Studying for Biology class is a little different from studying for the other sciences. Physics is story problems: you're given a situation and you must pick out the relevant data to solve the problem. Chemistry is algebra; both sides of a chemical equation must balance just as both sides of an algebraic equation must balance. Biology? Biology is like foreign language: you have to know the words to speak the language. In fact, some educational research suggests that students learn more new terms in a year of biology than they do in a year of high school French.
There's more to learning Biology than memorizing vocabulary, however. The words are packets of meaning that may contain huge concepts. Understanding the concepts requires a lot of work and a willingness to let go of what you think the words ought to mean.
I've taught Biology for many years, and studied it myself for many years. There are some study techniques for Biology class that I and my students have found useful for mastering the concepts. Try these out and see what works for you.
You'll have a lot of new vocabulary to learn. Make flash cards just as you would if you're studying another language. Print the term on one side of the card and its definition on the other. If the definition your instructor gives you is a worded differently from the one in the glossary of your textbook, use your instructor's definition. The wording probably fits the concepts the instructor wants you to master. Flip through your flash cards every day, any time you have a few minutes to spare.
Research on human learning shows that when people think and try to reason their way through a problem, they can only hold a few ideas at a time in working memory. However, there's no limit to the size of those ideas. If you learn facts in biology as isolated bits of information, you can only think with a few small bits. When you link those facts to other facts, that whole linked network is one "item" to your working memory. You can also remember facts better when they're linked to other facts. One way to make a concept map is to use your vocabulary cards. Write the vocabulary words on small slips of paper. Arrange them on a large sheet of paper. With a pencil, sketch lines linking vocabulary words together. On the line, write in a phrase that defines the link. For example, if two of your words are "atoms" and "molecules," you might connect them this way: [atoms] - linked together make up -> [molecules]. Find as many conceptual connections between the vocabulary terms as you can.
A categorizing table is used to sort ideas into different categories. For example, if you're in the middle of a diversity unit and you need to remember the different phyla of animals, make a table where you list the different phyla across the top. Use your textbook, the internet, and other resources to look up all the examples you can find of members of each phylum. If you're studying the biomolecules, list the categories of biomolecules across the top of the table (proteins, lipids, carbohydrates, nucleic acids), then list examples of each underneath (be sure you know the difference between a type of protein, such as hemoglobin, and a nutritional source of protein, such as meat).
DEFINING FEATURES TABLES
You've just finished learning about mitosis and meiosis, and you just know that your teacher is going to test you over the differences between the two. Text yourself by making a defining features table. Down the side of the table, list all the features that your teacher will test you over, such as "produces two cells at the end," or, "produces haploid cells." Across the top, write "Mitosis" and "Meiosis." Now put a check underneath "Mitosis" or "Meiosis" to indicate which feature goes with which.
Have you ever had the sensation, while you're reading the textbook, that the information is just bouncing off of your forehead? The problem is that reading alone is too passive. If you want the information to stick, you need to be more active. Get out some paper and a pen and take notes as you read. If the book is yours and you don't mind marking it up, jot summaries of each section in the margin. Are there questions at the end of the chapter? Use these to review the chapters.
An outline helps organize information into a framework that helps you make more sense of it. Use outlining to merge the information from your textbook with the information from class lectures and labs. As you read your textbook, create an outline of the information. The chapter headers and subheaders will help you organize your outline. Then go through your lecture and lab notes and add in any information that's not in your textbook outline. This is a much better way of studying your notes than simply reading or rewriting them.
LEARN TO TAKE GOOD NOTES
I can stand in front of my class and talk for five minutes straight, and while my students listen attentively, I don't see one pencil moving. If I turn and write a single word on the board, all heads go down and everyone dutifully copies that word. How useful is this as a notetaking system? Not very - I'm sure my students go home and wonder what in the world that word meant.
When I show overhead presentations, I see a similar phenomenon. My students carefully copy the words on each slide, but few of them jot down the ideas as I explain what the concepts mean. If I show a figure, a picture, or an animation and talk about, the pencils are all still.
Instead of copying presentation slides word-for-word, learn to summarize the concepts. As your professor talks, you should jot down the ideas in your own words. Develop a few shorthand abbreviations so you can write faster. Use a good note-taking system, such as the Cornell system (example: http://www.bucks.edu/~specpop/Cornl-ex.htm), where you use one side of your paper to write detailed notes, and the other side to summarize main ideas, sketch pictures, or create small concept maps.
LEARN ABOUT MISCONCEPTIONS
Misconceptions about science are common, and they can be a real barrier to learning. So many common misconceptions just seem to "make sense," even though they're contrary to what we know about the world. Some misconceptions arise from the specific way science uses a word that has many different meanings outside of science. For example, the word "dominant" in genetics refers to a form of a gene whose trait is expressed even if you only inherit one copy of that gene. With recessive genes, you have to inherit two copes to show the trait. "Dominant" in this sense does not mean "most common," nor does it mean the gene will "take over" in a population. Other misconceptions arise from things we've heard all of our lives. For example, most people know that plants give off oxygen, which leads them to believe that the purpose of photosynthesis is to produce oxygen. Be aware that all of us, everyone, even your instructor, has misconceptions about something. Don't be embarrassed about your own. Be aware that you'll learn something that's contrary to what you thought was true about the world, and be open to changing your ideas.
STUDY IN GROUPS
Put social learning to work for you. Meet other people in your lecture and see if you can get together with them to study. Drill each other on vocabulary, quiz one another using your notes and the textbook, and go over study guides together. Many studies have shown that social learning increases student comprehension, especially in the sciences.
SEE YOUR INSTRUCTOR OFTEN
Your instructor is there to teach you, not just test you. If you're in college, find out when your instructor's office hours are and use them. If you're in high school, arrange a time after school when you can see your teacher. Bring specific questions, such as concepts you're not clear on. Try drawing a picture of the concept and show it to your instructor to see if you've got the main idea. If you do poorly on an exam, ask the instructor to go over the questions you missed with you so you can understand them better.
Give each of these study techniques a good, sincere try. You may find that an idea that you thought was not for you actually gives you a big boost on the next quiz or exam. Soon you'll find which techniques work best for you, and you may even find they're helping you in your other classes.