How to Study Biology: 3 Tips from a Biology Major

If you’ve found this page, it’s likely because biology has jumped you in an alleyway with a heavy stick and you’re realizing this biology stuff could be bad for your health. Well, you’re right. But instead of just helping you survive biology, I’ve got some tips on how to study biology and how to master it. (This is a guide for the best tips on how to study biology. Click here if you were actually looking for a way to learn biology online).

Treat Biology like a Language

Study biology like its a languageLearning biology is like learning a language, and if you’ve ever tried to learn a foreign language, you’ve had the experience of racking your brain for one word after the other. You’ve experienced trying to translate a sentence one halting word at a time. This is how beginners do it, and if they don’t realize that it shouldn’t always be done this way, they will always be beginners. How do experts do it? They stop translating and just link up a word with the concept of the word. When they hear “maçã” (Portuguese for apple), they don’t think of the word apple, they think of an apple. Translating in your head is a great way to slow down learning. Get rid of the middle man as soon as you can.

What does this mean for biology? It means that when it comes to biological terms and concepts, you should move as quickly as you can from trying to remember the definition itself and you should link the word up with the concept. This goes for tricky ones as well, like the difference between catabolism and anabolism- You should be thinking about breaking down molecules and building them up. And just like someone learning a language, use the language as often as you can. If you’re explaining something to yourself or to your professor, don’t fall back on old language like “building molecules,” use anabolic/anabolism instead.

Draw Draw Draw

Sketching things out avoids one of the biggest pitfalls of learners: mistaking familiarity or understanding with mastery.  Let me demonstrate. How many times have you seen a penny in your lifetime? Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Tell me which of these ten pennies is the correct one, then:

Penny Memory Test

If you struggled, its just because being familiar with something or doesn’t mean you really know it. Being able to draw a process can be one of the best techniques in how to learn biology.

Build Resources in Your Own Words

I’m a huge believer in the value of flash cards and outline notes. They are one of the best resources for how to study biology. But the quickest way to decrease the value of these resources is to simply copy sentences from your textbook or from your professor’s lecture. Struggling to put things in your own words is valuable!


Biology is memorization heavy. It’s not uncommon for a chapter to have over a hundred new terms and ideas you have to learn. The reason flashcards are such a great way to learn is it gives you a starting point (such as a term) and it forces you to search your memory for the meaning. Studies on learning show that the amount of time you spend trying to remember something will increase your ability to remember it later on. So don’t just flip the card over if the definition doesn’t pop into your head right away!!!

There are a bunch of great flashcard resources on the web. I use, but there’s also Study Blue and a host of others.  Also, avoid the old school flashcards and go right to digital. It’s faster to type, you can add images from the internet, and you can usually get the flashcards on any of your devices.

Book Outlines

Book outlines can be a great way to put concepts and definitions into your own words and they are great to use as review material before a test. You can skim your outline a lot faster than you can review your highlights in a book. Outlines force you to condense the material. Here’s an example of an outline on membrane proteins:

Membrane proteins: proteins that are embedded into a membrane. Any membrane protein that has one part embedded into the cell membrane must have a hydrophilic and hydrophobic portion (with the hydrophobic portion being the part that is inside the membrane)

Types of membrane proteins:

  • Channels and carriers: responsible for shuttling molecules across the membrane)
  • Anchors: (responsible for anchoring the cell to its environment on the outside and the parts of the cell to their positions on the inside)
  • Receptors: proteins that interact with an extracellular signal on the outside of a cell and transduce that signal to the inside (without the actual signal molecule ever coming inside the cell)

Resources on How to Study Biology

Without further ado, here are some of the best resources that will help you study biology, just don’t forget some of the more general tips on how to study biology: (learn it like a language; draw, draw draw; make your own resources).

YouTube Videos: For when you have a professor who may be a great researcher but isn’t so awesome a teacher. But there are thousands of YouTube videos on biology, and not all are created equally. Check out the Crash Course videos on Biology (there are about 40 of them). These videos are done by Hank. You’re going to like Hank.

Crash Course on Biology

Flashcards: Quizlet biology sets (there are 20 pages of sets, many with pictures and you can also make your own here. Here is a pretty decent one with 382 flashcards.

Khan Academy: While videos from Crash Course are entertaining and informative, they don’t quite hit the depth in all areas that you might in class. If you find they are lacking, check out Khan Academy’s biology section, a resource that’s going to feel a lot closer to a college lecture (though a clear one). Khan Academy is a free resource and it is very well done.

How to study biology- Khan Academy Course

Biology Quizzes: If you’re doing a lot of drawing, you are already testing yourself, but might as well kick it up a notch with questions written by someone else. Biology

How to Study Biology Conclusion

You have to know this backwards and forwards, you have to swim in this language, you have to be able to diagram it, to dream in it. (Alright, I may be exaggerating just a tad. But I’m mostly serious.) Biology builds on itself. You don’t want to cram just to pass test after test only to have your foundation crumble beneath you in later classes.

One Response to How to Study Biology: 3 Tips from a Biology Major

  1. Vladimir Karasek says:

    This is a marvelous description of how to study any field of science.
    I have studied biology my whole life, and still am. I could not put it better. This is what should should be taught starting in the sixth grade. Many students are not stupid or lazy to study. The problem is that they do not know how.

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