VCE Biology

This information is based on the study information provided by VCAA for the 2016-2021 Study Design.


VCE Biology enables students to investigate the processes involved in sustaining life at cellular, system, species and ecosystem levels. In undertaking this study, students examine how life has evolved over time and understand that in the dynamic and interconnected system of life all change has a consequence that may affect an individual, a species or the collective biodiversity of Earth. The study gives students insights into how knowledge of molecular and evolutionary concepts underpin much of contemporary biology, and the applications used by society to resolve problems and make advancements.

In VCE Biology students develop a range of inquiry skills involving practical experimentation and research, analytical skills including critical and creative thinking, and communication skills. Students use scientific and cognitive skills and understanding to analyse contemporary biology-related issues, and communicate their views from an informed position.

VCE Biology provides for continuing study pathways within the discipline and leads to a range of careers. Branches of biology include botany, genetics, immunology, microbiology, pharmacology and zoology. In addition, biology is applied in many fields of endeavour including biotechnology, dentistry, ecology, education, food science, forestry, health care, horticulture, medicine, optometry, physiotherapy and veterinary science. Biologists also work in cross-disciplinary areas such as bushfire research, environmental management and conservation, forensic science, geology, medical research and sports science.


This study is made up of four units:

  • Unit 1 – How do living things stay alive?
  • Unit 2 – How is continuity of life maintained?
  • Unit 3 – How do cells maintain life?
  • Unit 4 – How does life change and respond to challenges over time?

This study is structured under a series of curriculum framing questions that reflect the inquiry nature of the discipline.


There are no prerequisites for entry to Units 1, 2 and 3. Students must undertake Unit 3 prior to undertaking Unit 4. Students entering Unit 3 without Units 1 and/or 2 may be required to undertake additional preparation as prescribed by their teacher. Units 1 to 4 are designed to a standard equivalent to the final two years of secondary education

Unit 1 – How do living things stay alive?

In this unit students are introduced to some of the challenges to an organism in sustaining life. Students examine the cell as the structural and functional unit of life, from the single celled to the multicellular organism, and the requirements for sustaining cellular processes in terms of inputs and outputs. They analyse types of adaptations that enhance the organism’s survival in a particular environment and consider the role homeostatic mechanisms play in maintaining the internal environment. Students investigate how a diverse group of organisms form a living interconnected community that is adapted to, and utilises, the abiotic resources of its habitat. The role of a keystone

species in maintaining the structure of an ecosystem is explored. Students consider how the planet’s biodiversity is classified and the factors that affect the growth of a population.

A student practical investigation related to the survival of an organism or species is undertaken in Area of Study 3. The investigation draws on content from Area of Study 1 and/or Area of Study 2.

Unit 2 – How is continuity of life maintained?

In this unit students focus on cell reproduction and the transmission of biological information from generation to generation. Students learn that all cells are derived from pre-existing cells through the cell cycle. They examine the process of DNA replication and compare cell division in both prokaryotic and eukaryotic organisms. Students explore the mechanisms of asexual and sexual reproductive strategies, and consider the advantages and disadvantages of these two types of reproduction. The role of stem cells in the differentiation, growth, repair and replacement of cells in humans is examined, and their potential use in medical therapies is considered.

Students use chromosome theory and terminology from classical genetics to explain the inheritance of characteristics, analyse patterns of inheritance, interpret pedigree charts and predict outcomes of genetic crosses. They explore the relationship between genes, the environment and the regulation of genes in giving rise to phenotypes. They consider the role of genetic knowledge in decision making about the inheritance of autosomal dominant, autosomal recessive and sex-linked genetic conditions. In this context the uses of genetic screening and its social and ethical issues are examined.

A student-directed research investigation into, and communication of, an issue related to genetics and/or reproductive science is to be undertaken in Area of Study 3. The investigation draws on content from Area of Study 1 and/or Area of Study 2.


For this unit students are required to demonstrate achievement of three outcomes. As a set these outcomes encompass all areas of study. Suitable tasks for assessment may be selected from the following:

For Outcomes 1 and 2 (assessment may include)

  • a report of a fieldwork activity
  • annotations of a practical work folio of activities or investigations
  • a bioinformatics exercise
  • media response
  • data analysis
  • problem solving involving biological concepts, skills and/or issues
  • a reflective learning journal/blog related to selected activities or in response to an issue
  • a test comprising multiple choice and/or short answer and/or extended response.

For Outcome 3

  • a report of an investigation into genetics and/or reproductive science using an appropriate format, for example, digital presentation, oral communication or written report.

Unit 3 – How do cells maintain life?

In this unit students investigate the workings of the cell from several perspectives. They explore the importance of the insolubility of the plasma membrane in water and its differential permeability to specific solutes in defining the cell, its internal spaces and the control of the movement of molecules and ions in and out of such spaces. Students consider base pairing specificity, the binding of enzymes and substrates, the response of receptors to signalling molecules and reactions between antigens and antibodies to highlight the importance of molecular interactions based on the complementary nature of specific molecules.

Students study the synthesis, structure and function of nucleic acids and proteins as key molecules in cellular processes. They explore the chemistry of cells by examining the nature of biochemical pathways, their components and energy transformations. Cells communicate with each other using a variety of signalling molecules. Students consider the types of signals, the transduction of information within the cell and cellular responses. At this molecular level, students study the human immune system and the interactions between its components to provide immunity to a specific antigen.


School-assessed Coursework for Unit 3 will contribute 16% to the study score.

Outcome 1 – 50 marks

Explain the dynamic nature of the cell in terms of key cellular processes including regulation, photosynthesis and cellular respiration, and analyse factors that affect the rate of biochemical reactions.

  • A report related to at least two practical activities from a practical logbook. The assessment task may be written or multimodal. (approximately 50 minutes or not exceeding 1000 words)

Outcome 2 – 50 marks

Apply a stimulus-response model to explain how cells communicate with each other, outline human responses to invading pathogens, distinguish between the different ways that immunity may be acquired, and explain how malfunctions of the immune system cause disease.

At least one task selected from:

  • a report of a practical activity
  • annotations of activities or investigations from a practical logbook
  • a graphic organiser
  • a bioinformatics exercise
  • an evaluation of research
  • media response
  • data analysis
  • a response to a set of structured questions
  • problem solving involving biological concepts, skills and/or issues
  • a reflective learning journal/blog related to selected activities or in response to an issue.

The assessment task/s may be written or multimodal. (approximately 50 minutes or not exceeding 1000 words for each task)

Practical work and assessment

Practical work is a central component of learning and assessment. As a guide, between 3½ and 5 hours of class time should be devoted to student practical work and investigations for each of Areas of Study 1 and 2.

Unit 4 – Continuity and Change

In this unit students consider the continual change and challenges to which life on Earth has been subjected. They investigate the relatedness between species and the impact of various change events on a population’s gene pool. The accumulation of changes over time is considered as a mechanism for biological evolution by natural selection that leads to the rise of new species. Students examine change in life forms using evidence from palaeontology, biogeography, developmental biology and structural morphology. They explore how technological developments in

the fields of comparative genomics, molecular homology and bioinformatics have resulted in evidence of change through measurements of relatedness between species.

Students examine the structural and cognitive trends in the human fossil record and the interrelationships between human biological and cultural evolution. The biological consequences, and social and ethical implications, of manipulating the DNA molecule and applying biotechnologies is explored for both the individual and the species.

A student practical investigation related to cellular processes and/or biological change and continuity over time is undertaken in either Unit 3 or Unit 4, or across both Units 3 and 4, and is assessed in Unit 4, Outcome 3. The findings of the investigation are presented in a scientific poster format


School-assessed Coursework for Unit 3 will contribute 24% to the study score.

Outcome 1 – 30 marks

Analyse evidence for evolutionary change, explain how relatedness between species is determined, and elaborate on the consequences of biological change in human evolution.

  • A report using primary or secondary data. The assessment task may be written or multimodal. (approximately 50 minutes or not exceeding 1000 words)

Outcome 2 – 30 marks

Describe how tools and techniques can be used to manipulate DNA, explain how biological knowledge is applied to biotechnical applications, and analyse the interrelationship between scientific knowledge and its applications in society.

  • A response to an issue OR A report of a laboratory investigation. The assessment task may be written or multimodal. (approximately 50 minutes or not exceeding 1000 words)

Outcome 3 – 30 marks

Design and undertake an investigation related to cellular processes and/or biological change and continuity over time, and present methodologies, findings and conclusions in a scientific poster.

  • A structured scientific poster according to the VCAA template (not exceeding 1000 words)

External assessment – examination

The level of achievement for Units 3 and 4 is also assessed by a 2.5 hour end-of-year examination which will contribute 60% to the study score.