Questions for the OPMers about Biology Classes

I am currently in my 3rd Biology class in my current university and am noticing a trend that I am starting to worry about. All of my Bio classes that I have had here seem to really on the difficultly lying in memorizing the most minute details in everything. I understand that knowing the that acetylcholine bind to nicotinic andgergenic receptors or knowing the enzymes in glycolysis are important but what is bothering me is that there seems to be no application of these things. All of my tests seem to ask questions like one would see on a multichoice history test. I had some biology classes at another university last year and while there was a degree of memorization involved there was a lot of questions that required you to understand why ACH binds.

It has me bummed because right now because I have a B+ in there and don’t know how I can memorize more. What’s sad is that in the “killer class” OChem I have an A, but in OChem there is a lot of taking what you have learned an applying it to what you haven’t seen before.

Anyway, what I am asking is if others have found this to be true and what steps have you taken to perform better in these classes? I really hate the idea of just memorizing senior level physio but that seems to be what my “peers” are doing.

Is the Biology department at my school just gearing all of this to create succesful students because that is the way school is now? The same ones who seem to enjoy these biology classes hate the “problem solving” in OChem.

First of all, congrats on the A in ochem! That’s fantastic – I’m sure you’re the envy of many of your classmates.

In terms of the biology … obviously, there will be a good deal of memorization in these classes as there is a lot of basic information that you just have to know to move forward. That said, what helps me is to create a “context” for the information – to develop an understanding of how all the pieces fit together. That makes the memorizing a bit easier, I think, because if you have a framework, then you’re not randomly memorizing bits and pieces of things but you’re developing a greater picture of how something works, how the parts function together as a whole. I see it as a different approach to studying, and I’ve found it to be quite beneficial. As one of the presenters at last year’s OPM conference told us, there is only so much you can memorize before your brain literally stops remembering it. But if you contextualize what you are learning, then you can keep building connections on top of connections. To put it in visual terms, think of it as “concept-mapping” the information rather than just making a bullet-point list.

On that note, I would also suggest spending some time with the visuals (charts, graphs, figures, diagrams) in your textbook – they may not represent all of the specific details of a process, but they often represent the general concepts. And so if you understand the broader concept, it becomes easier to fill in the more specific details. I.e., if you get the concept, the details make much more sense than if you learn the details as discrete items, without thinking about their broader function/purpose.

One other suggestion I would make (at least, something that helps me with bio) is what I call “active” studying. Not just reading your notes or your textbook, but doing something with them. For example, for my bio lab class, we have two lab practical exams this semester. So I am making my own study guide charts based on the information in our lab manual and what we learn in lab, paired with photos of the organisms we study (I just do a Google image search, download the images, and insert them into my Word doc chart). It’s a lot of work, but it gets me actively thinking about the material, answering the questions, looking at the images, etc., AND gives me something valuable to study from in the end. Also, I make online flashcards on and import them to my iPhone (the Flashcards++ app I use cost $2.99 or $3.99, I think – not much more than a couple packs of index cards). Again, the process of making the flashcards, which I create from my textbook readings and my prof’s lectures, more actively engages me with the material than if I just look over my notes or book. And I also find flashcards a helpful way to memorize terms, although I know it doesn’t work for everyone.

Anyway, I don’t know if that’s of any help, but that’s my perspective. Keep up the good work!

  • Lorien

I also found the flashcard method resulted in better grades…both making the cards and studying them, although I used a program called Quizbuddy, that allows you to take multi choice tests that u designed yourself.

Be thankful for courses that are rote memorization. After graduating I went to an MBA program that was all about working in teams and writing papers in APA format. There were no facts to input in Quizbuddy or flashcards and I found it much, much, harder…

I couldn’t agree more. Granted, I’m just a little Bio/Chem 1 peon but all of the above is working really well for me.

I was in Biology the other night, for example, and I decided that I would treat the entire lecture like a conversation/dialogue between my professor and me. (Granted, SHE didn’t know that… but just as an internal thought)… so when she’d start a new topic, my first question to myself was, “ok–how does this build on or relate back to at least 3 things from previous chapters. Can you find the overarching theme represented here? She’s talking about the different functions of proteins within a cell… ok, well, what dictates function? Structure. Ok, what are the different levels of structure in a protein, and how does each level contribute to function…” etc. etc.

Mostly, I was just talking to myself in my own head. LOL But engaging in a dialogue of context really made the whole thing that much more impactful for me. And if I really needed clarification and actually asked a question, “ok, so when you say it’s x… back from chapter 2 when we learned y, would that be an example of how that fits together?” etc., I had a lot of my classmates tell me that the question kind of put it all together for them and helped them make sense of it, too.

Any time you can contextualize (as Lorien expressed so much better than I am!), you help yourself hang onto the material you’ve already learned, and you give the new material a solid foundation on which to ruminate.

And when you can do that? It doesn’t matter if you get tested on rote memorization or harder problems… you’re prepared for either, and your end goal is accomplished either way.

Good luck with all of it! And way to rock that o-Chem grade!!!

Any time I have started a new job or new product, I have had a “ramp-up” period during which I have needed to learn new concepts and terminology. For me, it has always taken quite a while for things to gel. I finally realized that “contexualization” was the reason for this. I didn’t use that word; in my own mind, I had a bunch of stuff I needed to put away, but I had no room on the shelves set aside for them (and in many cases, no shelves to put them on at all). It wasn’t until I could understand the context around why certain structures existed or programmatic actions took place that I could organize the large blob of information into a coherent and useful personal reference.

As others above have suggested, I suspect you’re dealing with the same general problem; lots of detailed information that doesn’t make a lot of sense in isolation, but taken as a structured whole gives you great insight into cellular biology.

Contextualization…love that word! What a dead-on definition of adult learning. Unfortunately the process of getting through prereqs and the first two years of med school (which one of my non-trad classmates termed “17th and 18th grade”) is not all that conducive to the way we learn. There is a seemingly endless pile of rote memorization that has to take place before you get to apply what you learned. I personally don’t favor that type of academic environment…but it is what it is. You have to take it on faith that what you’re learning will lay the foundation for what you will see and do in the clinical setting, even if it doesn’t make much sense now. Knowing how the mutated DNA sequence affects the mRNA, which alters the code in the tRNA, which causes the protein to be misshapen, which keeps the cell receptor from binding to the signalling molecule, which causes the cell to malfunction, which causes the disease process…you get the picture. I clearly retained about 10% of what I memorized in post-bacc and first two years of med school, but the building blocks are still there and have become such an integral part of the way I do my job, that I don’t even think about it anymore. The fundamentals of conceptual learning, which is what “older learners” do, pay off in the long run. The pendulum swings in the clinical years when you have to start applying what you learned to develop diagnoses and treatment plans. That’s where the real fun starts and where you’ll hit your stride!