The Course


Biology is an exciting and rapidly developing subject, with many applications in fields as diverse as conservation biology and molecular genetics. The study of living things has undergone tremendous expansion in recent years, and topics such as cellular and molecular biology,  evolutionary biology and ecology are advancing rapidly.

These developments will have a tremendous impact on society, in areas such as medicine, the environment and agriculture. The rapid expansion has been accompanied by a blurring of the distinctions between disciplines: a biologist with an interest in tropical plants may well use many of the tools and techniques required by a molecular geneticist.

The Course

Biology is a single honours degree course taught jointly by the Departments of Plant Sciences and Zoology. Many UK universities offer excellent Biology courses. We firmly believe that we are one of the best, and that we have many features that combine to produce a “value added factor” which is hard to beat. Oxford is the oldest university in the country and the sheer quantity and quality of libraries, museums, reference collections and societies (scientific, sporting or just odd) is arguably unsurpassed.

All students belong to a college with at least one dedicated biology tutor. The college system provides an immense amount of care, support, encouragement and sense of belonging. The opportunity to work in small groups alongside the departmental teaching helps to build student confidence and fosters strong relationships between staff and students.

In Oxford, we encourage you to develop your own ideas by reading the research literature as well as text books.  As you progress to second and third year, there is an increasing emphasis on independent thinking and you will hone your critical skills through small group discussions of key scientific papers.

Biology at Oxford now incorporates an optional fourth-year, so students can leave after three years with a BA or after four years with an MBiol. Progression to the MBiol is contingent on satisfactory academic performance in the first three years. The fourth year consists of an extended project, which can be lab or field based, plus advanced research skills training.


BA/ MBiol Biology (C100)

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You will spend the first year encountering the full range of biology, developing an understanding of the integration between the levels and discovering, perhaps to your surprise, the similarities of some of the laws governing interactions between molecules, cells, individuals and populations. For many, the transition from A level (or equivalent) to first year university biology is a surprise which takes some coming to terms with. However, we have designed a three-week orientation period which will help you to make a smoother transition. During the orientation, you will be introduced to the course and we will focus on a few key fundamental topics which underpin most of biology, such as Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. You will also be introduced to the scientific method and can begin thinking – what does it take to be a modern biologist?

All topics in the first year are compulsory, to provide you with a broad and solid background for further specialised study. The first-year lectures are comprised of three themes, which are woven together to tell a compelling integrated narrative of the history of life and highlighting major evolutionary events. The three themes are:

(1) Diversity of Life;

(2) How to Build a Phenotype;

(3) Ecology & Evolution.

Alongside the lectures, there is compulsory skills training that provides the research skills relevant to modern biology. In the first year, skills training includes dissections as part of the Organisms module. You will also attend a week long field course in Wales in the summer term - watch the video here.



Paper 1: Factual and core conceptual content examined via multiple choice (30%).

Paper 2: Essay paper to assess synthesis skills. Students will write four essays. They must select at least one from a choice of three in each of the four blocks. (30%).

Paper 3: Research Skills paper. A mixture of short answers and quantitative questions to test knowledge of practicals in year 1; e.g. via labelling of diagrams, descriptions of protocols, calculations of rates etc. (30%).

Practical write-ups: Students will have to hand in four short practical write-ups (1500 words), one from each block, with deadlines spaced throughout the year. (10%)

In the second year there is greater specialisation and you can choose three of four themes:

(1) Genomes and Molecular Biology;

(2) Cell and Developmental Biology;

(3) Behaviour and Physiology of Organisms;

(4) Ecology and Evolution.

Research skills continue to be taught, and are compulsory. After the second-year exams, you will get a chance to develop enhanced research skills, through a range of longer extended skills training courses, that last for one or two weeks. Topics covered include: ecological fieldwork (in the UK and overseas), genome sequencing and genome editing. All overseas work requires financial contributions from the student.


Research Skills Training (First and Second Year)

Research skills training in years 1 and 2 is compulsory. Skills training is not necessarily linked to lectures, but will focus on providing practical skills relevant to modern biology, from the cellular and molecular to the ecological and taxonomic. It will also include quantitative skills, such as presentation and analysis of data.

To underline the importance of actually doing science, rather than just learning about it, all students will undertake their first mini-project in week 4 of their first term. Students will work in groups, under the guidance of a member of staff. They will be given a question to investigate, and asked to decide how they could best go about tackling it, and then collect some preliminary data to present to their colleagues.

Reports from some of the skills training sessions in years 1 and 2 will be collected and marked and will count towards formal assessment. The skills training will also be assessed through examination papers in years 1 and 2, where you might be asked to give details of experimental procedures, or undertake simple calculations.

Towards the end of year 1, all students attend a field course in Pembrokeshire, South Wales. This introduces students to several different habitats and allows them to improve their species ID skills and to use their quantitative skills to analyse data and present their findings.

In year 2, in Trinity Term, there is an opportunity to choose from a selection of extended skills training courses that are more specialist. There are two one-week courses and one two-week course on offer. Examples of courses that you might choose include: a one-week field course to Tenerife to study plant taxonomy; a one-week course on gene editing; a two-week course on cellular morphology, which includes electron microscopy; a two-week ecology field course to Borneo. The two-week course is written up in report form and submitted. This forms part of the FHS exams.

Please note that skills courses will change from time to time and that overseas work requires financial contributions from the student. We also cannot guarantee that all students will be offered their first-choice courses.



Paper 1: Essay paper. Students will write four essays from at least three themes to demonstrate synthesis and conceptual understanding. There will be a choice of three essays in each of the four themes (10% of BA).

Paper 2: Research Skills paper. A mixture of short answers and quantitative questions to test knowledge of skills training in year 2: e.g. understanding of protocols, calculations of rates, carrying out and interpreting statistical tests, interpreting R code etc under exam conditions (10% of BA).

Practical write-ups: Students will hand in two short practical write-ups (2000 words): one in Michaelmas term and one in Hilary. (10% of BA)

Coursework: the two-week advanced skills course will be written up in the style of a scientific report and submitted at the end of Trinity Term of second year (7.5% of BA).

In the third year, the course broadens into a choice of around eight options, from which students select four. Recent changes to the course structure have placed additional emphasis on emerging topics relevant to society such as GM crops, bio-fuels, stem cells and ageing. Skills training continues – this time in the form of learning how to engage with and critique a scientific paper.


Provisional modules are listed below:

  • Advances cell biology
  • Genome diversity and evolution
  • Animal behaviour and physiology
  • Ecosystems, conservation, sustainability
  • Green Grand Challenges
  • Advanced ecology and evolution
  • Evolution and development
  • Disease prediction and dynamics

Research Skills Training:

In year 3, we focus on understanding and engaging with the primary scientific literature. Regardless of which options are selected, there will be regular skills training in the form of a journal club, in which students learn how to engage critically with a scientific paper. This will prepare students for the final research skills paper in year 3, where they will have to read and critique a short scientific paper.

In year 3, all students also engage in two pieces of coursework that count towards their final assessment. For both, students will select a research topic that interests them, and research it in-depth. Students will critique the current state of play and make suggestions for how the research field might move forward. The two topics must be sufficiently different: one will be presented as a written report, and the second will be presented orally.



Paper 1: Synthetic Essay paper - students write four essays that require them to integrate conceptual ideas from across that option. Each essay must be from a different option. There will be a choice of two in each option. (15% of BA)

Paper 2: Applications Essay paper - students write four essays that require them to explain how research in their chosen area can contribute to applied challenges in that field. Each essay must be from a different option. There will be a choice of two in each option. (15% of BA)

Paper 3: Scientific paper critique: students read a short scientific paper (they can choose one theme in advance from four) and answer the same generalised questions: e.g. What are the hypotheses being tested and have the authors made them explicit? Are the methods appropriate for the question being answered? Suggest further experiments that could be done to support this work. (15% of BA)

Students will also be assessed on two coursework elements:

Coursework 1: During Michaelmas Term of third year, students will choose a research topic to synthesise and critique. This will be a structured piece of writing in which the students will select a suitable topic, synthesise the principle findings and comment on potential future research directions (10% of BA).

Coursework 2: During Hilary Term of third year, students will choose a topic on which to make a presentation. They will then present the current state of art in that area, highlight current shortcomings and suggest areas of future research. The topic chosen must be sufficiently different from that in Coursework 1 (7.5% of BA).

If you opt to stay for the fourth year, you get a chance to pursue an in-depth research project, under the supervision of an academic member of staff. Those who successfully complete the fourth year will leave with an MBiol. Progression to the MBiol is contingent on satisfactory academic performance in the first three years.

Research Skills Training:

Year 4 is optional and contingent on satisfactory academic performance in years 1 to 3. In year 4, there will be some advanced skills courses on analysis and scientific paper writing. The main occupation in year 4 is the completion of an extended independent research project, under the direction of an appropriate supervisor. There will also be a mini-conference in which all students have the opportunity to present their work to their peers.

As part of your course requirements, you must undertake a project. Please note that, depending on your choice of topic and the research required to complete it, you may incur additional expenses, such as travel expenses, research expenses, and field trips. You will need to meet these additional costs, although you may be able to apply for small grants from your department and/or college to help you cover some of these expenses. Standard travel insurance can be provided by the University. However, students may be required to pay any additional insurance premiums associated with travel to areas with an increased level of risk, and should factor this into their planning for fieldwork.