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Study Tips for Biology Classes

Updated on June 28, 2013

Study Smarter

Welcome! I'm a Biology professor at a small college. In this lens I'll share my thoughts on how to study for your Biology courses and provide some basic "crash course" type information regarding general concepts in microbiology and molecular biology.

Important Advice

As you prepare to study, consider the following advice from Dr. Robert Leamnson:

"...learning is not something that just happens to you, it is something that you do to yourself. You cannot be 'given' learning, nor can you be forced to do it. The most brilliant and inspired teacher cannot 'cause' you to learn. Only you can do that."

from - Learning (Your First Job)

Taking a Biology Class?

Here are 5 Study Tips to Help You Succeed

1. Know the language.

Studying biology is like studying a foreign language. You need to learn the vocabulary if you hope to be successful. As you read, make a note of any words that are unfamiliar to you and look up the definitions. No glossary? Try a Google search in the form of "define: search term".

2. Read the Book.

Take the cellophane off the cover and start reading. Yes, really! Remember that most Biology texts don't read like a good novel (or even a bad novel, for that matter) - take your time and backtrack as necessary. Also, take advantage of any online resources or CDs that may be associated with your text.

3. Pay attention to the pictures.

Students often ignore the figures, tables, charts, graphs, etc. in their textbooks because they feel that stopping to analyze them will only add to the time it takes to read the assigned text. You may actually find that it is easier to study the figures first (a picture is worth 1000 words...) and then to go back and fill in the details by reading the pertinent text.

4. Ask questions. Find answers.

As you read and study the figures, try to keep the "big picture" in focus and ask yourself some questions. Why does (whatever) work this way? How did (someone) figure out this mechanism? What would happen if (whatever) stopped working? Now, as you continue to read, focus on finding answers to these questions.

5. Be curious.

It is difficult (if not impossible) to learn if you remain disengaged from the subject. Whether you a Biology major or non-major, take advantage of your time in the course. Look for the applications of the material that you are studying. Check the news, do a quick search on Google Scholar, add a science feed to your RSS reader. Becoming an active participant in your education will pay dividends.

A Student's Guide to Immunology

COMING SOON - a new eBook to help you learn the basic concepts of immunology. For more information, check out:

How Long Should I Study?

Until You're Done...

Ah...the $25,000 question. How long should I study? The general rule of thumb for most college classes is that a student can expect to study 2 hours for every hour of lecture. So, if you have a 3 hours of lecture per week, you should be studying 6 hours per week outside of class. Of course this is a ballpark figure. Some students may find that 3 hours per week is sufficient, while other students may need to put in 9, or more, hours per week.

Many students feel that this is unreasonable. However, if you consider the time involved in reading (reading...not skimming) the text, analyzing the figures, working the practice problems, and reviewing your notes as well as any study materials provided by the prof, you will likely find that these estimates are not exaggerated.

Planning to forego a balanced approach to studying and relying on cramming the night before the exam? Best of luck.

How to Take, and Use, Good Notes

The Cornell Method

The Cornell method of note taking provides a framework for incorporating the five R's of note taking: Record, Reduce, Recite, Reflect, Review. In a nutshell, the Cornell system involves the use of a note page divided into three sections. The main section is used to take notes, while the two smaller sections of the page are used to store "cue" word/phases and summaries, respectively.

You can find more details on the Cornell method at:


FYI - A Cornell Note Paper Generator can be found here.

Don't Underestimate the Power of Animations

Biology is complex - take the time to search for animations and/or videos that describe process in detail. For example, check out the examples below.

Recommended Study Materials from Amazon

The PCR Song


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