How I Study for Biology Classes
Hello my lovely readers, today I'm happy to share with you all how I study for my biology classes. For those who don't know, I am a Cell Bio and Genetics major and I have taken 6 biology classes at UMD thus far from 100 level to 300 level and this semester I am going into the 400 level classes which is pretty exciting. In each biology class I have learned through trial and error the ways to study the material and so today I want to share with you all the methods that have worked best for me!
Before I get started, whenever I write a blog on studying or academics I always want to stress that what works for me might not work for you and vice versa. Some topics you found easy to understand might have been a challenge for me, some classes I loved, you might hate....I could go on and on. I still want to write this blog because we can learn so much from each other :)
Also, drumroll please........I have uploaded some new resources to my website!
Be sure to keep reading this blog to learn more about how my notes can be helpful and then head to my resources page for the free download.
Just a reminder, you must be a site member to have access, membership is 100% free and it takes just a few seconds to sign up.
First, I wanted to describe the biology classes I have taken so far and what I liked best and what I found most challenging for each one. Next, as I describe the biology study tips I'll refer back to these classes and let you know which study techniques worked best for me.
BSCI 160 - Ecology and Evolution
Class description: the focus of this course is on multi-cellular levels of biological organization, the mechanisms of evolution and speciation, and the diversity of life and phylogenetic relationships among organisms
The highs: This is the first biology class in the sequence that is required for biology majors so I was just so excited to start my major. A great thing about this course is that there are many resources to help you learn the material such as in class activities homework, and quizzes. My favorite topics were evolution and genetic diversity! I liked learning pedigrees, punnet squares, and Hardy-Weinburg and this course gave a solid foundation for the courses to come.
The challenges: Ecology is not my favorite biology subject so some of the material was just not interesting to me which can make it challenging to study for. I tried my best to make connections towards topics I were interested in such as medicine and the human body whenever possible. There is also a lot of information in this course compared to high-school biology so there is a learning curve for students.
Overall: This is one of those classes that builds a foundation of information that you might not think is the most useful or relevant while in the course but as you go further along the major these topics from 160 truly reoccur. This semester I will be an Supplemental Instructor for this course for the Academic Achievement Program which I am so excited about! This means that I am currently sitting in on 160 lectures and creating lesson plans for my students to reinforce the material.
Grade: I ended with an A in this course.
BSCI 170: Principles of Molecular and Cellular Biology
Class description: The focus of this course is on the molecular and cellular basis for all life on this planet, covering fundamental processes that underlie nearly every aspects of organismal function, behavior and evolution.
The highs: When I took this class I wasn't a cell biology major yet and this course really made me more interested in the molecular and cellular aspects of biology. I really loved the material we covered and I found it relatively easy to understand the concepts.
The challenges: I guess one challenge I had with this course is that every week we would have group activities about the information, which is research proven to help students learn! But personally, I prefer lectures and found myself looking forward to lecture days rather than the activity days.
Overall: Overall, this class is a great basis and introduction to cellular biology, if you choose to specialize in cellular biology like me then I think this course gives the foundation that you need. As the second biology course you take, this is really the time to find which study methods are working and which ones are not.
Grade: I ended with an A!
BSCI 207: Organismal Biology
Description: focuses on understanding broad principles underlying the functional biology of organisms at the level of the individual, a level of organization between molecules & cells (the focus of BSCI 170) and ecology & evolution (the focus of BSCI 160).
The highs: In this course the information got a bit more challenging which was a high for me personally because I enjoyed the challenge of going from the 100 level bio courses to the 200 level bio courses. I enjoyed the units on neurons and learning about gas exchange and nutrient uptake in animals and kidneys!! This course introduced some topics that I hadn't given through in before and made me look at living organisms in a new way.
The challenges: Some of the information in this course is just hard to get through....no lie I fell asleep during some lectures which I'm not proud of but I couldn't help it when we were discussing topics like plants and trees. The exams were much harder than the 160 and 170 exams, you really had to know the details for multiple choice and show your understanding in the free responses!
Overall: Out of my friends I am the only one who says that I liked this class, and this is still true. Overall I liked the course because of the details that we discussed and some of the topics we learned, but that doesn't mean I didn't have challenges and difficulties with the material. 207 can feel like you're going all over the place material wise which is something even the professor admitted too and I do think there is room for improvement in the structure of this course. My tip would be, as of right now all bio majors must take 207 so make the best of it! A positive attitude always always helps so I tried to make the material connect to medicine and the human body whenever possible.
Grade: I ended with an A!
BSCI 222: Principles of Genetics
Description: this course focuses on the mechanisms of genetic inheritance, molecular mechanisms of genes and mutations, methods of genetic technologies, and other principles of the field of genetics.
The highs: Genetics really amazes me because our DNA makes up everything about us and a simple mutation can cause so much damage. I really enjoyed learning more about genetic inheritance than Punnet Squares and really diving into the makeup of chromosomes, DNA structure and linked genes. I found that in biology, we learn a lot about how things function from when things go wrong and so I also enjoyed learning about mutations. I used to only know about SNPs but now I learned about inversions, translocations, and chromosomes breaking and also the repair mechanism our body has to fix them. DNA regulation was a very interesting topic again which felt like an additional layer of complexity on an already complex mechanism of DNA expression.
The challenges: This course I took at the same time as BSCI330 and I found it to be more challenging even though it was a 200 level course versus a 300 level course. To be successful in this class takes a lot of work. This course goes over so much information because it tries to give all the foundation of genetics which means that there is a lot of vocabulary to learn, mechanisms of DNA translation and transcription to memorize, and understanding to gain about genetic technologies. The exams were very challenging in my opinion, you really had to know your stuff with not a lot of time to complete the exams. This course really required me to study, study, study.
Overall: My thoughts are that Genetics was probably the most challenging course thus far for me personally, the field is complex and everything you learn in this course works together. Exam 1 gives the foundation for exam 2 and so on, it is a lot of information building on top of each other. While it was challenging, it was not impossible to do well. I was able to get low As and high Bs on the exams and final and there was lots of extra credit to help out.
Grade: I earned an A!
BSCI 330: Principles of Cellular Biology and Physiology
Course Description: The course deals with biochemical and physiological mechanisms underlying cellular functions and through which cells transduce energy, reproduce, and integrate with each other and with their environments.
The highs: This course was hands-down one of my favorite courses at UMD! I loved the material that we covered and it made me so much more interested in cellular biology. Something I loved about the course is that we didn't only focus on the small cellular view but we connected it to the overall body and to various diseases and conditions. I enjoyed learning about viruses and how they highjack a cell, or how important molecules are transported through the cellular membrane and the important function of the lysosome. We discussed the cellular mechanisms behind diseases like heart disease, I-cell disease, and cholera.
The challenges: As you go up in biology classes the information just increases and increases and this is no exception for BSCI 330. The biggest challenge in this course for me was the time that was required to thoroughly review and study the material, especially with taking it with genetics in the same semester. Also, there isn't any GSS for this course so forming a study group is key! If you miss one lecture, you are truly behind so it is good to have friends who you can share notes with. The exams tested your understanding and your memorization of the material.
Overall: Overall, I looooooved this course! If you are interested in medicine and cells then I think you will really enjoy this course as well. I didn't find it as challenging to understand the material but there is a lot of material to learn so be prepared to take a lot of notes. The lab is pretty fun and not as intense as chemistry labs.
Grade: I earned an A+!
BSCI399-I: Cellular Mechanisms of Aging and Disease
Description: Through the reading, analysis, and discussion of current primary and secondary literature in the field of cell biology and biomedicine, this course will explore how alterations in normal cellular and molecular processes lead to both aging and a variety of non-infectious human diseases currently plaguing our society.
The highs: I just finished this course and it was my favorite course next to 330 that I have taken! This class really gave me such a foundation on the cellular mechanisms of disease and I learned more than I ever imagined. We looked at cell injury first and how a cell adapts to stress such as the many molecular pathways that can help a cell express genes to promote or inhibit cell growth and help the cell repair itself. We also discussed the various categories of injury causing stimuli such as oxidative stress, hypoxia, misfiled proteins and DNA damage. All of this information gave the foundation to understand various diseases such as Type 2 Diabetes, Heart Disease, Cancer, and Neurodegenerative Diseases. The connection of the body to the organs to the tissues to each individual cell is what I love about cellular biology and connecting these concepts to medicine and disease was everything I wanted to learn in this course.
The challenges: I took this course over the winter which means that the class was only 3 weeks long. It is amazing how much information you can learn in three weeks!! Time and the amount of information was the hardest part of the course, we had a lot of research papers to read which took several hours and then you had to make time for the lectures, notes, and quizzes as well. I found that the best way to succeed was to make a plan and stick to it. As far as the information, the lectures were easy to understand but some of the primary research articles were difficult to get through and took much more time. The structure of the course has the information build on each other, so if you understand the basis of cell injury then it helps you understand the specifics of each disease we cover.
Overall: I found this course to be extremely informative and interesting, which is great for a winter course because I was so excited by the material. This course really extended my understanding of cell biology and cellular signaling pathways which is very helpful for my undergraduate research on the signaling pathway in the allergic response. I think this class will also give me a great bases for my next course on the Biology of Cancer. If you are a biology major and are looking for an interesting course I highly suggest this one.
Grade: I got an A+!
Now this semester I am taking BSCI 433- Biology of Cancer and BSCI 410- Molecular Genetics, I'm really excited for the material!
Now that I've described the biology courses and what I found most challenging for each course I want to talk about some study strategies that I found helped me be successful in the course.
Going to Lectures
I am the type a student that goes to all my lectures...for the most part, but especially for biology courses. I found that going to lecture was helpful for the bio courses I took because I used that time to hear the information for the first time, ask questions, and write my first version of notes. Some courses, like 330 it was essential to go to lecture because the powerpoint slides were only images so you really had to go to class to get the information. Other courses like 222 had every lecture recorded, after some time due to my busy schedule I found it more beneficial for me to skip some lectures and watch the recording instead.
Something I found helpful was to record lectures. I did this for 207 and 330 and I used these recording when I did my second round of notes to rehear the material, reinforce ideas that were more complex, and be sure that I didn't miss any content. Even when I went to 222 lecture I would still listen back to the recording at least one time. So for these biology classes I heard the material at least twice...sometimes more.
Why I found this helpful is that in 160 and 170, the material is spread out over multiple days and reinforced while in the upper level classes the material could be presented just once in lecture. I found it really crucial to make sure I was exposed to the material multiple times before it was time to study for the exam.
Succeeding in biology classes requires a lot of review of the material to ensure that you understand it and remember it. Since my introductory biology courses I have always had at least two sets of notes: my in-lecture notes and my out-of-lecture notes. Since then, I have added an additional step which is typed notes and I found that this three-step note taking process has been super helpful, here is how I do it.
In lecture notes: when in lecture, you are hearing the material for the first time and you're not going to understand all of it in the 50 minute lecture time that you are there. The goal of lecture is to get a hold of the material being presented to you, highlight the important parts that the professor emphasizes, and ask questions and for clarifications as they arise. Since I realized that my time in lecture was really not my study time, it made sense to me that these notes are NOT my study notes.
The best strategy that has worked for me is to have the lecture slides downloaded on my Notability app before class and doing lecture I will write additional notes that the professor says onto the slides instead of spending the 50 minutes trying to copy down what is on the slide. This means that in biology lecture, I spend less time writing and more time listening.
Depending on the course you may also want to record lectures. My BSCI330 professor didn't type on his slides and so it was crucial for me to record lectures to listen back. Genetics was a lot of information but thankfully we had Panopto recordings that I could listen back to.
Typed notes: research has proven that typing your notes is less effective than writing them, and for in lecture I agree. I started typing notes for a specific reason: time! It is really important that you go over your lecture notes and my goal is to go over the notes at least every 2-3 lectures and try not to get farther behind than that.
When I go over my lectures, I pull out my notes on my iPad, pull up the Panopto or recording, and my google doc for that unit and I will register to the lecture and type out my notes. My typed notes are a combination of information off the lecture slides, information I wrote in lecture, additional explanations from Youtube, Khan Academy, and any other online sources, and images. When I do these notes I really try to understand the material and highlight any questions I may have.
An example of some typed genetics notes:
Re-written notes: as mentioned before I have been re-writing my notes since my first biology course and I still do now. This is the final step in my note taking process and this is what I will do when we finish a certain topic. Let's say we finished Cell Theory and Viruses...since I kept up with lecture notes and typed notes, I'll take a few hours in the weekend and create my "final" re-written notes. In these notes I use the lecture slides and my typed out notes to put together the major ideas from the lectures, draw all the diagrams, cellular pathways, and molecules so I am sure I understand it.
I have uploaded examples of my final written notes for BSCI330 if you are interested!
I just want to emphasize that this is a continuous process, by the time the exam comes around I am (usually) done with all my final written notes and ready to review the material. I think that this is a true key for acing biology courses, you can't try to learn everything in the days leading up to your exam. If you give this three-layered-note strategy a try let me know how it goes!
Testing myself is a study technique that I also started my first year in college and it works like a charm so I keep doing it. Testing yourself helps you know what you need to re-study and what material you can move on from. I would say that testing yourself is different than just doing past exams that teachers provide...for biology courses I do both.
I will create my own questions for most courses and use textbook questions to create my test. For example, here is a screenshot of my google drive folder for genetics:
For every topic, we had a total of 14, I made a set of questions that I would go through and answer once we finished the topic. Once the exam comes around, I have already answered questions on each topic and I just refocus on areas I need to work on and do the practice exams to get a feel for the type of questions.
This technique is great and I have been using it for so many courses now! It forces you to go back to your notes to write questions on the material and it forces you to learn actively. Instead of just re-reading your notes again and again, you can try answering questions and learn from your mistakes.
Other ways to test yourself include quizlets and flashcards which I will also use.
Studying for Exams
When it comes to studying for the exam, I really love making study groups. Studying with others is helpful to be able to go over topics together. Teaching someone is also a useful way to study because it tests your understanding for the material. In my study groups, we would take turns answering questions and explaining concepts to each other.
I really love using check-lists for exams. As the exam approaches, I will go through my notes and make a list of the concepts we covered. Then as I start studying, I check off everything on the list. This gives me structure to my study schedule and helps me be sure that I covered all the material.
My final tip for studying is that it is easy to be comfortable reviewing the material that you are good at, but you learn best when you go through the struggle, challenge yourself, and focus on the material that is more difficult for you. When you are learning and studying this is the time to make mistakes rather than on the exam.
I wanted to end this blog with some tips for biology finals. By the end of the semester, the information that you have covered is almost unbelievable and it can be incredible overwhelming to even think about the final exam. I've written blogs on final exam tips before I wanted to share some strategies that helped me ace my biology finals.
Here is a tip for the 330 final with Ades, his final is known for being very difficult and it is all multiple choice. I came up with this study tip for me and my friends and it worked out to be so helpful! What we did is we made our own final practice exam. We split up the class by topics and each of us went through the material and wrote multiple choice questions and made an answer sheet for that topic and then put them all together. We ended up with a 76 page document....crazy I know!
But it was so helpful, for each of us we got a great review of the material we wrote questions for and practice from the questions we didn't write. We practiced ways he could have made the multiple choice difficult and discussed test taking strategies. Back to my tip of active studying, instead of skimming through notes I would flip through the pages of questions and made sure I knew the answer. All in all, it was an amazing thing! One of my friends ended up with 200/200 on the final!
While I haven't made 76 page final practice exams for other courses, I have always made a final exam review. I always type this review sheet because there is so much information it is always faster that way. When making the review sheet I start from the very first topic and outline all the major ideas.
I hope that this blog helped provide some insight into the ways that I study for biology. Again, this is the way I approached these courses but that doesn't mean it will work for everyone. I truly love biology and with every class I take I gain a greater and greater appreciation for the field. Biology courses contain a lot of memorization and lots of material and so my overall tips are just to keep up with the material and test your understanding along the way.
If you're a bio major at UMD and ever have any questions about the classes I talked about, feel free to chat with me anytime! Again, I hope this was helpful and I think I'll make this a little series. I'll probably do a "How I Study for Chemistry" up next so if you'd like to see that let me know and share this blog post with your friends!
Thanks for reading!