Saturday, July 19, 2014

How should I study for biology?

Learning Biology is Like Learning a New Language

Biology may not be the most abstract and difficult science to understand, but it is the most complicated of the sciences to figure out. It's complexity becomes most apparent at the level of solving societal problems in healthcare and/or the environment. However, it's complexity can already be encountered by students early on in their schooling. If the sciences (i.e. math, chemistry, physics, psychology, etc.) are analogous to foreign languages, then biology has the largest alphabet and largest vocabulary among the sciences. So, learning biology is like learning a new language. You start with the alphabet, then build up a store of words, and then learn to put those words together according to grammatical rules -- the highest level of biology is like writing poetry and novels. Just like learning a new language, learning biology requires memorization, repetition, regular usage, and application. 

The Four Main Challenges in Learning Biology

There are four main challenges that students face when they encounter biology. 

Challenge 1. Remembering the vast vocabulary.

Challenge 2. Understanding the concepts behind how life forms work from the molecular level to the environmental level. 

Challenge 3. Understanding the scientific process of how to learn by experimentation. Living things, and the stuff that makes them up, behave in ways that are more complicated (less predictable) than inanimate objects or materials.

Challenge 4. Putting 1, 2, and 3 together to make new discoveries or to gain deeper insights.  

High school biology emphasizes 1 and 2, with a little bit of 3. 
Undergraduate biology emphasizes 1 to 3, but with more intensity. 
Graduate biology trains people to do 4, for which 1 to 3 are prerequisites.

Tips for Studying

The following tips have been very useful in my teaching of biology at all levels. My job as a teacher is to make remembering the vocabulary easier (Challenge 1), so that students can spend more energy on understanding the concepts of how things fit together (Challenge 2). Details are easily forgotten, since there are so many of them, and can be looked-up in a reference book or study. Concepts are the most important, since they can be applied to different situations, including those outside of "science*." 

1. Mnemonics. These will help you organize and memorize complex things relatively quickly, saving your energy for understanding concepts. 

2. Active note taking in class. Taking notes by writing and drawing (not typing) has been shown to increase retention. This is probably because the act of writing activates "motor memory," which helps you remember things better because you did them. 

3. Review notes daily, even if for only 20 minutes per day. 

4. Ask yourself questions about the subject while you're listening to a lecture, doing an experiment, or reading a book. Seek the answers to these questions from fellow classmates, the instructor, books, or the internet. This is part of "active learning."

5. Talk to your instructor during office hours. Bring questions about things that were unclear. 

6. Write your own questions while you're learning. Being able to write good multiple choice questions or short-essay questions is GREAT preparation for tests AND helps you understand the material better. This is a skill that will improve with practice over time. Do this throughout the course, while reading, while reviewing notes, and while listening to the instructor. 

7. Learn the teacher's testing style. Different teachers like to ask different types of questions. Ask the teacher to give some sample questions during the lecture, so you get a flavor of how the teacher likes to write tests. This will guide your studying strategy. 

*I put the word science in quotation marks because science is both a subject of knowledge and a way of thinking. As a way of thinking, of course it applies to subject areas that are not considered science subjects. 

Last updated on 10/19/14

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