HOW TO STUDY BIOLOGY (and succeed)

There are no tricks or short-cuts when it comes to succeeding in Biology classes at Texas Tech University. University-level Biology is difficult and there is no substitute for hard work. But what is meant by "hard work"? One component is time spent on task. When we speak of time, we should consider both the quantity of time spent and the quality of time spent.

There is so much material to be understood that a substantial time commitment is required. There is time spent in lecture, but also time spent preparing for class, reading the assigned pages, upgrading notes, and studying for tests (which might cover as many as ten chapters). Yet, a student can devote a lot of time to these activities and still do poorly in Biology. This is because the quality of time spent is also an important factor. Many students become discouraged when, though they spend hours and even days studying for tests, they still get unsatisfactory scores. Usually this occurs because what they do when they study is low-quality work.

What are some examples of low-quality work? One example would be reading the textbook just to get the reading assignment out of the way. A student who reads properly, on the other hand, reads with a critical eye, constantly asking him/herself questions like: "If I had to teach this to someone, could I do it?" or "What if this process where screwed up somehow; then how would the results differ?" or "The text's treatment of this topic differs from what I learned in high school (or what I learned in class today); what question could I ask in class that might clear this up?"

Another example of low-quality work is going over and over your class notes. This is an activity that assumes one will be tested in a low-quality fashion, i.e. with test items that require you to do nothing but recall and repeat. This is a false assumption. You will be asked to integrate concepts from different lectures, to apply the principles of biology covered in class to situations that were not covered in the lecture or text, to evaluate new situations in light of the material covered during the test unit. High-quality work entails preparing for such questions. Preparing entails organizing the mass of new information in such a way that it helps you understand the way the concepts are related to each other.

A final example of low-quality work is coming to class regularly and just taking notes. Why is this low-quality work? Because many people go on auto-pilot when they take notes. They switch off their brains and become passive sponges or tape recorders, assuming that later on, they will only need to act like a pair of speakers to play back what was written down. As in other things, your attendance at lectures can be either low-quality or high-quality. High-quality attendance entails being critical during the lecture, asking questions like: "Why does it work that way?" or "How do we know that? What is the evidence?" "How does that relate to what the professor said the other day about...?" There is a world of difference between questions such as those listed above and questions like: "Could you repeat that?" or "Could you spell that?" or "Do we have to know this for the test?" The answers to these questions might be important, but asking them does not indicate that critical thinking has been going on, as do the earlier questions.

As you can see, the successful student will necessarily have to work hard. The suggestions above are labor-intensive; they require more mental gymnastics. But just as a gymnast would be foolish to expect to succeed at a complex maneuver on the first try at an important competition, as foolish would be a student who expected to pass tests requiring higher-order thought processes without first practicing these same processes.

Successful students take pains to carry out some sort of lecture follow-up activity. For many, this means rewriting their lecture notes. A lot of students find this activity to be very tedious. An alternative follow-up activity is a strategy known as Concept Mapping. Like rewriting notes, this is an activity that helps you reorganize the information in a way that conforms to your mental "landscape." Better than rewriting your notes, it helps you to discern the patterns and relationships between concepts. Much research supports the effectiveness of this strategy in helping students learn complex material. The process will be detailed in the presentation that accompanies this handout. Below is a summary of the steps in constructing a concept map, followed by guidelines to use in constructing the most helpful maps possible.

Steps in Making A Concept Map

1. Make a list of the concepts from the lecture.

2. Rank the concepts from most general to most specific.

3. Start each map at the center of the top of the page with the most general concept, which will generally be the chief topic of a particular lecture. Below it, place the second-most general concept(s), etc...

4. Circle these two concepts and link them with a solid line.

5. Label the line with a linking phrase.

6. Work your way down the page, adding increasingly specific concepts and looking for crosslinks, which should be drawn with dashed lines.

7. Add details (examples).

8. Do a second version of the map with the goal being to add formerly unnoticed crosslinks and to organize the map so that it flows as logically and as clearly as possible.

Guidelines for the Most Helpful Maps

1. A typical 50-minute lecture should contain at least 20 (and not more than 45) concepts. Concepts are usually nouns.

2. Label ALL links and crosslinks with linking phrases. Links generally consist of verbs, but other words may be used where appropriate.

3. Circle the concepts, leave examples uncircled.

4. Each concept should only appear once in a given map. Redundancy of concepts usually indicates that you missed an important conceptual relationship.

5. Concept maps should flow down the page only.

6. Concept maps should NOT resemble flow charts or chronologically based outlines of the lecture. They should not be sentences with some words diagrammed. An important goal is to accurately relate as many concepts as possible using crosslinks. Maps with long strings of concepts or with several isolated and unlinked branches indicate misunderstanding of the goal of concept mapping.

Further Suggestions:

1. Attend ALL lectures: This gives you a good idea of what the professor(s) think most important. It also allows you to learn by hearing and seeing simultaneously -- much more effective than either one of these alone.

2. Make a regular appointment with your instructor to go over questions you have, or test your own understanding by explaining material back to him/her. It is always better not to be an anonymous face in a crowd -- get to know you professors.

3. Come to class prepared by having outlined the assigned pages ahead of time. This will help you make more sense of the lecture as you listen to it and this, in turn, will help you to...

4. Engage your brain in the lecture. Don't allow yourself to become a note-taking automaton. Think! Be critical! Be skeptical! Ask questions! If you are shy, ask questions after class or during office hours.

5. Put proper closure on each lecture. Within 24 hours of each lecture -- the sooner the better -- (1) ask yourself what the lecture was about without using your notes, and (2) write your answer in the form of a concept map. This is the best time to spot points of confusion or discrepancies between text and notes, which you should write down and follow-up on. It is very important to spend time in this fashion if you are serious about succeeding in biology.

6. Pay attention to the figures in your text, especially the summary figures, like Fig. 7.6 in Freeman's Biological Science, 5th edition. Figures are expensive to produce and publishers try to use them sparingly in order to reinforce main points.

7. Budget your time. There is such a huge amount of material to be mastered that studying cannot be put off into an all-night cram session before tests. This is a time-tested recipe for failure; if not failure of the test itself, then failure to understand biology. Will you have a cumulative final exam? What is your plan for keeping material from the beginning of the semester fresh and in mind? You would be well-advised to have such a plan.

8. Don't be a hermit. Once you have studied a good bit on your own, get together with a few others who are interested in understanding biology in order to bounce questions off each other, compare concept maps, create sample test questions, explain concepts to each other, and to be able to answer your colleagues' questions regarding those same explanations.

9. Don't miss the forest for the trees. Concentrate on the concepts, not on the minutiae. You will not be asked to recall picky details or to memorize tables (like the genetic code). You will be asked to apply broad concepts to solve specific problems.