How to study for a biology test

Last Updated on August 28, 2023

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How to study for a biology test

Science classes, like biology, may be among the most challenging classes you’ll ever take. Getting an A in biology means looking at some of the major issues you’ll face and having tips for dealing with them.

Plan for biology study time

One of the reasons that science classes are so challenging is that they ask you to look at things you’ve never looked at before. When you take an English class or even a psychology class, you’re often on familiar ground, adding to knowledge that you’ve gained from former classes or other sources.

The rule of thumb for a science class is to budget two hours outside of class for every hour that you’re in class. For a class that meets five hours a week, that’s ten extra hours of study time — just for that class.

Make vocabulary flashcards

Studies have shown that you learn more new words in a first-year biology class than you do in a first-year language class. That’s a lot of terminology. And instructors will introduce a term to you just once and then test you on it later.

Flashcards are a great memorization aid. Spend at least one hour of your study time a week making and studying flashcards. Put the new term on one side of the card and the definition on the other side. Go through your stack and test your ability to remember the meaning of each term. When you get a card right, put it in a separate stack. Keep practicing with your other cards until you get them all right.

Pace yourself

Your brain has two kinds of memory — short-term and long-term. Have you ever listened to your instructor explain something and thought, “Cool, I totally get that,” but then later found yourself scratching your head trying to remember the details of what you learned? That’s because you had the idea or process in your short-term memory but didn’t get it fixed in your long-term memory.

Budget a small amount of study time every day instead of planning on big marathon sessions once a week. If you review your lecture notes on the day that you first wrote them down, while the info is still fresh in your short-term memory, you’ll increase your chances of banking some of that information in your long-term memory before you go to sleep.

Study actively, not passively

Reading alone won’t get most people a good grade in a science class. To store information in your long-term memory, you have to use the information actively. You can practice what you learn in several ways:

  • Do the activities in lab. Hands-on laboratory experiments help reinforce concepts from class— so come to lab prepared to do the experiments and ask questions!
  • Draw processes and structures. Take out some blank paper and try to draw the things you’re learning about. Label everything and explain the concepts to yourself as you go along. Peek at your notes when you have to, but keep repeating the process until you don’t have to peek anymore.
  • Explain things to others. If you study alone, you can explain things out loud to yourself. Or explain things to your significant other, your parents, your kids, or even your cat.
  • Answer questions at the back of your book chapter. Instructors often recommend questions to go along with the reading. These questions are good practice, especially the critical thinking questions that ask you to think about real-life scenarios and apply what you’ve learned.

Phone a friend

Study groups can really improve your success in science classes. You can practice your explanations on people who are studying the same material, ask and answer questions, and share tips and tricks with one another.

You can also support one another emotionally and maybe even make studying more fun. Many students form study groups that stay together through a whole year of classes, and sometimes even longer.

Test yourself before your instructor tests you

Before you take the test, find ways to test yourself and to identify your weak spots so you can make sure you’re really ready.

Here are some tips on how to test yourself:

  • Some instructors actually give copies of old exams to students to practice on. Ask your instructor if she does this.
  • Textbooks have quizzes at the back of the chapters and often have online companion sites with more quizzes.

Maximize the easy points

Getting a good grade is about getting the best overall percentage in class that you can. Exam points are usually the hardest to get, so make sure you get all the easy — or at least easier — points, which usually come from homework assignments, labs, attendance, and even extra credit. Take advantage of every easy assignment that comes your way. Then, if you miss a few exam points, you’ve got back up.

Ask for help up front

Don’t wait until it’s too late to get help. At the first sign of trouble, like a bad grade on an assignment or quiz, get help from your instructor, your teaching assistant, the tutoring center, or a friend who’s doing well in the class.

You’re not supposed to be an expert on the subject; that’s why you’re taking the class. Sometimes, the question you ask is the one that ten other people are wondering about. Instructors and TAs are paid to help you learn, and most of them love what they do.

Use your resources

Most biology textbooks are loaded with information, and can sometimes be a bit overwhelming to read. Find out whether your instructor tests from their lecture notes, the textbook, or a combination of the two. If your instructor considers your text to be an important resource — and will test you out of the book — make sure you budget some time for reading.

One way to help you sort out and process the information in a dense biology textbook is to have a set of questions in front of you as you read. You can often find good questions in a review section at the back of the chapter, or sometimes and summary questions at the end of each section in a chapter. Instead of answering these questions after you read, answer them as you read. It will make your reading time more focused and productive.

Biology textbooks come with some nifty add-ons like access to websites with animations, quizzes, and tutorials. Sometimes, a good animation is worth a thousand words, so check out your resources and incorporate the good ones into your study routine.

If your book doesn’t come with these bells and whistles, you can still find lots of good material on the Internet. YouTube is loaded with animations and even student-created songs to help you memorize something.

Be careful with materials that aren’t created by a publisher or a scientist. Some homemade materials will have errors.

Don’t leave it in the classroom

Research on human learning shows that people remember information best when they understand its importance. In other words, when the info is connected to a fundamental concept that’s part of their existing knowledge, they remember it.

The whole point of science is to help people understand their world better. So don’t leave what you learn in the classroom!

how to study for a biology test the night before

Studying at night
Sam Edwards / Getty Images

By Amanda PrahlUpdated on July 31, 2019

There’s no need to feel completely frightened if you’ve procrastinated until the night before a test to study. Although you won’t be able to commit much to long-term memory in a one-night cram session, you can learn enough to pass the test using these techniques.

How to Study the Night Before a Test

  • Eat a nutritious meal and prepare a few healthy snacks so you won’t need to get up later
  • Set up in a comfortable spot with your study materials (pencils, note cards, highlighters) and class materials (notes, quizzes, tests, handouts, study guides)
  • Focus for 30 to 45 minutes, then break for 5
  • Take notes and use mnemonic devices to improve recall
  • Aim for comprehension over memorization
  • Explain concepts and ideas to a third party
  • Get a good night’s sleep

Physical Needs

The brain and the body are linked, so before you sit down to start a study session, it’s a good idea to take care of your body: go to the bathroom, get some water or tea, and be sure you’re dressed in a way that won’t distract you (nothing scratchy or stiff). Focus and calm are crucial to studying seriously; to get your body on the same page, try doing some deep breathing and yoga stretches to help you get your mind off any other concerns. Essentially, this prep is meant to get your body to help you, not distract you, so you have no excuses to break your study focus.

Snacking during or before studying can be helpful, but choose wisely. The ideal meal is something without a lot of sugar or heavy carbs that can lead to an energy crash. Instead, grab some high-protein grilled chicken or scramble some eggs for dinner, drink green tea with acai, and follow it all with a few bites of dark chocolate. It’s always easier to stay on task and process information when your brain has been given what it needs to function properly.

The other upside is that by eating something before you begin studying, you’ll be less tempted to get hungry (and distracted) and quit studying early. To further head off any distracting snack attacks, be prepared ahead of time. When you go to your study area, bring a snack with you. This should be something high in nutrients and mess-free, like mixed nuts, dried fruit, or a protein bar. Avoid highly processed foods like chips, and beware of sneaky foods like granola bars that are full of hidden sugar that will leave you stranded in an hour or so.

One Step at a Time

Start by getting organized. Get all the materials that relate to the test you’re taking—notes, handouts, quizzes, book, projects—and lay them out neatly in a way that makes sense to you. You might organize them by topic, in chronological order, or in some other way that works. Perhaps you like to use color-coded highlighters or stacks of notecards. The point is that there’s no one way to organize: You have to find the best system that helps you make connections with the material.

By the night before a test, you should already have a good baseline of knowledge on the test topics. That means your goal here is to review and refresh. If your teacher gave you a study guide, start with that, quizzing yourself as you go along. Refer to your other materials if you can’t remember an item on the guide, and then write it down. Use mnemonic devices to help you remember bits of information that you wouldn’t otherwise, but try to avoid just memorizing everything: it’s harder to recall straight facts than it is to have a network of connected ideas that you can rely on.

If you don’t have a study guide or if you’ve finished going over it, prioritize notes and handouts. Things like dates, names, and vocabulary words are likely to show up on tests, so study those first. After that, review the bigger-picture stuff: material that covers cause-and-effect relationships within the topic area and other ideas that could show up on an essay question. For these, memorization is less important than having a solid enough understanding to explain it back on a written answer.

It can seem overwhelming, especially if you have a lot of material to review, so take it slowly. A good rule of thumb is to focus for 30- to 45-minute increments followed by 5-minute breaks. If you try to cram in all the information the night before the test, your brain will overload and you’ll have to work to regain your focus on studying. This is why it’s also useful to review for a few days before the test, not just the night before so you can spread out the material and review everything multiple times over of a few separate sessions.

Buddy System

If you really want to test your understanding of the material, try explaining it to someone who isn’t in the class. Get a family member or friend and “teach” them as much as you can remember. This will let you see how well you understand the concepts and how well you can make connections (to prepare for short-answer or essay questions).

If you have a partner or a family member to help you, have them quiz you on the material. As you go, make a list of anything you get stuck on or can’t remember. Once you’ve been quizzed, take your list and study that material repeatedly until you’ve got it.

Finally, write down all your mnemonic devices, important dates, and quick facts on one sheet of paper, so you can refer to it the morning before the big test.

Final Preparations

Nothing will make you do worse on a test than pulling an all-nighter. You may be tempted to stay up all night and cram in as much as is possible, but by all means, get some sleep the night before. When testing time comes, you won’t be able to recall all the information you learned because your brain will be functioning in survival mode.

On the morning of the test, make sure to eat a healthy breakfast for plenty of energy. Throughout the morning, run through your review sheet: while you’re eating, at your locker, or on the way to class. When it comes time to put the review sheet away and sit down for the test, you can rest easy knowing that you’ve done everything possible to help your brain get through the test with flying colors.

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