Six mark questions

Six mark questions are often the questions that people find the most difficult. In all longer answer questions, but especially the six mark ones, it is important that you plan your answer and not just rush into it. After all, you would plan an essay or short story before starting. Without a plan it is easy to stray away from the key point and loose marks, get steps in a process in the wrong order or forget key bits of information. Remember to write your answer in full sentences, not bullet points.

Six mark questions will start with command words such as 'describe' 'evaluate' or 'explain'.

Some command words are easy to understand such as:

  • 'calculate' or 'determine' for maths questions
  • 'choose' for multiple-choice questions
  • 'complete' to fill in a gap in a table or graph
  • 'define' to give the meaning of an important word
  • 'suggest' where you use your knowledge in an unfamiliar situation

The command words 'describe' and 'explain' can be confusing. If you are asked to describe a graph, you will be expected to write about its overall shape, whether it is linear or curved, the slope of gradients etc. If you are asked to explain why a pattern or trend is seen in a graph, you will be expected to use your science knowledge, not just say what you see (which is a description), eg The graph shows the pH of milk decreases. It does this because…

Explain how and why questions often have the word 'because' in their answer. Describe questions don't.

The number of marks per question part is given in this form '[6 marks]'. It is essential that you give as many different points in your answer as possible (ideally six).

The examiner looks for a 'level of response' in six mark questions. If you list some simple statements without a logical structure you will be limited to a maximum of two marks. A better answer for four marks would demonstrate your understanding, but may miss some details. Only answers that have a logical sequence with relevant detail would achieve six marks.

Sample question 1 - Foundation


An unfounded report stating that the MMR vaccine was a danger to health was published in 2004. After the report was published many parents decided not to have their children vaccinated against MMR. This resulted in an increase in the number of cases of mumps, measles and rubella, as follows:

DateNumber of cases
Jan 2007 - Jan 2008990
Jan 2008 - Nov 20081217

In some countries, vaccination of school children is compulsory.

Suggest reasons for and against compulsory vaccination. [6 marks]

  • Vaccination would protect large numbers of people.
  • Vaccination would prevent epidemics.
  • If the population is vaccinated it protects the younger generation who have not yet been vaccinated.
  • Vaccinations can eliminate certain diseases (eg smallpox).
  • Compulsory vaccination can be viewed as against basic rights of a free society to choose.
  • Vaccination is against certain religions.

Sample question 2 - Foundation


Evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of the following treatments for cardiovascular disease:

  • statins
  • angioplasty
  • changes to lifestyle diet/exercise [6 marks]

Remember to include an evaluation of all three points in your answer.

  • Statins - a daily medication to control blood cholesterol levels. [1]
  • They reduce blood cholesterol levels but may cause side effects. [1]
  • Angioplasty - surgery to insert a small balloon into a blood vessel which is then inflated to remove a blockage. [1]
  • Improved blood flow in coronary vessels preventing heart attack but is sometimes only a temporary measure. [1]
  • Changes to lifestyle - diet and exercise, stopping smoking. [1]
  • Reduces risk of heart disease and reduces blood pressure but a high level of willpower is required to maintain the changes. [1]

Award one mark for a correct evaluation of each of the three points in the question.

Sample question 3 - Higher


Describe different ways plant diseases can be detected and identified, in the lab and in the field.

  • In the field, diseased plants can be identified by abnormal growth.
  • Changes in the colours of leaves.
  • Signs of the disease-causing organism, such as bacterial slime.
  • Presence of eggs of insects.
  • In the laboratory, pathogens can be grown on agar plates.
  • Viruses can be cultured in controlled conditions.