The Holy Grail of "A"cing Biology

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Shreya Prabhakar grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina. A student at UNC-Chapel Hill, she is pursuing her undergraduate education in biology and economics with a minor in chemistry. In 10 years, she hopes to be a pediatric neurosurgeon, while contributing to research in diabetes. In the following article, Shreya gives biology majors two important pointers to help them stand out in their field. 


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How do you set yourself apart from the crowd of pre-med biology majors?

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Did you know that a whopping 144,000 biology degrees were awarded to college graduates in 2015? This number is continuing to grow by almost 5% each year.

In the pre-med world, it is most common for students to major in Biology, since most of the required courses for applying to medical school align best with the Biology major curriculum. Unsurprisingly, the Department of Education recently determined that Biology is one of the top five most popular majors in the country.

Considering this, how do you set yourself apart from the crowd of pre-med biology majors? Ace your subject. Show what you know through consistent mastery of the content. By following the two simple tips below, you can stand out as an exceptional student and distinguish yourself in the medical school application process.  


What does success in biology look like? 

When it comes to performing well on a biology exam, success is more about application and synthesis than knowledge alone. Mastering concepts like pedigrees and inheritance requires persistent practice. While reading and re-reading the textbook prepares you to regurgitate information, the best students utilize different methods to secure comprehension.

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According to Jeffrey Karpicke, an assistant professor of psychology at Purdue University, retrieval and reconstruction of knowledge are both essential in learning. “I think that we’re tapping into something fundamental about how the mind works when we talk about retrieval,” he wrote in the Journal of Memory and Language.

How do you put this into practice? Instead of merely reading, try quizzing yourself, writing down what you remember from the reading and then using flashcards to actively practice retrieving information that you have absorbed. And next time you open your textbook, follow the two tips below.

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Instead of merely reading, try quizzing yourself, writing down what you remember from the reading and then using flashcards to actively practice retrieving information that you have absorbed.

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TIP 1: Use the “3R technique: Read. Recite. Review.

First, read the text thoroughly. Focus on diagrams and make note of words or concepts that you have trouble understanding.

Then, recite everything you can recall from the chapter. The “production effect” proves the memory advantage of reading words aloud as opposed to silently. Recent research shows that active involvement helps you commit ideas to long-term memory. This is due to the motor act of speaking as well as the self auditory input, which makes your thoughts and interaction with the material more memorable. As another more visual way to practice,  go back and photocopy the recurring diagrams in the reading and label them on your own.

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The “production effect” proves the memory advantage of reading words aloud as opposed to silently.

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Finally, review the section by rereading to recollect any points you may have missed or to fix anything you recited incorrectly. Check to make sure you labeled all diagrams correctly and consolidate the information in your own words into a one page review sheet designated for that section. Use this to study and create connections between all the topics, helping to reconstruct your knowledge and improve your thinking.

A 2009 psychological study testing the efficacy of different study approaches offers further support for the 3R technique.

In this study, researchers divided students into three groups and asked them to read complex engineering texts. One group used the 3R technique, the second simply read the passage twice, and the last read the articles and took notes. A week later, everyone took the same comprehensive test. The group that used the 3R technique not only remembered the most information, but also needed the least amount of time to initially comprehend the articles.

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Because of the repetition incorporated into the 3R technique, students are able to remember information quickly and process content faster.

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Because of the repetition incorporated into the 3R technique, students are able to remember information quickly and process content faster. At the same time, comprehension is maximized as students revisit the material, realize what they do and don’t understand and then focus their attention accordingly. This proves valuable because it allows students to cut down on studying time by honing in on the content with which they struggle.

The most important part, however, comes after using the 3R technique.

TIP 2: Test Yourself!

A 2011 research study experimenting with retrieval practices supported the effectiveness of self-assessment, which can include anything from answering your own fill-in-the-blank questions to using flashcards or quizzing a friend.

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In this study, students were individually instructed to use different methods of test preparation such as repeatedly studying the material, cramming, drawing detailed diagrams representing various concepts, and creating their own questions. After assessing the students a few days later, the researchers concluded that those who tested themselves retained about 50 percent more of the information than students who used any of the other methods.

One of those methods, for example, is endorsed by many professors and involves creating visual depictions as memory aids. This method is limited in scope as it only helps you memorize the information. It lacks the ability to help you interact with the content, which is necessary for doing well on biology exams.

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The ability to successfully solve complex critical thinking problems requires a deep level of understanding that most frequently results from robust interaction with the content.

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Biology necessitates more than simple regurgitation of facts. The ability to successfully solve complex critical thinking problems requires a deep level of understanding that most frequently results from robust interaction with the content. Therefore, in order to excel, it is important for students to not only rely on rereading material multiple times the day before the exam. Taking the time to diligently quiz oneself day by day forces the brain to construct and reconstruct everything it knows. After doing this enough, the brain has retrieved information so many times that it knows how everything fits together and can extrapolate which facts to employ when appropriate.


Conclusion 

IThe next time you sit down to plow through another chapter in Biology, remember the 3 Rs and the power of self-assessment. Set aside some time to be thorough and start by simply reading the information. Then, recite what you’ve read and review anything you missed. Condense the most important information into a single review sheet. Now, make test questions and flashcards to quiz yourself. Although acing your exams may initially seem impossible, you’re now equipped with the study skills to make it happen.  


About Shreya

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A native of Greensboro, NC, Shreya Prabhakar is pursuing her undergraduate education in Biology and Economics with a minor in Chemistry at UNC-Chapel Hill. In 10 years, she hopes to be a pediatric neurosurgeon, while contributing to research in diabetes. In her free time, she enjoys playing the piano, soccer, traveling, and oil painting.

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