Studying College Biology: How to Learn as You Go

STEM majors must take an array of courses to build a solid foundation for any career. An affinity for science or math isn’t all it takes to succeed! We need excellent studying skills, and often those study skills need to change based on the class and professor. My biology professor, Rodney Olsen at Fresno City College, always begins the semester by talking about a rather intelligent friend who tried to use study skills from his history degree to obtain a science degree. He flunked out almost instantly and had to relearn how to study to support his STEM-related goals.

So, let’s make it easier on ourselves! Today, I’ve compiled suggestions and techniques offered by tutors, professors, and students who have succeeded in biology courses. Following these tips and tricks every day will help you develop skills you can rely on for the rest of your biology education.

Basic Needs

Autistic adults are an at-risk population for homelessness and have poor employment rates across the spectrum. Students with autism often struggle to secure food, financial stability, and shelter. However, there are programs accessible through the Disability Services Office, on-site food pantries, and even some websites such as Autism Housing Network (AHN). AHN partners with homeowners to provide accommodations for autistic adults.

Autistic people are also less likely to be able to get a good night’s sleep. Most autism sleep studies have been conducted on children, but the rates are telling. Of children with autism, 48 to 86 percent have a real problem trying to sleep. Autistic people get just 65 percent of Rapid Eye Movement rest per night compared to neurotypicals.

Comprehensive studies are being completed by at least one known research team. But, until we have a definitive understanding of sleep disorders associated with autism, autistic people will simply have to use suggested methods to sleep. Setting a nightly routine, trying out different lighting, temperatures, and textures, and in some cases taking prescription sleeping aids, can all have a positive effect on sleep.

Finally, remember to evaluate relationships with family, friends, and significant others. Are they healthy, supportive forces in your life? If not, are you able to confront the situation? It can be nearly impossible to focus on schoolwork when dealing with dysfunction in the home. Psychological and counseling services are available at many colleges if you need help working through personal and/or relational issues. Abuse can be reported to local police or national hotlines such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which features a text option. You can also report abuse to your state’s child abuse and neglect reporting hotline (for people under the age of 18).

Dr. Mike Gilbert, anatomy and physiology professor and Chair of the Biology Department at Fresno City College, made it clear how important it is to address these needs. He is willing to work with students struggling financially, medically, and so on. He suggests students with sudden changes in ability to meet demands of the class contact their professor to inform them of the situation. Then, put school aside and handle the situation: “When you feel ready to return to the class, at that point, we can meet and have a strategy from this point on.” Many professors today are flexible with due dates and will help struggling students complete the course. The worst case scenario is simply that a student would have to retake a course. And if that happens, Dr. Gilbert recommends, “Keep coming, keep attending. Do everything because what we’re doing is setting a foundation, making it more likely that you will be successful next semester.”

Learning As You Go

As I spoke to professors, tutors, and students, a common theme emerged: learning as you go. Surely, everyone has been warned never to procrastinate, but in biology one simply cannot afford to. Professor Olsen, who currently teaches cellular, ecological, and field biology, drew a diagram much like this in my first semester with him:

Complete the first two chapters, then review them. Complete the third chapter, then review all three chapters. As you move forward, reviewing earlier chapters serves to solidify that background information and prepare you for cumulative exams.

Move through a unit trying to assimilate the information and understand the information as quickly and as soon as possible within that unit. Understand that as we move through a unit, things that are at the end of the unit are dependent on having a foundation of things that are at the beginning of the unit

-Professor Olsen, Fresno City College

Dr. Gilbert does not have a lot of first-year students, but he also does not assume his students have every necessary study skill. In fact, at the beginning of each class, Dr. Gilbert will provide a timetable and expect his students to write out their school, work, and extracurricular commitments, and then fit in eight hours of studying time! Dr. Gilbert reports that students ask, “‘Is he serious, we need to put eight hours in?’” but that “it’s easy to say [you will study for a class], but when you see it on a seven-day program, well, where are you going to put it?” In fact, a typical biology course with labs will require 8-10 hours of study time per week.

Dr. Scott Porteus, a cellular and ecology professor and ornithologist, noted that cellular biology is a very foundational class by nature. Dr Porteus points out, “The entire [community college] level is building a framework, and so a lot of it is just memorizing stuff so you can do things with it.” Cellular biology takes a look at fundamental processes of life at a cellular level, such as metabolism, photosynthesis, growth and cellular division, and waste removal. In later courses, you are expected to remember these things and dive deeper. “Learning as you go” and reviewing content multiple times throughout his college experience really helped Dr. Porteus. He makes this analogy: “I found when I was going to grad school, [it] was really easy because I had all this basis already… I didn’t have to build the house in the first place. I could decorate.”

Okay, that’s it for part one of this post! Questions about taking care of your basic needs, learning as you go, or time management? Let me know in the comments. And stay tuned for part two, which covers readings skills, teaching others to learn yourself, tutoring, and pros and cons of flashcards.

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Elinore Alms is a Registered Behavior Technician in Fresno, California. She works part time as an in-home positive behavior supports provider and is a biology major at Fresno City College. In her spare time, she watches anime and cares for her many pets.

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