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 lose 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


Explain why a plant will wilt if not watered. [6 marks]

This question has been written by a Bitesize consultant as a suggestion to the type of question that may appear in an exam paper.

The following is a list of valid points that should be included in your answer. It is important that you do not bullet point them, but link your ideas together:

  • water enters plant cells by osmosis [1]
  • when a plant is well-watered, the cells are turgid [1]
  • when a plant isn't watered, it will lose water, as water will diffuse from the cells [1]
  • as water concentration is now lower outside the cell [1]
  • cells will lose their turgidity/become plasmolysed [1]
  • the cell contents are no longer pushing against the cell wall - the cells will become flaccid and the plant will wilt [1]

Sample question 2 - Foundation


Describe and explain how blood in the right ventricle travels to the left atrium. [6 marks]

Question courtesy of Eduqas.

The following is a list of valid points that should be included in your answer. It is important that you do not list them, but link your ideas together:

  1. the muscle of the right ventricle contracts [1]
  2. pumps blood through the valves of the pulmonary artery [1]
  3. into the lungs [1]
  4. blood then leaves the lungs [1]
  5. passing into the pulmonary vein [1]
  6. re-entering the heart in the left atrium [1]

In this case it is important to begin the description where the questions states, and also to stop describing circulation as stated in the question. Too much information which is not relevant to the question will cost you marks.

Sample question 3 - Higher


A student used red blood cells to carry out an investigation into cell membranes. Red blood cells were placed in salt solutions at three different concentrations. A sample of red blood cells was then removed from each concentration and placed on a microscope slide. The cells were viewed using a microscope for a period of time.

Concentration of salt solution (%)Observation of red blood cells
0.0swell and burst
0.9remain the same size
3.0smaller and shriveled

Explain the observations shown in the table. [6 marks]

Question courtesy of Eduqas.

The correct explanation for concentrations includes:

  • 0.0% - water passes in from where it is in high concentration/water potential [1] to where it is in low concentration/water potential [1] via semipermeable membrane [1]
  • 0.9% - water passes in and out at the same rate [1]
  • 3.0% - correct explanation for decrease in size, for example opposite to explanation for 0.0% [1]
  • a correct comment on bursting or shriveling, for example at extremes of concentration range and how that would affect the membrane [1]

To achieve the top marks, you must have the correct explanations for the three concentrations.