Special Tips for Life Sciences Students

Well, another semester is revving up, and I’m collecting tutees again. I tutor a variety of subjects, generally getting students taking introductory writing and biology classes. The number of tutees always increases right after they have sat their first exams, and discover that taking college classes is not just a shorter-school day version of taking high school classes. So for all you students out there who are facing your introductory Biology and so on, here are some friendly warnings.

A “survey” course means broad and shallow waters, so start paddling now or you will be left behind! Survey classes (100- level Biology, Botany, Microbiology etc.) cover a wide variety of material, but do not go in depth on anything in particular. The in-depth part comes in the next levels of courses about specific subjects. Because there is such a large quantity of material to cover in a limited number of weeks, the class will be going through roughly a chapter per class, depending upon how many chapters the text book is divided into, and the number of meeting days per week. This is not high school where you took a week or two (meeting four or five days a week) to go through a chapter. It’s not so much a question of “don’t get behind” but rather of “stay on top of things and look ahead”!

Vocabulary is going to be an integral part of studying, so find a way of memorization that works well for you. Although every field of study has its own terminology, the life sciences are positively riddled with new words to learn. Most of these words have Greek or Latin roots, so learning what those prefixes and suffixes mean is important, because then you can decode other new words.

Cramming doesn’t work well as a study method when taking identification classes. Students who try to cram do not do well on tests. There are certain subjects that have mostly vocabulary and identification, such as Anatomy (human or veterinary), Taxonomy (plant or animal), and courses like Woody Plant Materials. Don’t mistakenly think that these are “easy” just because “all you have to do is memorise stuff”. Learning hundreds of names, exact spellings, and how to identify hundreds of different birds, flowers, or micro-organisms takes repetition. Learning takes lots of repetition. Plan on studying daily. Be there during all the open-lab time going over models and specimens. Learn to recognise your organisms (or parts thereof) by generalising from several examples, otherwise you will only have learned to identify your particular Acer saccharum leaf, rather than any sugar maple tree anywhere.

When an instructor puts up a graph or diagram, don’t just sit there watching, but make notes about what is significant about the graph, and how that is determined. You will either have a copy of this illustration in your handouts, or else the instructor will refer to a graph on a particular page in your text. If the latter, be sure to write down both the page number and the name or number of the graph. Remember, you can re-draw the graph in your notes after class, but you should do so as soon as possible, while the details are still fresh in your mind.

Your job is to take notes on both aspects that being explained about the graph: firstly, what the significance of the graph is, and secondly, how we know that. For example, in ecology, the k-values of lines in a graph describe the mortality rates over time – that’s the “what” significance of the graph. But the “how we know that” part is related to the idea that the closer the slope of an individual line is to a value of 1 (a 45° angle), the more important is the particular mortality factor. When you get to the test, you will need to know not just that the graph describes mortality due to various factors, but also know the latter part and be able to tell which factor was the most important!

Science courses are about understanding the principles and concepts particular to the specific discipline. “Understanding” is not the same thing as memorizing. The details of human understanding of events and processes change over time, so there’s no point in memorizing everything in the text book. Instead, you need to learn what the concepts mean, and how things interact with each other, and then be able to apply your understanding to problems and to new situations.

One of my math teachers said that, “Life does not hand us a page of math problems to be solved. Real life more like word problems, where you have to create the equation and there are no answers in the back of the book.” We have to do the same thing with science in real life.

You may be shocked to discover that in college, multiple-choice (MC) exams are not automatically easy exams. You cannot rely on simply recognising the correct answer. Instead, you will have to take those new concepts you have learned, and apply them to new situations.

The reason that some people find science classes to be difficult is that not only does a person have to memorise material, but also to apply and analyse and evaluate the concepts, especially in lab experiments.

Speaking of taxonomy, the field of education has a system of classification as well: Bloom’s Taxonomy. This is a hierarchy of cognitive processes, often diagrammed as a pyramid. There are six categories with number 1 being the simplest level at the base of the pyramid, and number six being the highest. Each step builds upon the previous.

1. Knowledge – the ability to define, recall, identify, recognize, knowledge of methodology, principles, generalizations, trends, facts, terminology, theories, and structures.
2. Comprehension – translate, rephrase or restate, interpret, extrapolate
3. Application – apply, generalize, choose, organize, develop, use, classify
4. Analysis – analyse relationships; to deduce, compare, discriminate, categorize
5. Synthesis – derive or create a set of abstract relationships
6. Evaluation – to judge, assess, argue

What this means to you as a student is that basic survey courses (such as 100-level Biology) will be mostly at level 1 and 2, but the more specific junior and senior courses will be integrating the content from several basic courses and requiring you to operate at levels 4-6. This means that cramming and memorizing material won’t work. (Do you detect a trend here?)