Studying College Biology: Learning as You Go, Part 2

In Part One of this post, I introduced several tips for studying college biology, including the concept of “learning as you go.” If you haven’t read Part One, be sure to check it out. The tips, insight, and advice here should be coupled with the information and ideas in Part One to support your transition to college STEM classes. In this part, I’ll cover what I learned from interviews with college professors and tutors at my community college. I’ll explore reading skills, teaching to learn, tutoring and flashcards, and effective teaching approaches. Expectations in college are different, but you can thrive with the right study skills.

1. Reading Skills

According to people I interviewed, most tutors and students were not expected to complete a STEM textbook until they reached college. While studying may be a strength for many autistic students, for others this task can seem daunting because we never really learned how to study at such volume. In fact, many college freshmen lack textbook reading and reference skills. Fortunately, there are excellent guides online that will take you through topics such as getting to know your textbook and efficient, thorough reading.

Time management can also be an issue. Should we binge-read? (No!) Will scanning the headings work? Tina, an anatomy tutor, suggests a balance:

I made sure I studied every day. I know most students will study right before a test or the  few days following a test. I found that to be more stressful. So, what I did instead was, after lecture, I’d go home and recap on what we learned. And then, every day, for 30 minutes up to an hour, I’d sit down and study some of it. By the time the test came, I’d already prepared myself on all the chapters. 

Reading Efficiently
Hours-long reading on the weekend does not optimize our efficiency, according to Dr. Mike Gilbert, anatomy and physiology professor and Chair of the Biology Department at Fresno City College. Instead, he suggests, take a brisk walk, eat a piece of fruit, or otherwise disengage from the task at least once an hour or half hour. (Do you notice a pattern here?) Dr. Gilbert points out, “Taking a mental break… is really good for that crystallization of thought.” In other words, breaks are part of learning most efficiently.

And, of course, because fundamental biology courses require so much memorization, it’s worth it to learn memorization skills along the way. Mnemonics, the development of systems used to memorize information, is something the vast majority of us do without realizing it. Name mnemonics turns a series of information into a short name; for example, Roy G. Biv is often used to recall the colors and order of the rainbow. When I had to memorize the scientific names of roughly 30 species, I used it as an opportunity to learn a bit of Latin. Sciurus griseus, the western gray squirrel, is far less intimidating when you know it literally translates to “squirrel grey.” Equisetum, or the horsetail genus, contains the telltale “equis,” a variation of Latin for horse: “equus.” Becoming familiar with Latin is, in my opinion, rather important to biology students. We often take courses where anatomical structures are named according to where they are in relation to other structures. You can find more information on mnemonics here.

2. Teaching and Experiencing

Every single professor and tutor I spoke to mentioned this: teaching is one of the best ways you can possibly solidify your knowledge. Teach your subjects to friends, parents, study buddies, rocks, mirrors, or anything or anyone else who is willing to listen. Take your significant other to the park and teach them what you can about plants and animals, or make observations about which exact structure may be inflamed after a sprain. Turn every moment into a teaching experience and you will quickly find shortcomings in your understanding and be able to rectify those issues before you ever see the exam material.

Experiencing is part of the learning and teaching process. The best professors always encourage students to explore nature, models, and ourselves. Take time outside of class to review concepts. Are you in anatomy and physiology? Pay close attention to the muscles you use while you walk or carry objects. Just beginning cellular biology? Utilize the models available in lab as well as office and study hours, or make your own out of clay! Hands-on and visual learning tools are some of the best available.

3. Tutoring

Tutoring is an incredibly valuable service offered for free by nearly every college in America. Students who go to drop-in tutoring experience a greater likelihood of graduation as well as a higher GPA. For students with autism, many schools have one-on-one tutoring available through disabilities services offices. Most STEM courses also offer additional study hours with professors and tutors available for each discipline. My college, for example, holds ETC (extending the class) sessions exclusively for courses with relatively high drop rates, and BioGRASP, a drop-in for all things biology, every day of the week.

4. Flash Cards? It Depends.

When asked about the usefulness of flash cards, the experts I interviewed had a wide range of reactions. My Fresno City College biology professor Rodney Olsen discourages flash cards in his cellular biology course because they often reflect a surface-level understanding of the content, which is highly conceptual. On the other hand, flashcards can help with rote memorization of those pesky amino acids.

In my experience, flash cards take way more time and effort than they are worth. Quizzing with a partner is so much faster and can lead to valuable conversation that expands beyond the specific topic. And, again, this more interactive study method helps to identify weak spots in your knowledge. Flash cards may be a great tool for some students and some classes. But, if you are more comfortable with other methods, I would focus on those rather than developing such a time-consuming and often limited study method for biology courses.

4. Skills Professors Can Use to Engage Students

I was not going to write about professors, but my interview with Dr. Gilbert inspired this section. He had a lot to say on the subject, as he has seen students in the UK, where he is from, and America, where he currently teaches. He has interacted with students through the lens of a peer, tutor, professor at a university, and now community college professor. Below are some of his tips. For more about how to speak to your professors about classroom dynamics and approaches, look here.

  1. Respect diversity. Diversity in terms of ethnicity, sex, culture, and dis/ability leads to unexpected growth for everyone involved.
  2. Draw with your students. White board, projector, tablet, wherever. The best biology teachers are those who provide a model for learning. Students can feel overwhelmed trying to draw out those artist renditions of the electron transport chains. Seeing a simple and sometimes crude drawing can help students expand their own study toolbox.
  3. College-provided tutoring works? Prove it. Most colleges have a lot of programs to help STEM students study, yet they are hardly used by the students who need the help the most. Dr. Gilbert believes professors should do a more adequate job providing hard evidence that students who go to study sessions get better grades. He goes so far as to recommend a corequisite study unit, which is common in large universities but not in community colleges. Corequisite study units give students built-in time to meet with tutors and professors and complete difficult work with peers.
  4. Provide multiple outlets to communicate with students. Phone and office hours are nice, but sometimes it’s intimidating to see a professor one-on-one about your bad test score or family emergency. Email is a great alternative. Professor Olsen had virtual office hours last semester. Providing as many options as possible means students who otherwise might have stayed silent and not met their potential are more likely to contact their professor early on.

I hope these two posts inspire you as a student or professor to always look for new strategies and expand your toolbox for success. Please let us know in the comments if you have other awesome study skill suggestions for biology undergrads!

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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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