Starting college biology this fall? Here are some tips

As someone who’s taught thousands of students, I have a few tips for those of you kicking off the semester. While my focus has always been biology, these pretty much apply to almost any course.

1. Go to class. It’s the number-one thing you can do to do well. Don’t sleep in. Don’t skip just because you got to talking with someone in the coffee shop who’s pretty hot and you’d rather sit there making progress than make progress just at that moment in class. Go. To. Class. Trust me.

2. Take notes in class. Good, thorough notes. If your professor allows it and you learn best through listening, record the class. Always ask permission first.

3. Ask questions in class. How your instructor receives questions may determine how nutty you can get with this. I always welcome questions because my experience tells me that if one student doesn’t understand something, about 12 more who aren’t speaking up don’t get it, either. Consider yourself their spokesperson, raise your hand, and ask.

4. Do readings before class. Even if you don’t understand half of what you read, at least vocabulary won’t be a total shock to you. If you do understand it, then lecture should serve as good reinforcement. Also, I think too many students overlook figures and graphs in reading material. Make sure to review and understand them, as graphic representations in biology are often the most relevant ways to learn the material.

5. Understand your working vs. long-term memory. You must transfer from one memory bank to another. The best reinforcement you can do is to review your notes/reading as soon after lecture as possible. Get that information in there through this second review, whether it’s by re-reading, a study group/partner, or listening to your recorded lecture again.

6. Don’t start studying for an exam the day before the exam. Start studying for the exam whenever you get new material. That means after every class. This isn’t high school. Much of this information is complex and requires time for absorption and real understanding. You’ll do yourself a huge favor if you study every day after class as though you had quiz over new information the very next day.

7. If your instructor indicates being amenable, take advantage of emailing/message boards/other interfaces to ask questions for clarification as you study. My best students often were those who emailed me questions as they went along. These students were not, however, the ones who tried to blanket me with my own review questions the night before a big exam, hoping I’d answer them.

8. Use office hours, especially to clarify last-minute questions or complex information. If your instructor is not a fan of electronic communication, use the office hours.

9. Think like your instructor. What have they emphasized in class? Are there copies of old exams (legally acquired) that might give you an idea of how they ask questions or what depth they’re expecting for answers? If you were writing a test over this material, what would you ask? Ask it, and then answer it.

10. Go to class. Have I mentioned this one yet?

Next up: How to study for biology.

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