations.

Teachers are advised to use the flexibility provided by the structure of the study design in the choice of contexts (both local and global) and applications for enabling students to work scientifically and answer questions. Opportunities range from the entire class studying a particular context or application chosen by the teacher or agreed to by the class, through to students nominating their own choice of scenarios, research, case studies, fieldwork activities or bioethical issues.

At the end of a unit or on completion of an outcome, students should be able to respond to the relevant curriculum framework questions. Teachers may consider using these as the basis for an assessment task.

Unit 1 Area of Study 3, Unit 2 Area of Study 3 and Unit 4 Area of Study 3 enable students to demonstrate their learning through scientific inquiry. Students may undertake scientific inquiry individually or as part of a group or class to complete an inquiry but work submitted for assessment must be assessed individually. If optional assessment tasks are used to cater for different student interests, teachers must ensure that they are comparable in scope and demand.

Levels of student independence in scientific inquiry

Scientific inquiry can be scaffolded to support students in developing key science skills. The level of scaffolding and support provided to students when choosing teaching approaches that focus on scientific inquiry depends on the type of scientific inquiry selected and students’ level of experience in designing and undertaking scientific investigations.

Five different types of scientific inquiry can be used.

  • A confirmation/prescription inquiry involves students confirming a principle through an activity when the results are known in advance; students are provided with the question, method and results, and are required to confirm that the results are correct.
  • In a structured inquiry the students investigate a teacher-presented question through a prescribed procedure; students generate an explanation supported by the evidence they have collected.
  • In a guided inquiry the teacher chooses the question for investigation; students work in one large group or several small groups to work with the teacher to decide how to proceed with the investigation. This type of inquiry facilitates the teaching of specific skills needed for future open-inquiry investigations. The solution to the guided inquiry should not be predictable.
  • A coupled inquiry combines a guided-inquiry investigation with an open-inquiry investigation: the teacher chooses an initial question to investigate as a guided inquiry and students then build on the guided inquiry to develop an extension or linked investigation in a more student-centered open inquiry approach.
  • An open inquiry most closely mirrors scientists' actual work and is a student-centered approach that begins with a student's question, followed by the student (or groups of students) designing and conducting an investigation or experiment and communicating results. 
This table describes the type of inquiry in relation to problem or question, procedure and solution
Type of inquiryProblem or QuestionProcedureSolution
Confirmation/ prescriptionTeacherTeacherTeacher
Coupled (linked to an earlier inquiry)Initial: Teacher
Coupled: Student


Scientific investigation methodologies

As well as being able to remember and understand biological concepts, applying concepts in complex or new ways is an important aspect of learning in VCE Biology. When students are engaged in their learning through practical work that evokes conceptual learning, critical and creative thinking and/or ethical understanding, they are more likely to understand and apply concepts in meaningful ways.

The principles of fair testing through controlled experiments are important in science, but may not always enable students to understand scientific ideas or concepts, answer their questions or appreciate how scientists work or the nature of science. At this level, different scientific investigation methodologies and/or practical activities that generate primary data may instead be used.

Common to different scientific investigation methodologies and practical activities are three key aspects that are central to the study design's inquiry focus:

  • asking questions
  • testing ideas
  • using evidence.

Teachers are encouraged to include a range of scientific investigation methodologies and associated practical activities in their teaching and learning programs across Units 1–4. As a guide, teachers should ensure that there is at least one practical activity for each sub-heading of key knowledge in each Area of Study. Practical activities may be used to introduce and/or consolidate understanding of a particular methodology, biological concept or to develop related scientific skills.

Some scientific investigation methodologies may lend themselves more readily to particular key knowledge and key science skills in VCE Biology. Examples of teaching and learning activities that use different scientific methodologies have been identified for each unit in the Teaching and Learning activities.

Designing investigations

Scientific investigations are integral to the study of VCE Biology across Units 1–4 and teachers should ensure that students are provided with opportunities to undertake each of the scientific investigation methodologies across both Units 1–2 and Units 3 –4. The choice of scientific investigation methodology will be determined by the question under investigation. There should be congruence between the question under investigation and the chosen methodology. The selected method and associated data collection techniques should also be congruent with the chosen methodology.

Scientific investigation phases

The following diagram represents a general process for undertaking scientific investigations:

Investigation exploration phase – selecting a suitable topic

The selection of a suitable topic for investigation may be initiated in a number of ways, and the subsequent construction of a question or hypothesis for investigation, may be initiated in a number of ways including:

  • from brainstorming
  • through direct observation of, and curiosity about, an object, event, phenomenon, practical problem or technological development
  • as a result of anomalous or surprising investigation results
  • as an extension of a previous inquiry
  • from analysis of qualitative and/or quantitative data
  • from research involving secondary data
  • teachers providing a generic question that is refined by students
  • teachers scaffolding the development of an appropriate testable hypothesis that students can adapt and investigate, where the level of scaffolding will be dependent on student experience in scientific inquiry.

In selecting a question or hypothesis for investigation, students may undertake relevant background reading or refer to previous investigations. Students should reference sources and provide appropriate acknowledgments.

There is no mandated VCE style for writing a hypothesis, although many students are familiar with an ‘If … then … because…’ style of hypothesis formulation.

Teachers should ensure that students do not proceed with an investigation question or hypothesis that is not testable or is impractical to investigate in terms of time or resources.

Planning phase – determining the methodology and method

Prior to undertaking an investigation, students should produce a plan in their logbooks that:

  • outlines their reasons and interest in undertaking the investigation
  • defines the environmental science concepts involved
  • identifies the methodology
  • outlines the methods/techniques that will be used, including an investigation procedure and risk management for the investigation  
  • lists the materials and equipment required
  • identifies and suggests how potential safety risks and anticipated problems can be managed
  • outlines any ethical issues.

Students may also make predictions about investigation outcomes based on their existing knowledge and prior experiences.

Depending on the type of scientific inquiry, teachers may choose to model and/or guide students to complete any of the above aspects of investigation planning. Teachers should ensure that proposed investigations have an appropriate methodology and method. In some cases, modifications to the investigation plan may be required, or students may be directed to reconsider their original investigation question or hypothesis.

Investigation phase – testing ideas

In the investigation, students will generate primary or collate secondary qualitative and/or quantitative data as evidence. Data can be derived from a number of sources including observations, laboratory experimentation, fieldwork, simulations, trials of designed and constructed artefacts, and local and/or global databases. During the investigation phase students should note any difficulties or problems encountered in generating and/or collating data. Data that is relevant to the investigation should be recorded in a form that enables subsequent interpretation, analysis and evaluation.

Depending on the type of scientific inquiry, teachers may choose to model and/or guide students to generate primary and/or collate secondary qualitative and/or quantitative data as evidence. In some cases, insufficient – or no – data may be obtained by students; for example, in investigations of the effects of different saline concentrations on plant seedlings where all concentrations are lethal to the seedlings and no growth is observed. The students may be directed back to revise their investigation plan or, if time does not permit, they may access other student data, or secondary data, relevant to their investigation.

Processing phase – using evidence

Analysis, interpretation and evaluation of investigation data may identify evidence of patterns, trends or relationships and may subsequently lead to an explanation of the environmental science question being investigated. For VCE Biology, the analysis of experimental data requires consideration of:

  • accuracy, precision, repeatability, reproducibility, true value and validity of measurements and experiments (see pages 14–15 of the study design under ‘Data and measurement’)
  • errors, uncertainty and the treatment of outliers (see pages 16–17 of the study design under ‘Errors, uncertainty and outliers’)

Students consider the data generated and/or collated and make inferences from the data, report mistakes or problems encountered and how they were managed, and use evidence to answer the investigation question. They consider how appropriate their data is in a given context, evaluate the validity of the data and make reference to its repeatability and/or reproducibility. Uncertainties in measurements, including random and/or systematic errors and the treatment of any outliers in a set of data, should be identified and explained.

For a scientific investigation where a hypothesis has been formulated, interpretation of the evidence will either support the hypothesis or refute it.

For investigations that include a prediction, students should comment on how their prediction compared with their results and attempt to account for differences.

In reaching a conclusion to an investigation question, students should identify any judgments and decisions that are not based on the evidence alone but involve broader environmental, social, political, economic and/or ethical factors.

Reporting phase – sharing findings

When recording data and reporting findings, students should use correct scientific language and conventions, including the use of technical terms, standard notation and SI units.

The initial phases of the investigation (question construction, planning, investigation, analysis and evaluation) are recorded in the student logbook. The report of the investigation can take various forms including a written scientific report, a scientific poster or an oral or multimodal presentation of the investigation findings.

Students should also be mindful of the audience for their communication. In general, students should write to an audience of their class peers.

Further investigation phase – new directions

While some investigations may provide answers to questions of interest, others may lead the student to revising their original hypothesis or developing a new one. Almost all scientific investigations can lead to the generation of new questions that may be investigated as an extension of the original question or as a novel question that may require different methodologies, methods and/or techniques to be applied. The student-designed investigations in Unit 1 Area of Study 3 and Unit 4 Area of Study 3 may be developed or adapted from previously completed investigations (coupled investigations).

Student-designed investigations

Depending on the outcome, some scientific investigations will be student-designed and/or adapted by students. Teachers must approve all student investigations to be undertaken. Not all planned student investigations can proceed due to issues including safety, equipment availability, time constraints and/or management of large student numbers.

Due to the potential scope of scientific investigations, students must be practical and realistic when deciding on investigation topics. Teachers need to be equally pragmatic when counselling students about their choice of research topic and when guiding them in the formulation of the research question. Appropriate teacher intervention not only minimises risks but also serves as important feedback for students. Schools should have in place approval mechanisms, either through ethics committees or approval authorities within the school, to ensure that students undertake appropriate research.

For further advice about the management and scope of the student-designed practical investigations in Unit 1 Area of Study 3 and Unit 4 Area of Study 3, refer to Assessment.

Scientific poster

Scientific posters are widely used in academia, research and in the general scientific community as a visual means of communicating the outcomes of scientific investigations. They are not designed to simply replicate a scientific report in that they provide a different means by which science information is communicated, particularly to peers and the school community. Teachers may elect to include the requirement for an oral presentation to accompany a scientific poster.

Scientific poster sections

Scientific poster sections (see page 11 of the study design), specifically the communication statement reporting the key finding of the investigation as a one-sentence summary, title, introduction, methodology and methods, results, discussion, conclusions, references and acknowledgments, are mandated for the scientific poster that is constructed as part of Unit 4 Outcome 3. Within the mandated sections, some tailoring of organisational elements is optional.

Scientific poster templates may be used provided that the mandated poster sections are included. The use of a template can help minimise many common communication faults by keeping column alignments logical, including mandated sub-headings that provide clear cues as to how readers should travel through poster elements, and maintaining sufficient 'white space' so that clutter is reduced.

There is no mandated VCAA style for the use of person or voice in writing a scientific poster, since the scientific community has not reached a consensus about which style it prefers. Increasingly, using first person (rather than third person) and active (rather than passive) voice is acceptable in scientific reports, because arguably this style of writing conveys information more clearly and concisely. However, this choice of person and voice brings two scientific values into conflict – objectivity versus clarity – which may account for the different viewpoints in the scientific community. A useful principle in the context of VCE Biology would be to use past tense when describing something that has already happened and present tense when describing something that still exists.

The 600-word limit for the scientific poster requires that students carefully consider what should be included to ensure effective science communication. Teachers may assess some components of the investigation through logbook entries, particularly some of the background information, data manipulation and discussion of results. Poster title, student name/identification number, tables, graphs, flowcharts, figure captions, references and acknowledgements are not included in the poster word count.

Further consideration of the new poster format for Unit 4 Outcome 3 in the VCE Biology Study Design 2022–2026 can be found at: How to create a better research poster in less time (#betterposter Generation 1) - YouTube

Design principles for scientific posters

Key design principles for effective scientific poster communication for the purposes of VCE Biology include:

  • logical sequencing and easy identification on the poster of the hypothesis or question, aim and conclusion, and other key parts of the investigation
  • inclusion of only the essential details for conveying what was done in the investigation and what was discovered (for example, only the key aspects of an experimental procedure should be outlined)
  • use of a range of visual aids (for example, tables, photographs, diagrams and graphs) to reduce the amount of text required and to avoid overcrowding of the poster
  • use of font, font size and colours that will be easily read by all those viewing the poster
  • careful editing of text – terminology and spelling should be checked; wording should be simplified; acronyms should be defined; and phrases or bullet points, rather than sentences, should be used. A test is that others with little or no background in the area under investigation should be able to understand the language and identify the key points of the investigation
  • clear labelling of all images (for example, diagrams or photographs of the experimental set-up or results)
  • graphs drawn with clear, relevant scales, grids, labels and annotations
  • editing of graphs derived directly from spreadsheet programs so that graphs do not have coloured backgrounds, grid lines, or boxes and that, in cases where multiple graphs are shown on the same set of axes, each graph is labelled rather than requiring a reader to use a key
  • axis labels formatted in sentence case (Not in Title Case and NOT IN ALL CAPS)
  • calculations presented in a clear, non-repetitive manner (for example, one sample calculation can be shown and then the results of similar calculations can be displayed in a table) and appropriate units must be shown
  • all references stated and appropriate acknowledgments provided.

Frequently asked questions

Frequently asked questions (June 2022)
A set of frequently asked questions for the VCE Biology Study Design Units 1-4: 2022-2026.