Introduction to Taking Majors' Biology

∞ generated and posted on 2018.01.13 ∞

Every year large numbers of students take introductory biology for majors, but are less successful than they would prefer—here is advice on how not to be one of those students.

Introductory Biology for Majors is simply going to be a harder course than you will appreciate going into the class. Unless that fact doesn't really matter to you, then it will help to be prepared early on to do what it is going to take to do well in these courses. This essay is advice to you on how to start succeeding at Majors Biology right out of the starting gate.

Consistent with how majors' biology is taught at universities, a lot will be demanded of you. These courses tend to cover what may appear to be an overwhelming amount of material, and professors will be loath to simply give away As and Bs. This is not a consequence of their being particularly mean or nasty. Instead it has to do with what it takes to learn biology.

The majority of students who take majors' biology courses do not intend to become professional biologists. Instead, these courses serve as a required introduction to biology for a variety of majors and pre-professional programs. Even though non-biology majors may be in a majority in this class, the course almost invariably will be taught as though all students present intend to continue on in biology in one form or another, whether that will be as health professionals or whatever. That is, majors' biology courses will not be tailored specifically to the needs of your major, but should be useful to you regardless.

In majors' biology you instead will be exposed, perhaps for the last time, to the breadth of biology, before you end up specializing in one or more of its aspects. Thus, the course will tend to cover topics that you will return to in subsequent courses, and you will be exposed here to some aspects of your major, perhaps before you commit completely to that degree program. Majors' biology, however, will also cover topics you ultimately will have less use for. As these topics are presented, whether you find them "relevant" or not, your professor will assume that all topics covered are equally important to your understanding of biology.

It also will be assumed that your department requires that you take a majors' biology course, rather than a non-majors course, because of an expectation that you will be exposed to introductory biology with a majors' rather than a non-majors' level of rigor. Thus, majors' biology will be taught as though it was being taught to a room full of biology majors. That means that for you to succeed then you must act like an individual who is majoring in biology, rather than as an individual for whom introductory biology is an otherwise irrelevant side issue to your ultimate career (or life) goals. At the very least, you should expect that showing significant enthusiasm (and respect) towards the discipline of biology will be a great aid toward your eventual success in the class.

So what is biology? For many of you, biology represents something that you watch on the Discovery channel. A bunch of animals (and plants) that are interacting, with great graphics and lots of excitement. For some of you, biology may have something to do with your staying healthy or excelling at sports. For others, biology represents one step down a road toward a career in the health sciences. Perhaps you care very much about the natural world and want to use an understanding of biology as a tool to clean up the biological disaster we humans, in all of our biological glory, have brought forth upon this planet. All those things are biology, and much more.

Much more? Yes, much, much more! Biology is huge. It exists as an enormous collection of applied sciences (medicine, pharmacology, bioengineering, agriculture, conservation of natural resources, etc.) and less-applied sciences (evolutionary biology, ecology, non-medical genetics, etc.). It even includes, or at least underlies things you might not think of as biology such as psychology, economics, marketing, and ergonomics. Biology also encompasses a great deal of chemistry. Many aspects of biology you might even consider to be applied chemistry. Just as the basic principles of chemistry are derived from physics, many of the basic principles of biology are derived from chemistry, and from physics as well.

But while physicists like to study very simple systems and chemists like to complicate things just a little, biology is the study of systems possessing literally incomprehensible complexity. Consequently, physics is sufficiently easy that much of what goes on may be described mathematically. You may balk at the math, but imagine how difficult physics would be if you could not describe physical processes mathematically. Chemistry, too, can be handled at even the introductory level using various mathematical tools, and the Periodic Table of Elements is one of the most awesome syntheses of ideas yet achieved by man. With biology you have few such luxuries.

Typically in biology, things are imperfectly understood (lots of gray areas) and far too complex to allow facile mathematical manipulation, though certainly there are exceptions, e.g., Mendelian genetics. A reduced ability to use math means that in biology there is far-less potential to derive answers from simple components. Consequently, there is a huge requirement that you simply memorize concepts along with the terms associated with their descriptions. Then, and here is the worst part of all, these concepts or even terms are typically imperfectly understood. Thus, even memorizing pat definitions usually will not equate with actually understanding what is going on. You have to immerse yourself in the science before understanding happens. To actually do biology, you will also be expected to apply these memorized concepts to novel situations, over and over and over again.

If you start with a very broad, incompletely understood, term- and concept-laden field, and then design a rigorous survey course to introduce it, you have all the ingredients for a recipe of information overload. Moreover, your professor is not going to attempt to completely protect you from either information overload or ambiguity in the course. Both are basic characteristics of the science of biology. If you have any desire to continue in biology, whether as a major or in a related field, then you will have to come to terms with both information overload and ambiguity. Your professor had to come to terms with this, and will continue to have to since, minimally, preparing for lectures they must confront information overload, ambiguities, and an incomplete understanding of concepts each and every day. (And that does not even begin to address the difficulties involved in doing research.) Nevertheless, the breadth and complexity of biology actually is the fun part, something certainly to always respect, but also something which means you will never run out of interesting questions or problems. Indeed, if biologists wanted easy problems, they wouldn't be a biologist (and, chances are, you wouldn't be studying biology).

Operationally, information overload means that major's biology courses will cover more material, you will be responsible for more details, and your professor will expect you to understand concepts better than many of you will prefer, or, indeed, are prepared to do. It means that when you sit down in front of the first exam you may be completely blown away by the dissonance between your usual studying strategies and that necessary to excel at majors' biology. Especially to excel to the point where you are able to answer all questions on all exams. It means that those of you who are perfectionists, but who do not have a superlative ability to memorize, as well as derive and understand, are not going to achieve 100s on exams, no matter how much studying you do. If you must be perfect to satisfy some inner demon, and you are not exceptionally bright, you are going to be frustrated by biology because there are always going to be 2000 nuances, concepts, or details that you won't even be aware of. In short, your expectations of what biology is all about and what biology really is all about probably do not fully correspond.

For those of you who are planning on going on to medical school, think of introductory majors' biology as medical-school lite. There is only a quantitative difference in intensity, not a qualitative difference. In particular, if at this level you cannot figure out how to deal with information overload, ambiguity, and not being able to know or understand everything, then you are not going to be able to deal with these problems at higher levels (e.g., organic chemistry, biochemistry, etc.). Furthermore, if you really are serious about going to medical school, then you should be able to excel in this course, or at least learn how to excel at it. Your professor certainly will not be setting things up so that nobody can earn an A. Therefore, if you think you have what it takes to go on to medical school, then you should also have what it takes to earn an A in introductory biology. No excuses, just do it.

No doubt I've now managed to scare many of you to death. And many of the rest of you may be saying, "What a jerk" (expletive deleted). Of course, if biology is that bad, then nobody would study biology, right? Well, right. The truth is that biology is not impossibly hard. It's just that it's harder than many of you realize. To succeed, all you are going to have to do is to get on top of the material as early as possible in the course, and then stay there. The only sure cures for information overload are organization and conscientious determination to learn the material. The best piece of advice that I can give, as well as the one most likely to not be taken sufficiently seriously, is that if you wait until after the first exam to get serious about your majors' biology course, then you are going to have a much (much, much, much) harder time than if you start getting serious today.

To succeed at biology, just as in chemistry or physics, you are going to have devote time to learning a core of language and understanding, well before sitting down for your first biology exam. It is upon this core that you will be building when you actually start studying for an exam. One does not study for biology in the same manner as for chemistry or physics, however. This is because problem solving is not quite as central to biology as it is to chemistry or physics. For many individuals, especially those who are better memorizers than problem solvers, this means that biology can be an easier science to learn than either chemistry or physics. In biology, however, you will lack the crutch of routinely assigned problem sets. In chemistry and physics, these problem sets force you to think about and engaging with these courses outside of the classroom on a regular basis. In biology there typically exists no mechanism forcing you to study regularly. Consequently, many are shocked – when they finally sit down to study for exams – at just how much material there is to learn. This, however, does not mean that biology is impossible. It simply means that, just as with chemistry and physics, the key to success in biology is to spread out your studying rather than saving it all for just prior to the exam. (Hint: If you are putting off doing your physics and chemistry problem sets until just before the exam, you are attempting the scholastic equivalent of running a marathon without first getting into shape, with, in most cases, predictable results.)

In biology your core of knowledge will mostly consist of memorized concepts (genetics, however, will also involve assigned problem sets). What you build onto this core while studying for exams will also consist of memorized concepts. Consequently, unlike in chemistry or physics, you are going to have to invent, by yourself and for yourself, ways to learn this core of knowledge. The easiest way to do this is to carefully copy your notes after each lecture, making sure as you do so that you fill in any missing information by consulting your text, your classmates, your TA, or your professor. That way you will develop a working knowledge of the material, your core. Then the material that you need to completely memorize for the exam will be much-less overwhelming. Again, everybody who has a desire to excel in biology must come up with a means by which they deal with information overload. It is up to you to implement a strategy that works for you. Furthermore, there is nothing more pitiful than watching someone attempt to cram, at the last possible moment, an entire term's worth of biology into his or her mind for a comprehensive final exam. I know it cannot be done. If you don't know this already, I can guarantee that you will learn, the hard way, when you take that final.

In short, biology is a difficult subject and may be unlike any you have encountered before. Your professor can and will play some role in limiting the amount of material that you are responsible for learning, and they can explain and then re-explain again the nuances of difficult concepts. What they cannot do is to force the information, day after day, into your brain, or change ineffective study habits into effective ones. Only you can do that.

The 1996 edition of the then Campbell introductory major's biology text put much of the above this way (p. 21): "In some ways, biology is the most demanding of all sciences, partly because biology is a multidisciplinary science that requires a knowledge of chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Modern biology is the decathlon of natural sciences. If you are a biology major or a pre-professional student, you have an opportunity to become a versatile scientist. If you are a physical science major or an engineering student, you will discover in the study of life many applications for what you have learned in your other science courses. If you are a nonscience student enrolled in biology as part of a liberal arts education, you have selected a course in which you can sample many scientific disciplines. And of all the sciences, biology is the most connected to the humanities and social sciences. ¶ No matter what brings you to biology, you will find the study of life to be challenging and uplifting. Do not let the details of biology spoil a good time. The complexity of life is inspiring, but it can be overwhelming."

See also Doing Well in Biology Class.