How to Study for Biology
For many high school students biology is a fascinating subject. This is especially true if the course includes lots of lab experiments, field trips and multimedia presentations. Biology may also seem overwhelming, however. There are many facts to memorize, especially in the senior years. Students are sometimes surprised to discover that they also have to analyze and interpret data, use reasoning skills and apply previously learned knowledge to new situations. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to study biology effectively.
I’ve taught high school biology for many years. I also help students prepare for graduation examinations. The tips and techniques described in this article are ones that help my students develop good study skills and do well in biology tests and exams.
Use Class Time Effectively
In order to learn biology you need to have accurate information to study. Make sure that you use your time in the biology classroom or lab effectively in order to collect this information.
- Get enough rest, eat nutritious food and limit junk food so that you're alert and ready to learn when you arrive at school.
- Attend all classes unless you have a very important reason for missing the class or unless you are ill. If you do have to miss a class, find out what was taught from your teacher.
- Complete all the required class assignments and homework.
- If you have errors in your marked assignments, find out what the correct answers are or what you did wrong. Make a note of the correct information.
- Make notes in class even if you’re not asked to. Write notes about what the teacher says and about what he or she writes on the blackboard, whiteboard or overhead projector.
- Don’t be afraid to approach your teacher for help, either during class or after class, if you don’t understand notes, facts or procedures. The teacher may well be less intimidating when dealing with students individually than when dealing with an entire class. He or she will probably be very pleased that you are making an effort to understand the material. Other people can also be of great help if they’ve studied biology and if they understand the section that you're studying. These people include your parents, siblings and friends with good work habits.
Taking Effective Notes
How to Take Notes
- Make your own notes about information that your teacher presents in class.
- Use point form if the information is being delivered quickly, writing down key words, terms or facts. Use abbreviations and symbols, provided you know what these mean. Leave spaces for later clarifications.
- Make sure you read over the notes to ensure that you understand them, preferably on the day that you created them.
- Tidy the notes up so that they are easy to read. Fill in any gaps in the information and clarify anything that’s confusing. Reference sources, such as textbooks and reliable Internet sites, can help you do this. Asking your teacher for clarification can also be helpful.
- Consider keeping all notes in a separate notebook or binder. Once your notes are accurate, read through them frequently to help you remember information.
- If you type your notes on an electronic device, remember to back them up frequently and in multiple places.
Note Taking Skills
Read and Use Textbooks Effectively
- Use your textbook regularly. Read the section that relates to your current classroom topic, even if the reading hasn’t been assigned, for reinforcement and clarification.
- Make brief summary notes on important sections of text. Consider highlighting the most important points in the textbook.
- Illustrations are very important in biology. Study drawings, diagrams, charts, tables, graphs and photos, along with their captions, very carefully.
- Try to relate graphics to the text as you read. The graphics may very well help you understand the information presented in the text better and also make memorizing facts easier. If a graphic is very important, copy it into your summary notes.
- Read what’s printed in the margins! Sometimes when I ask a question in an assignment a student tells me that the information that they need isn’t on the relevant pages in their textbook. The information is there, but it’s printed in the margin, which they haven’t read!
- Take advantage of the textbook’s organization. For example, if your textbook has extras such as chapter introductions, chapter summaries, vocabulary lists and appendices, make sure that you read them. If there are questions at the end of the chapters, try to answer them.
If your textbook has an associated website, make sure that you visit the site. The publisher may provide additional information and practice assignments. If the textbook is accompanied by a code that is needed to use the website, don't lose the code!
How to Use Your Textbook Properly
How to Create Mnemonics
How to Memorize
Never try to memorize something that you don’t understand. Facts have a habit of escaping from the mind if they’re learned by rote.
Create Cue Cards, Index Cards or Flash Cards
Some of my graduating students write biology facts on index cards and then store the "cue cards" that they've created in a file box, which they often carry around with them. Creating and reading the cue cards helps the students to memorize facts. If they write a question on one side of each card and an answer on the other side, they can use their cards as flash cards for group or individual study. Answering questions and then checking to see if the answer is right is a great way to memorize information.
I always congratulate my students for their effort in creating their cue cards, but I also remind them that although remembering facts is essential, that’s not all there is to biology, especially in the curriculum that we have to follow.
Use Mnemonics as Memory Aids
Mnemonics are words, phrases, sentences, graphics or sounds which act as memory aids to help people remember facts. You may enjoy creating your own mnemonics, but remember that to be effective the mnemonics must be both meaningful to you and easy to remember.
An example of a biology mnemonic that is often used to help students remember the order of classification categories is “Limping Dreadfully, King Phillip Came Over From Great Spain”. The first letter of each word is also the first letter of a classification category: Life, Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.
An example of a visual mnemonic is one that's used to remember the difference between a dromedary camel and a bactrian camel. A capital letter D at the start of "Dromedary" has one hump when it's turned on its side, just like the dromedary camel. A capital letter B at the start of "Bactrian" has two humps when it's turned on its side, like a bactrian camel.
How to Make a Concept Map
A concept map is a graphical chart that shows relationships and connections between concepts, ideas or topics in biology (and in other subjects). Concept maps are popular because they help people understand and learn. They're sometimes used as brainstorming tools.
A concept map is “hierarchical”. The most general and most inclusive topic is placed at the top of the map. The topics become more specific and less inclusive as the connections go down the page. Arrows link related topics. The nature of the relationship between the linked topics is written on or next to the arrow.
To create a concept map, start by writing the name of the most general concept in a box or a circle (a "node") near the top of a piece of paper. For example, in the section of a concept map shown above I wrote the word “pancreas” in my first box. Next, draw some boxes containing concepts that are related to your starting concept and connect them to the starting concept with arrows. The pancreas produces insulin, trypsinogen, lipase and pancreatic amylase, so I wrote the names of these chemicals in boxes and connected the new boxes to the pancreas box. Trypsinogen is converted into trypsin, so I showed this connection next. Both insulin and trypsin are made of amino acids, so I linked them to an amino acid box, which is shown at the next level of the map.
A complete and more complex biology concept map can be seen at the Nature website. You'll notice that the arrows can go in all directions and may cross over each other, forming cross-links.
Tips For Concept Mapping
You will need a large sheet of paper to draw your concept maps because you'll probably find that you can make many connections between the nodes. Be careful, though - some maps can become so complex that they are confusing. Stop drawing connections if your map becomes hard to read. Some people "draw" the maps with Post-it notes or sticky notes, which can be rearranged if necessary. There are also software programs that can be used to create concept maps. Some of these programs are free. A drawing program may work, too. Do an Internet search for "concept map software" to discover graphics programs that are specifically designed to create the maps.
How to Make a Mind Map
Create Mind Maps
Mind maps are meant to be spontaneous, relatively free-form diagrams that show associations between topics or ideas. Creating a map can be a very useful learning process, since like the creation of a concept map, it stimulates a person to think of new connections and relationships and helps the person to learn.
The main topic of a mind map is written or drawn in the centre of a page. Related subtopics are written around the main topic and connected to it by curved lines. The names of the subtopics are written above the lines. The subtopics can have subtopics as well! The connecting lines generally become thinner as they travel further away from the centre of the map. Mind maps often include images and colour. They can be fun to make and interesting to examine.
There are instructions for making mind maps in the video above and at the "Learning Fundamentals" website. Mind mapping software programs are available if you'd like to create the maps on a computer.
Since concept maps and mind maps are personal learning tools, it's more important that you draw maps that help you learn than create ones which follow all the correct rules (unless you're taking a course in which learning to create the maps is part of the curriculum). The video below will give you some more ideas for creating helpful diagrams, even though they don't all follow the usual pattern for drawing concept maps and mind maps.
Draw Diagrams to Help You Learn
Make a Study Plan
- Balance extracurricular activities, part time work, family obligations, your social life and relaxation time with study time. Make up a study schedule and stick to it. If you have to miss a study session because of an unexpected event, don’t panic, but get back to studying as soon as you can.
- For most people, studying frequently for small periods of time is more effective than studying for a long time occasionally. This is especially true when someone is studying biology. The amount of information that has to be learned in most biology courses builds up quickly. If you don’t keep on top of all this information the quantity of material that you will have to memorize when you finally sit down to study could be overwhelming.
Consider buying an agenda or planner to record important dates and information, such as the due dates for assignments, test and exam dates, dates of special events, your study schedule and a “To Do” list. If you use an agenda on a computer back up your entries frequently.
- Make sure that your study area in your home has sufficient room and is organized, even if the rest of the room is in chaos! You need a quiet area with adequate lighting and space for your notebooks or binders, textbook, agenda, writing and drawing instruments and your computer and printer, if you have them.
A Mnemonic Song About Cells
Develop Effective Study Skills
- Active studying is often more effective than passive studying. Reading information in silence and trying to remember it can be an effective study technique, but you also need to do something with the information as you study. I’ve always remembered a favorite saying of one of my high school teachers: “If you’re not studying with a pencil you’re not really studying!”
- For active learning your could write down questions about the material in your textbook or notebook and then try to answer the questions without looking at the books. You could also create cue cards, flash cards, mnemonics, outlines, summaries, concept maps, mind maps, diagrams and charts. Reading aloud, even when you’re on your own, may also be an effective study technique for you.
- If possible, form study groups with other people in your class to quiz each other and help each other understand topics. Just be careful that the study group doesn’t turn into a socializing group! To prevent this from happening you could decide on the length of the study period with your group and then take part in a fun social activity together once the study period is over.
- A very effective way to learn a topic is to try to teach it. Teach a short topic in your biology course to the other people in your study group. Answer their questions afterwards, just like a teacher would. Make notes of any questions that you couldn’t answer and find out what the answers are. Also make note of any factual errors in your presentation that were pointed out to you.
If your school has a homework room or offers after-school academic help, take advantage of this help if you need to.
How to Study
Evaluating Educational Websites
Using the Internet and Website Evaluation
- You have one great advantage compared to me when I studied high school biology: the Internet! Use the learning resources that it offers. Access the Internet at school or in a public library if you don’t have a computer and an Internet connection at home.
- Remember that there are a lot of ways to waste time when you're online. You mustn’t get distracted during your study time. Save the computer games and social activities for after your scheduled study period.
- If your teacher gives you useful web addresses for your biology course, make sure that you save the addresses and visit the sites.
- Use reliable sites when you are searching for academic information on your own. Look for web addresses that end in .edu or .gov, or visit well known news sites, magazine sites, online museums, learning centers or book publisher sites that have good reputations. Use multiple sites for research, even if the first site you visit seems reliable. Bookmark useful sites to make future research more efficient.
- Online dissection sites are helpful, either to replace a classroom dissection or to review a dissection that was done in class. Do an Internet search for the animal dissection of your choice.
- Sometimes a curriculum guide or syllabus for a particular course is published online, often listing specific facts that students are supposed to know. This is not only useful for teachers but is also a great learning resource for students! I give my Grade Twelve (final year) students a list of these prescribed learning outcomes. It acts as a checklist for what they need to know. Ask your teacher if there is a relevant site for your biology course.
Biology Exam Practice
Write Practice Exams
- Online exam practice sites that also provide answer keys are very useful, not only for checking that you know biology facts but also for practice in answering questions written in a certain style or questions that require reasoning abilities.
- Going through previous exams is one of the best ways to prepare for an upcoming examination, especially if you expect the exam to include questions that don't involve simple recall of facts but require you to use higher level thinking skills. You need to practice these skills so that you can apply them in real life, in future courses and in your upcoming biology examination.
- Even if your biology curriculum is not identical to the one covered by an online examination, the exam can still be useful. You may find that your biology course is covered in examinations from different grades (years) when you're looking at the exams from other countries.
- I've listed some examples of exam question sites that my students and I use. Ask your teacher if there are exam practice sites that are designed specifically for your biology course.
Ultimately, how well you do in a biology course depends on how determined you are to succeed, but the good news is that there is a tremendous amount of help available for today’s biology students. My students succeed using the strategies described in this article: you can too!
© 2012 Linda Crampton
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