In preparation for grad school, I’m jotting down what helped me get through and enjoy upper division biology course and lab work with straight A’s. It’s mostly meant as a reference for me, but if it helps anyone else, that’s a plus!
During my senior year of college, I finally got 4.0 for every quarter throughout the entire year. It was an accomplishment for me because I initially struggled through my classes and was definitely not the best student in my first two years. But I tried various ways to see what would work and what wouldn’t. I even joined a biology education lab to learn more about better ways to not just study, but to LEARN. My third year was when I practiced and improved these techniques to become the essential guide that I clung onto when studying during my 4th year.
What I learned while in college and working in biology education research:
- Learning is active
- Learning is about reconstructing and retrieving knowledge, and these are all active neuronal tasks. In contrast, repeating knowledge (also known as revising) is a more passive task. Knowing this, the more effective way to study/learn is to test yourself .
- Generally: teaching, doing, practicing, recalling > listening, watching, looking, recognizing
- Learning is also multi-level
- The above picture lists different Bloom’s levels, each corresponding with an increasing level of understanding. Some classes only require very basic knowledge of the learning concepts (e.g. what is a mitochondria?), which correspond with the lower Bloom’s levels (Bloom’s levels 1 and 2). Usually upper division classes require a deeper understanding, and test questions from these classes are in the upper Bloom’s levels (e.g. describe how mitochondrial function is affected if a substance, known to create holes in the membrane, is introduced).
- The higher the Bloom’s level, the more understanding is needed to answer the question .
- Study groups are very effective
- To be able to teach someone else a concept means I have to know the concept very well. When I find yourself unable to explain something, that helps me realize that I haven’t understood it as well as I thought (again with active learning!)
- Having regular meet ups means I’m obligated to keep up with the materials. I really dislike coming to a study session unprepared and wasting everyone else’s time.
- It also builds a sense of camaraderie when everyone gets kicked out of Starbucks at closing time together.
- Learning takes discomfort
- No one is ever a master at the first try!
- On a similar note, learning literally takes place away from comfort! I cannot study at home. My go to place is either the library or a nearby Starbucks (yes, I know their coffee is suboptimal, but it works!). I’ve conditioned myself to start focusing on work the moment I get to these places by abstaining from fooling around on FB/Tumblr/etc while here.
- Learning takes rest
- I’m huge advocate for SLEEP. All-nighters don’t work for long term learning. It’s just counter intuitive to try and study while you’re killing brain cells on the lack of sleep .
- Aim high
- One of my favorite professors never releases the mean/median for the test simply because he doesn’t believe students should base their performance on how well others do. Instead, you should be trying your best every single time. It’s a sign of respect for yourself as well as for your professor.
- Learning takes practice
- It took me 2 years to get to a point where these techniques work for me simply because I did not have the discipline and know-how before.
- Being disciplined is important to doing well. How I think about it is, I’m doing my future self a favor when I get my butt out of bed and into the coffee shop right now. And once I get to the coffee shop, I’ll get myself a nice chai tea latte as an incentive to get out of bed in the first place.
So, these are the study techniques that work for me:
- Folio with a pad of paper inside
- Notebook/binder/folder for each class (depending on needs)
- Different colored pens (a color for each class)
- During class, I take notes (either on the pad of paper or PPT printouts). If the lecture isn’t recorded by the professor, then I record it myself just to make sure I don’t miss anything. I rarely use these recordings since my notes usually cover the lecture well enough.
- In class, I also participate in discussion/answering questions if the class is structure in this format. Yeah, it kind of sucks a lot to get the answer wrong in class in front of all my peers, but it sucks way more to understand the concept wrong and study wrong for the exam. Plus, if I come to class prepared, I usually get the answers right, and professors love it because they are grateful just to have volunteers to answer questions. They don’t pull teeth, and I learn a concept correctly. Win-win for everyone.
- After class (usually the day of or the next day, but definitely BEFORE the next lecture), I take my messily written notes from class and summarize them nicely into the notebook designated for this class. I try to explain things in my own words or draw concepts in a way that forces me to reconstruct the concept in a different but still similar way.
- In this notebook, I note down questions I still have for office hours and/or study group.
- Then, I create a list of test questions from this lecture for to be compiled into a study guide for the midterm/final, making sure to have a mixture of Bloom’s levels 1-5 questions. To check if I actually have the right answers for the higher order Bloom’s level questions, I go to office hours and confirm my answers with the professor.
- I also answer the questions from last lecture.
- When my study group meets up at the end of the week, everyone takes a concept and teaches it to the rest of the group. That person is also in charge of coming up with a few questions for the rest of the group to answer. We also go over lectures from the weeks before.
- If a class has an online question board, I usually try to answer others’ questions after I’m 90% certain I know the answer. If I get it right, which I should if I’ve been studying correctly, then it’s a great sense of accomplishment for me and the other student gets their questions answered. If I get it wrong, then my answer gets corrected by the TAs/professors. The question still gets answered, but I also get to identify where my misunderstanding lies.
- The lists of questions from every lecture that I’ve been compiling now serves as a study guide for the midterm/exam. I practice these first to identify my problem areas. After remedying these areas, then I try my hand at the actual practice test or previous year’s tests. Usually, the results from these practice tests are pretty indicative of how well I perform on the exam itself.
It’s not a lot of work, but it’s a lot of concentrated work. It’s also a lot of uncomfortable work because I’m a very shy person in nature. I hate speaking in public, I hate calling attention to myself, and I hate being wrong. But I enjoy learning, and I like helping others learn. People have said that they enjoy studying with me because I know my shit, which makes sense since no one else is going to know it for me.
Hopefully these tips will still help me in grad school. But if they don’t, I hope they help some undergrads out there!