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Oxford Biological Sciences: Course Structure

1st year
Courses Four courses are taken:

  • Cells & Genes
  • Ecology
  • Organisms
  • First Year Quantitative Methods
Assessment  First University examinations: Three Preliminary papers (Not in Quantitative Methods)
2nd year
Courses Terms 1 & 2 include Core modules & Practical Courses, including:2 compulsory modules, 6 optional Lecture Courses, 6 optional practical courses

  • Evolution (compulsory)
  • Quantitative Methods (compulsory)
  • Adaptation to the environment
  • Animal Biology
  • Cell & Developmental Biology
  • Disease
  • Ecology
  • Plants & People

Term 3 : Commence Specialist options, project & Assignments

Assessment  Three written papers 3 hours, 30% of Final Degree
3rd year
Courses Further core material, Choose 6 to 8 specialist subjects from 20.Specialist options include 2 field courses: one to Tenerife (plants), one to Borneo (rainforest ecology)Specialist Research Project

  • Public Health and Policy
  • Development and Evolution of Animals
  • Infection and Immunity
  • Soils, roots and food security
  • The Evolutionary Dynamics of Infectious Disease
  • Species conservation
  • Metabolic Adaptation in Plants
  • Molecular mechanisms of cell function
  • Evolutionary ecology of plants and animals
  • Marine Ecology
  • Evolution of shape and form in plants
  • Ecology of Terrestrial Ecosystems: Past, present and future
  • Plant signalling and growth
  • The Evolution and Ecology of Sex
  • Human Evolutionary Genetics
  • Biomechanics, Muscles and Motor Systems
  • Sensory Ecology
  • Advanced Animal Behaviour
  • Social Evolution
  • Mediterranean Plant Diversity Field Course
  • Tropical Forest Ecology Field Course
Assessment  Two course assignments: one written Dissertation; one 15 minute oral examination;One Research Project 7000 word write-up 15% of degreeFour 3 hour examinations, 40% of degreedetermination of the class of honours degree

Biological Sciences at Oxford is taught through the media of lectures, practicals (lab and field) and classes or seminars. The difference here is the emphasis on your developing your own ideas by reading the research literature as well as text books, and as students progress to the second and third years, their abilities to critically review and comment on both scientific literature and more controversial current affairs is finely honed. Students here have access to one of the largest and highest quality collections of museums, libraries and reference materials in the world, and access to some of the brightest professors.


College Tutors are responsible for organising much of the tutorial teaching but often tutorials may be conducted by a different academic from across the department (lecturer, reader or professor) or a post-grad or post-doc researcher, who has a particular expertise in the field. Although this might seem a little intimidating at first, students quickly realise that the tutorial is not a confrontational situation and the Tutor is equally keen that the tutorial should be a worthwhile and productive experience all round.

In Biological Sciences, students normally have one tutorial per week, usually in the company of one or two other undergrads from their college or students from other colleges who have the same interests. Though students have to produce separate written work, interactions with each other during the discussions can be very beneficial.  Preparation for each tutorial is paramount. Typically, this will be reading for an essay that is handed in before the tutorial so that the tutor can read and comment on it prior to the discussion. The tutorial essay is intended to encourage the exploration of a particular aspect of the subject in depth and to provide an opportunity to put forward personal ideas and opinions, and to present a critical analysis of a particular problem or proposition.

A tutorial is not simply a vehicle for the tutor to provide the right answers to a list of questions or to impart factual information that could be better obtained through background reading, lectures, etc. Work on a tutorial essay involves library searches, reading, thinking and writing. This continuous refinement of analytical and critical skills should serve well in any discipline after leaving Oxford, even if it is not Biology. In the final year, students may have the opportunity to choose which tutorials they attend and may book individual tutors for personal tutorials.


In the first year all practicals are compulsory and make up an important part of the core basis of biological sciences. You will learn to appreciate evidence based research, analysis and data analysis. They will not necessarily be linked to lectures, but will focus on providing practical skills relevant to modern biology, from the cellular and molecular to the ecological and taxonomic. There will be a one-week residential field course to West Wales (Orielton Field Studies Centre near Pembroke) in the summer term. Here, living organisms (including staff and students) are studied in a range of environments, both terrestrial and marine. Each module is a skills based set combining lab, field and/or computer activities as appropriate.  The six module topics covered in the second year are as follows : • Biodiversity Survey & Analysis • Experimental Evolution • Infectious Disease Control • Molecular & Cellular Techniques • Observations & Experiments in Behaviour • Plant Adaptations – Wild & Domesticated

Course Assignments

During their third year there is complete freedom to choose ae topic, and any subject within the areas covered or touched upon by any of the modules is eligible, but the format of the assignment will be specified by the particular theme.

The Honours Project

All undergraduates undertake a research project during their second and third years, supervised by a member of academic staff, which contributes to the degree assessment. The topic may be the student’s own idea or one chosen from suggestions by members of the departments. Students carry out practical research, either in the lab or field, analyse data using rigorous scientific method and conventions, and write a report. Results from many of these projects have been published in scientific journals! The breadth of topics is vast and the choice is yours! examples in the past range from how embryonic cells differentiate into nerve cells, to the number of fish on a coral reef.

Field Courses

The first year field course to Pembrokeshire is the practical component of the Ecology course, and introduces students to the ecology of woodlands, sand dunes, rocky shores, sea cliffs and grasslands. In the third year, students may choose to attend one or even two overseas field courses, each one making up a specialist option. One course goes to the Canary Island of Tenerife and studies the systematics, diversity and ecology of the local plant communities. The other field course concerns tropical rainforest ecology, both animals and plants, and is based at the Danum Valley Field Centre in Sabah (N.E. Borneo).