Start by learning how you learn…and then tackle the sciences

biology study skills

Title_ How to Study Efficiently for Hours On End (With the Help of a Tomato) (6)When I was an undergraduate, I had a wonderful research mentor in a neuroendocrinology lab, and it was this research experience that led me to pursue a Ph.D. in neuroscience. My research mentor was deeply interested in the process of learning. In my time as his advisee, he taught me how to study efficiently, how to really remember something in the long run, and how to make the most of a busy schedule. The principles he taught me not only made me a better student of biology, but a better student period. Learning about how you learn is applicable to any discipline. Here are my tips for getting started:

Rule #1: No empty memorization

Empty memorization, which often means hasty memorization, is the enemy of genuine learning. Think about it: when cramming for a test, have you ever remembered much about the material after the fact? This form of “learning” is almost guaranteed to ensure that you don’t remember the material later. And, for most subjects, this is a problem because course content is cumulative, and you need to know last test’s material in order to master the next unit.

To avoid empty memorization, make sure you give yourself plenty of time to study. If you can, study a little bit every day. Think of it like exposure time – the more time you spend with the content, the easier it will be for your brain to retain it come test day and beyond. And while studying a little bit every day sounds like a lot of effort… so is pulling an all-nighter.

Rule #2: Learn deliberately

Once you ditch empty memorization, there are so many different ways to learn. Personally, my favorite way to study is by re-writing my notes. First, I make sure that I write down as much as possible during lecture. Later, I re-write and consolidate my notes, allowing me to revisit the material at my own pace. As a bonus, I now have an improved study guide for later use. But any number of strategies could work for you, from drawing things on a whiteboard, to explaining the content to your friends. Deliberately revisiting your notes in a way that works for you allows you to identify your questions early. Don’t wonder in vain! Be proactive about seeking out feedback and clarification on what you might not (yet) understand. Make use of office hours, tutors, and your peers.

Rule #3: Draw it

Making quick sketches of your course material is great way to ensure that you have fluent recall of the content, which is the ability to remember something without being prompted by a clue (such pairing terms and definitions on a test). Consider learning the cell cycle, for example. Flashcards for learning the stages of the cell cycle will show you a diagram of each stage on one side, and the name of the stage on the other. As you learn the names of each stage, you will come to recognize the name with its paired cellular pattern. However, your learning here is dependent upon being prompted to make the association using the diagram of the stage or its name. This is called recognition, and it’s different than recall.

On the other hand, practicing sketching each cell cycle stage while you hold the name in your head prompts fluent recall. Sketching might take you longer, but you won’t need to be prompted by the name or a picture of the cell to get the right answer – you’ll just know it. And the pictures need not be fancy at all! Sometimes, these diagrams are called “minute sketches” because that’s the maximum amount of time you need to spend on them. Practice sketching relationships between concepts using as few words as possible: in doing so, you’ll ensure that you’re organizing the information in your head, not just creating a memory of an association.

The take-home message? There is no one “right” way to learn or study. It’s up to you to try things out and figure out what you like best and what works for you. Once you’ve mastered how you learn, mastering the sciences will be no problem at all!

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