how to learn biology on your own

Last Updated on December 28, 2022

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Study Strategies for Biology

Make learning a daily routine. 

  1. Repeat study over several shorter periods over different days. Study the material weekly, not just before tests. Leave plenty of time between study and self-testing so you’re not just testing short-term memory and repeat until you know that you can always get them right. Well before an exam, take a subset of the material and study it as if the exam on that topic was tomorrow. Finally,  don’t put it off until the night before the exam. 
  2. If your professor provides materials ahead of class (e.g., lecture outline, PowerPoint) get them and use them to guide your note-taking.

Flesh out notes in 24-48 hour cycle. “Note Massage”

  1. After lecture add to, or rewrite, your notes while the scribbles still make sense. Do it regularly as a part of a formal schedule or you won’t do it at all.  Use complete sentences; add labels and notes to diagrams even if you think they’re quite clear already; try to organize things into categories to show relationships.
  2. Get all the missing holes filled. Use other students, your text, and your professor.
  3. For topics which you do not fully understand, get explanations. Don’t wait until close to the exam to fill in this understanding. Get it now. Before the test you need to be studying with a higher level of understanding.

Study to understand, not just to memorize words.

  1. Don’t just read over your notes and PowerPoints.  If all you do is read your notes, the text, and the PowerPoint, then you’ll gain only a passive familiarity with the material. 
  2. When trying to learn the material, focus on the right stuff.  The things that your professor considers most important to the subject and which are most likely to appear on quizzes and exams are the things that have been emphasized in lecture and in assigned readings.  Learn these things first and best. 
  3. You should practice explaining the material and applying it to new situations. Why should you this? ​Questions sometimes pose entirely new situations, which you need to analyze – even though you’ve never seen that situation before. 
  4. EXAMPLE: Suppose, for instance, you’ve learned a lot about a certain forest ecosystem in class. And then on the exam, the professor doesn’t ask a thing about the forest, but instead puts you in the middle of the desert, acquaints you briefly with certain of its inhabitants, and asks you complicated questions about their relationships to one another.  If you really know your way around the ecosystem you were given (the forest) – know about its energy and nutrient flow, its inhabitants’ adaptive strategies, etc. – then you will be better prepared to see familiar patterns in this strange new situation (the desert).  You know in advance that there’s a food network of some sort – that it will be like that in the forest in some ways, etc.  You end up understanding a bit about the desert ecosystem not because you memorized it (indeed you’ve never encountered it before at all), but rather because you know the forest ecosystem so well that you now can think beyond just that. But the only way to be sure in advance that you really know the given system well (the forest) is to practice explaining what you know. 

Learn individual concepts before integrating it together.

  1. You need to have content learned and understood before you can go to the next level of understanding by integrating the information.
  2. This is one reason it is so important to turn around your notes quickly and answer any fact and detail questions right away.

Use active study methods.

  1. Map out all connected material. Try to see how disparate lecture topics are connected. How does a concept or process tie to a larger picture? How does new material build off of prior course content? How could it be built on later?
  2. When explaining causal connections, it’s important to build a logical and adequate chain of connection between the initial cause and the final effect. 
  3. EXAMPLE: For instance, if you were asked to explain why carbon monoxide kills, you might answer, “Because it stops respiration.”  That might be adequate in casual conversation, but it isn’t normally enough on an exam. There are too many questions left unanswered.  “How does CO inhibit respiration?”  “Why does the stopping of respiration lead to death?”  Depending on the course and the level of detail normally employed in it, you might well be expected to offer an answer more along the lines of the following:  “CO binds to hemoglobin, inhibiting its ability to carry oxygen from the lungs to the tissues.  Oxygen is required as the terminal acceptor of electrons in the respiratory electron transport system, which then ceases because oxygen is absent.  Without respiration, no ATP is generated.  And since ATP is the form of energy needed by numerous energy-requiring processes essential to life, these processes cease, and death ensues.” Notice how many logical links between CO and death profitably can be employed.  Some courses, depending on emphasis, may require fewer than these; some might require more.  It’s up to you, of course, to gauge what’s appropriate for the course that you’re in.  To form the habits and instincts of offering “complete” answers, become more like the pestiferous child who replies to every statement with the question, “Why?”  It will help your thinking immensely.
  4. Practice coming up with questions that a professor could ask on course material as well as practicing and refining answers to those questions. Exams in college are not the place to get feedback for the first time. 

You need to test yourself frequently to truly gauge how much you comprehend.

  1. When testing your understanding, make yourself give clear, accurate, brief, but complete explanations, entirely from memory. 
  2. If working in a group, start by agreeing upon representative questions, then take turns answering them, while others point out what answers are especially good and what answers need improvement.
  3. If studying alone, write out what seem to be good answers, based upon your notes, and then put those answers aside for a while and see how well you can reproduce them from memory.  
  4. Do the same thing with any diagrams or figures covered in class to make sure you can recreate them from memory with all the key parts and steps labeled, and their function and significance stated. Even if you don’t have to create a diagram or figure on a test, practicing it from scratch will help you to understand the material better.

Click HERE for a printable version.

Taken from Professor Alan Jaslow’s Study Strategies in Understanding Biology and Professor Terry Hill’s Suggestions for Studying Biology. Click the titles to read the full documents.

How To Study for Biology

Biology is usually a mandatory course at both the high school and college levels. At some point or another every student has to take it. Some students find biology challenging, but it doesn’t have to be. As with math, and a few other subjects, learning biology is a cumulative process. Before you can understand more complex biological concepts and processes, it’s essential you understand the basics. Below we’ll explore proven tips and strategies for improving your ability to study and learn biology.

Come to class… and come prepared

Reading your biology text, or copying your classmate’s notes, will not compensate for missing class. Biology is a complex, hands-on subject. It involves learning biological systems that require explanation and experimentation. Biology is also a cumulative subject. What you learn in one class will create the building blocks for what you’ll learn in the future. Arrive at each lecture having read the textbook, completed all lab assignments, and reviewed your notes from the prior lecture. You’ll get much more out of lectures if you come prepared. Students who regularly attend their biology class perform far better than those students who don’t.

Don’t play catchup

“Catchup” may be an acceptable game to play in history, home economics, or social science, but it doesn’t work in biology. Again, the process of learning biology is cumulative. Each new biological concept you learn builds upon previous knowledge you’ve acquired. Much of the knowledge you’ll acquire as you study biology will come from hands-on experimentation and exploration in laboratory settings. Making up a lab is difficult. Making up several labs at the end of the semester is impossible… and fruitless. Staying on top of the subject matter and completing your assignments on time is key to learning biology.

Go from general to specific

Anyone can learn biology, but it’s not always easy. Biology doesn’t require as much math as physics or astronomy, but it can still be challenging to understand biological systems and processes. One of the keys to effective learning of biology is to master general concepts before tackling specific ones. For example, before you can understand the Krebs cycle you need to have a basic understanding of animal cell structure. Study each new biological concept and process thoroughly before moving on to the next level.

Take advantage of lab time

There is theory in biology, but it is also a practical, hands-on science. Learning biology theory by reading your textbook or listening to a lecture is one thing, putting biology into practice in a laboratory is a whole different experience. Experimenting biological systems and processes in the laboratory is one of the most effective ways to learn biology. What you do in the lab will stay with you a lot longer than what you read in a book.

Use drawings and diagrams

Biology is full of complex systems and processes that you have to understand, memorize, apply and reproduce for your exam, for your teacher, and quite possibly for your career. Employing imagery, particularly drawings and diagrams, can make even the most challenging biological processes easy to understand and remember. For example, consider the following explanation of osmosis found on wikipedia:

Osmosis is any process involving the net movement of molecules from a solution of lower concentration through a semipermeable membrane into a solution of higher concentration until concentrations on each side of the membrane are equalized.

Pretty easy to understand, right? The same process of osmosis is explained through the following diagram:

Employ drawings and diagrams to study biology. It will improve your understanding and recall.

Learn the terminology

You’d never consider studying to become a doctor and not expect to learn all the parts of the human body, or a mechanic without knowing all the parts of a car. Well, the same holds true for biology. Even though you may not plan on becoming a biologist, or did not choose to take the biology class you now find yourself in, if you want to do well in biology, you need to (1) pay attention to the terminology and (2) learn it. To learn biology, you have to understand the words and terms used to explain it. As you encounter words you don’t recognize, write them down and then look them up. When words seem to have prefixes or roots, take the time to break them down and understand their parts.

Read effectively… read with purpose

Reading biology to learn requires much more than skimming chapters or running your eyes over the pages looking for main points. Successful biology students attack each reading assignment with a pencil in hand, a notebook at their side, are actively engaged, and read with purpose. Every time you tackle a reading assignment, write down in your notebook important information, including vocabulary, processes, concepts and explanations. Writing things down (1) helps to process and understand challenging material and (2) improves retention. Your notes will also help you review for exams.

As you take notes while reading, write down the following:

  • Terminology
    It’s tempting to skip over unfamiliar terms and new vocabulary. Resist this temptation. Write unfamiliar terms and vocabulary down in your notebook and then look them up. This may seem tedious (because it is), but it is a necessary part of learning biology.
  • Concepts
    Read the details, but read for meaning. After reading about a new concept, in your own words write down in your notebook a summary of the concept. Doing so will improve your understanding of the concept and provide you a valuable tool to prepare for your exam.
  • Diagrams and Drawings
    We can’t reiterate how effective it is to use diagrams and drawings to study biology. The same holds true when reading biology texts. Drawing pictures and developing diagrams to represent and describe the processes and systems you read about in your biology text will improve understanding and recall.

Learn how to memorize

Biology is the basis of so many of the natural sciences and covers a myriad of topics from osmosis and diffusion to homeostasis and cell biology to virology and immunology. It is truly one of the most diverse subject areas taught at any high school or major university. (No wonder so many students find the study of biology to be overwhelming at times.) As such, the study of biology requires a lot of retention, recall, and memorization of information. The following are proven tips for memorizing information as you study biology.

  • Teach it
    There is no better way to make sure you understand something than to teach it to someone else. Teaching biology to others moves information from your short-term to your long-term memory. Set aside time each week to teach the lessons you’ve learned to someone else.
  • Use it
    Biology is full of terminology and specialized vocabulary. The best way to learn new terminology and remember it is to use it. Each time you encounter a new term or word, write it down, look it up, and then use it in a sentence. If you have a classmate you can practice with, take some time each week to review aloud and discuss the new terminology you’ve encountered.
  • Employ mnemonic devices
    For some reason the human brain loves relationships and associations – especially associations of familiarity. Take the time to associate complex or unfamiliar biology terms and vocabulary with familiar words and phrases and you’ll remember them forever. For example, to memorize Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species (taxonomy order) you simply have to remember King Phillip Came Over From Great Spain.
  • Flash cards
    Flash cards are as effective for learning biology today as they were in the 1950s. Write terms and concepts you’re trying to memorize on one side of a 3×5″ card and their definitions and descriptions on the other side. You can study biology using flash cards on your own or with another classmate.

Preparing for tests

The following are some of the most effective methods and strategies for preparing for biology exams.

  • Review past exams
    Biology as a science is pretty concrete. While you can expect to be introduced to new theories, most of the basic biological tenets and concepts you’ll learn as a high school or undergraduate college student have already been proven. As such, what biology professors and instructors teach students and then test them on, doesn’t change a whole lot from year to year. A very effective way to prepare for your biology exams is to review the questions found on past biology exams administered by your instructor.

    However, biology exams can vary quite a bit so it’s important not to simply memorize questions and answers. Use past exams to identify major concepts you’re likely to find on your exam and to test your knowledge of these concepts. Past exams will also give you an idea of what question formats to expect (i.e. essay, multiple choice, true/false, etc.) Review as many past exams as you can get your hands on.
  • Labs
    Review all your lab notes. If you spend time studying the different parts of the animal cell in the lab, there’s a good chance you’ll be required to label the different structures of the animal cell and explain what they do.
  • Lectures
    Your instructor is the one giving the exam, so pay close attention to what he or she finds most important and interesting. As important as your textbook is, you’ll fare better on the exam by going back and reviewing everything your instructor taught you in class and during labs.
  • Assignments
    Review all your assignments for the semester. Your assignments cover the topics your instructor believes to be most important. As such, you can bet that you’ll find exam questions that come directly from the assignments you completed throughout the semester.

Jump in with both feet

If you’ve gotten this far and still haven’t figured this one out then we recommend reading this page again. To do well in biology requires jumping in with both feet. Having one foot in and one foot out doesn’t work. At the beginning of the semester, regardless of your major, personal interests or dislikes, decide that you’re going to give biology your whole heart. Do this and you’ll do well in your biology class.

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