Ten Tips For Success in W1015
last update: 06/04/2010

1. Come to class. In some courses all you have to do is read the book; that's not the case here. There is too much stuff in the books, and the lecture will key you in to what is important and what isn't; it will also provide a framework to stuff all the facts into. If you must miss class, get the notes from a fellow student, and then go over the notes with someone who was present at the live lecture. Get the phone number and/or email of at least one other student now, so that you'll have someone to call if necessary.

2. Take notes. Everything that really matters will be discussed in class. The books are primarily for introduction and/or backup. (This may not make sense, but this is how we do it.) There are many styles of taking notes -- some people prefer to get it all down word-for-word and some people prefer to just write down the critical points. Either way is fine, but be sure you get the point (if you are concentrating on transcribing every word) and be sure you understand the necessary details (if you are concentrating on the point). Audio recordings are allowed, but we don't think they are that useful for most students. You should go over your notes to be sure you understand them, but extensive recopying of notes or transcribing of audios is very time consuming and we don't recommend it. You are probably better off going through your notes with a friend or study group. If you do tape the lectures, just use the tapes to fill in the holes, don't transcribe them verbatim. 

3. Form a study group or partnership. Don't try to do it alone. Partners and/or study groups are generally good because they help you go over the material (see above), give you an opportunity to practice explaining your answers (see below) and provide moral support. For more ideas on what to do in your study group, go to studygroup.html.

4. Do the problems. Do all the problems in the course booklet, whether they are assigned or not, and do them seriously and carefully. If you choose not to attend recitation, be sure to do the recitation problems, which are posted on Courseworks. Doing problems is the best way to master the material and to find out if you understand it at the proper level. You will notice that it is not sufficient in this course to repeat back what you have been told -- you have to be able to explain the principles in  your own words and apply them to new situations. The problems are designed to help you review the principles and to give you plenty of practice at applying them.  Remember that it isn't enough to get an answer to a problem -- you have to be able to explain how you got your answer. See  tip #10 and explaining-advice.html for more details.  You do have to do a lot of explaining in this course, but you don't have to do a lot of memorization -- you can bring a study sheet to each exam.

5. Organize. Make diagrams, pictures, summary charts, concept maps, etc. Try to organize the material in some way that suits you. There are experts who swear that organizing the material (as vs. memorizing it) is the key to success. There is a lot of material to master in this course. If it isn't organized in your head, you can't retrieve and use the pieces you need at the right time. The class handouts (and diagrams in Freeman) are good, but diagrams, pictures and charts you make yourself are often better. They may not look as professional, but you learn more from making and using them.

 6. Keep up. The current material is always based on what came before, so once you get behind it is very difficult to catch up. It often pays to look over your notes from the previous class before coming to the next one.

7. Read. Read Ridley & Dawkins as we go, before class if possible. Skim Freeman (or the equivalent) before class if the material is new to you. It is very hard to follow the lecture if every word and concept is unfamiliar. When you read the books, try not to highlight the entire text or outline the chapters word-for-word. Instead try to be selective and look for the main points -- digest each section of the text first and write your own, private, condensed version (in whatever form you prefer -- use diagrams, charts, etc.) See tip #5.

8. Ask questions. If you don't understand something, ASK. That is what the TAs are here for and that's how the lecturer finds out if s/he is going at the right pace. Don't wait for the class bigmouth to speak up - do it yourself. Don't be afraid of looking stupid - looking dumb before the exam is a lot smarter than looking dumb afterwards. To get the most out of recitations and office hours, go over the problems and/or notes first and come prepared with a list of questions. The more effort you put into asking questions, the more you will get out of the answers.

9. Master the vocabulary. The stress in this course may be on using the vocabulary, but you won't get anywhere until you learn it first. So try to master all new terms as fast as possible. Be especially careful about words that seem similar but mean different (often related) things (such as protein/enzyme, chromosome/chromatid, gene/allele, etc.) and terms whose biological meaning is not the same as their technical or general scientific meaning (spontaneous, adaptation, etc.). Once you get the vocabulary down pat, you will find it much easier to follow the lectures and do the problems.

10. A word or two about grades The two most common complaints about grades heard in this class are "the exam grade doesn't reflect my knowledge of the material" and "my grade doesn't reflect the amount of time and effort I put into this course." Sometimes these complaints are justified, but often they mean the student does not understand what is expected of him or her, or is concentrating on (and spending too much time on) the wrong things. In this course you have to know how to explain & use the material, not just repeat it. If you think your performance on the exam does not reflect your knowledge, it often means you have memorized the facts but have not practiced enough at selecting the right ones and applying them to whatever problem is presented to you. If you need more guidance on how to succeed, come to Dr. M's office hours or make an appointment.

To sum it all up, be prepared for class (read in advance, go over previous lecture notes, etc.), rework the material afterwards (check notes, learn vocabulary, do the problems, make summaries, ask questions, etc.) and don't get behind.

There is additional advice for studying biology on the Bio C2005/F2401 web page. That advice is largely intended for premeds and science majors, and overlaps the advice above. However, if you like to read every possible detail, go to http://www.columbia.edu/cu/biology/courses/c2005/advice.html