Advice for successful students: Biology strategies

Prepare for learning from lectures

Read the text before class so that you are primed to learn the material more efficiently during the lecture. See Student Learning Common: Reading.

Use other people as resources

Talk to the professor or lab instructor during office hours

  • Ask questions immediately if you have problems understanding something. Even a small amount of confusion can prevent you from understanding the rest of the chapter.
  • Ask questions about the exam. For example will it focus on concepts or calculations? Will it be long answer questions or multiple choice? What graphs/figures should you know? These questions help focus your studying and maximize your use of time.
  • Form a study group. Practice explaining the material to those in your study group as a way to actively learn the material and test your understanding.

Try to predict test questions

Throughout the semester, try to identify – and make note of -  material likely to be on the exam:

  • concepts that the professor mentions several times;
  • concepts that the professor thoroughly explains rather than skims over;
  • concepts that are repeated in lectures, lab, and problem sets;
  • questions similar to those presented in practice questions or recommended questions in the lecture notes; or those on previous or practice exams.

Focus your studying on these concepts to optimize your study time

Get a sense of the probable level of difficulty of the exam questions:

  • Pay close attention to lab material. The level of difficulty of questions asked in the lab is probably indicative of the level of difficulty of the questions that will be asked on the exam.
  • Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that biology is strict memorization. Often you will be asked to apply learned concepts to new scenarios and this requires a deeper understanding of the material. See “Identifying Levels of Learning” under Student Learning Commons: Exam Preparation.

Assess your knowledge

Before you begin reviewing for the exam, try answering previous or practice exams. Not only will these give you an idea of the material that will be covered on the test, it will give you a sense of what material you already know and what material you need to study, thus helping you prioritize and optimize your study time.

Study actively, writing out answers to practice questions

  • Find practice questions in:
    • lecture notes;
    • previous or practice exams;
    • problem sets;
    • web sites;
    • the textbook or study guide.
  • Don’t just use readily available practice questions. Generate your own throughout the semester – paying attention to the points above - or ask the professor for new questions so that you can test your level of understanding.
  • Agree with other study group members that you will each develop questions and quiz each other.

Memorize complex items through frequent repetition

If you need to know a complex figure (e.g., the metabolic pathway of glucose), draw the structures on flashcards or draw a diagram.  Look at these while going through your routine; e.g., sitting on a bus, brushing your teeth, sitting through a TV commercial.  This is a relatively painless way to memorize something complex. 

Note If you skim over a diagram every time you brush your teeth for a week, you will have reviewed it at least 7 x 2 = 14 times, enough repetition to be effective for memory – much more effective than last-minute cramming!


Thanks to Brittany Day and Christine Kang, 2007-08 Learning & Writing Peer Educators, who developed this advice from personal experience.