Doing Well In Biology Class

∞ generated and posted on 2017.05.18 ∞

Biology is poetry, biology is fun, but learning biology well requires a substantial amount of dedication and hard work.

There's more to doing well in biology than just raw talent!!!

This set of tips is written primarily from the perspective of how to do well, or at least better, in major's biology classes. First, though, an introductory video:

  1. Studying is hard work. Reading is not necessarily equivalent to studying. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't read (as it's really really important if you are going to be a scientist/do science/be in a scientific-y profession), but studying involves trying to understand concepts and forcing information into your brain, and often those processes can be quite strenuous. If you are not straining to at least some degree, other than in terms of fighting the studying process, then you likely are not so much studying as reviewing. The latter is a poor substitute for the former.

  2. Study effectively. Putting in more time is not necessarily as important as studying well, efficiently, or effectively. Clearly if you studied for 20 hours for the first exam and did not earn at least a B, and preferably an even higher grade, then you really need to reexamine how it is that you study to make much better use of your time.

  3. 20 hours per week actually is not as excessive as you might imagine. You are not putting a lot of time in until you are devoting in excess of ~20 hours/week to studying biology/attending class and lab. But remember that six or seven hours of that 20 may, in theory at least, be spent in class or in lab. Add in even just one hour spent per day, Monday through Friday, and that works out to another five hours committed to biology. Throw in the extra time spent studying for exams and the ~20 hours/week, as an average, is really not too excessive. (BTW, if you are not paying attention during lectures, taking notes, and otherwise spending that time as a biology learning experience, then you are wasting your time, time that is either going to have to be made up outside of the classroom, studying on your own, or that is not ever going towards your doing well in a class—seriously, do you even imagine this might be something that is going to work out in the long term in your favor?)

  4. Learn before you study for an exam, not while you are studying for an exam. If you don't learn/understand the material before going on to the next topic/material, when will you learn the old material? You won't have enough time to learn material for the first time while you are studying for an exam. Furthermore, for most people, learning well requires repetition over relatively long spans of time. Such long-term repetition is not possible if you put off studying until exam time. You therefore have to pause at difficult concepts when you first encounter them, well before exam time, and make at least a cursory effort towards gaining some understanding.

  5. Organizing material is important, but isn't everything. Organizing material is not equivalent to studying for exams, though certainly it helps you prepare for studying. If you are copying down material or even triaging while you are preparing for an exam, just keep in mind that while you may feel very productive while you are doing this, you aren't actually studying for the exam, or at least not studying very intensively. Organizing is great, but can be very time consuming, and, like reading, it isn't really equivalent to actually sitting down and studying for an exam.

  6. Know the material, and know it well. If you want to do well, you must learn the majority of the material really, really well. You need to go for both breadth and depth as you likely will be tested on both. If you blow off learning material, or otherwise don't have time to get to it, then you are simply taking a chance that the passed-over material will not be found on the exam. Typically it is very easy for your instructor to tell when the breadth or the depth of your grasp of the material is not great. You might feel that your instructor is being picayune or not adequately testing a student on what they actually know. Your instructor's goal nonetheless will be to get you to a point where you both really know biology and really know how to study biology. In many cases exams can do a wonderful job of determining the degree to which you have addressed both goals.

  7. Triage intelligently and towards reducing stress. Try triaging, i.e., concentrate on learning and memorizing that material that (a) you don't know/have not memorized and (b) have some reasonable chance of learning prior to exam time. But don't fall into the trap of triaging away a large chunk of material simply because you haven't given yourself sufficient time to study for an exam. Your triaging should be done days before the actual exam. And then, if you have time and otherwise finished all of the rest of your studying, you can even go back to that material that you had previously discarded as being hopeless. But don't, in the process, stress yourself out. Stressing yourself out often can be worse than just ignoring some material, since stress can make you underperform even on the material that you do know well. Remember that the secret to learning is to enjoy the learning process!

  8. Figuring out what likely will be on exams actually is an important life skill. Part of studying for the exam should involve IDing that material that you should concentrate your studying on. Part of your college education is going to involve learning how to predict what your professor cares about versus what serves simply as extraneous lecture fluff. One of the secrets of college-level success is being able to focus on the material that is most important such as what is most likely to end up on exams.

  9. You should already know how well you know and understand the material before you sit down for an exam. If you can't at least make a reasonable attempt at knowing the material to the point where you can recite it from memory, then you are not doing an adequate job of studying for an exam, assuming that your goals are As in your courses. One can similarly say that if you don't reach a certain level of understanding of the material as you study then you are probably not doing an adequate job studying. It also should be stressed that it is a whole lot easier to memorize material that you understand – and, of course, that you care about! – than it is to memorize material that you do not understand. Understanding allows derivation, and derivation (deductive reasoning along with inductive reasoning) is basically what much of biology is all about.

  10. Prepare for exams as though you are preparing for any important life event (e.g., running a marathon, or getting married). Don't put off learning the material until the night before the exam. And don't forget to get a good night's sleep prior to the exam. Take care of yourself. If you treat yourself well then your self will respond by performing at a higher level when that becomes necessary, a higher level that is versus if you don't treat yourself well. An exam is like an athletic event. It takes training to do well, and it also takes peaking on the day of the event. Nobody I've ever met prepares to run a marathon by pulling an all nighter the night before, nor spends that time, the night before, running, running, and then running some more. The night before the event is a time to take care of yourself, so that you will be in peak form when it comes time to prove yourself. Similarly, stressing yourself out by studying the day of the exam may allow you to learn material you really should have had down pat the night if not days before, but at what cost in your ability to calmly and effectively understand exam questions and then correctly answer them?

Studying is not easy, no way, no how (and that's why you get summers off). Indeed, studying towards a science degree can be so difficult that you might consider the pros and cons of prioritizing much more into your life than studying. But don't forget that you still need to have a life. If you aren't enjoying yourself, then you may end up considering your classes to be a burden. But it is far easier to do something within the context of pleasure than to persevere in the face of pain. Do yourself a favor and do what it takes to live a long, kind, and enjoyable life.