Advice from former students of C2005/F2401Last update 08/20/2013

Below are practical tips from students about how to get the most out of this course. But first, why bother?

Understanding the approach of this course -- from a strong student and effective TA:

      This yearlong course is going to be very different from other science classes you might have taken so far.

      How so?

1. This class aims to lay the foundations that will allow you to think and speak like a real scientist and later become a competent experimentalist/doctor. With that said, you should know that in the “real” scientific world knowing is often not enough. Repeating what you have heard either verbatim or in your own words and knowing all the terms and definitions the texts or the instructors have provided can only get you so far. Thus, in order for you to get an “A” in this course, the exams require that you learn to apply what you have learned to new situations you have never seen before. By doing so, you can demonstrate that you actually understand the concept, and not just memorized it for the exam.

2. This class generally requires more work than average science courses. This is not because the instructors believe biology is more important than any of your other courses, but because learning the intricacies of biology involves a lot of problem solving. You must train your brain to not only think out of the box, but to actually find the box.

Why is the course taught this way, and what will you get out of this class?

1. Successful completion of this class will equip you with the set of tools necessary to master upper-level courses – not only in biology.

2. If you are interested in research, it will help you to quickly find your way as a beginning experimentalist. The methods, the jargon, and most importantly the scientific mindset necessary for becoming a lab member will not be foreign to you.

3. The material you learn in this course is far more likely to stay with you than anything you learned by rote memory. Therefore it is true that successful completion of this class can help you when taking the MCAT or the GRE, or taking advanced courses in medical school or graduate school. 

Does this course really help? Here are quotes from two (other) former students.

Student #1: 'I'm in my first year at medical school and a couple of weeks into biochemistry now. I was nervous about this course because a large percentage of the class majored in biochemistry and I've never taken biochem. However, I feel you gave me such a solid foundation that I have been able to really understand and picture the things I'm learning about. It's been enjoyable to learn and I don't feel so worried anymore!'

Student #2: 'I just received my MCAT score today and obtained a score of 38, including a 15 in the Biological Sciences section. I know that I could never have achieved this score if not for your course. As I studied for the MCAT, I found that I would have to relearn topics in other science courses, but in biology, I just seemed to "know it." ' 

Bottom Line – The Hard Work Will Pay Off at the End!

How to use the problem book:

One of the things I struggled with was the urge not to think about the problems. I think it's easy to believe that everyone is party to some secret trove of information, or is much smarter than you, and that you are the only one who looks at a problem, and doesn't have the slightest idea where to start. After looking at a problem without any joy for a while, my urge is to write a sentence worth of b.s., and flip to the back to see if I'm on the vague track. This gets me nowhere, cause I see the answer, get it, and then sort of convince myself that I've understood the problem. NOTHING replaces struggling through the problem (which in my book is thinking about the problem.) So I've made myself the rule that I won't look at the back of the book unless I have an answer which I would be willing to submit on a test. Now this backfires in the case of 'learning' problems... You struggle, and struggle, and are missing some key bit of information. But surprisingly often, I start with a sentence worth of b.s., resist the urge to flip to the back of the book, keep writing, find myself contradicting myself, and going all over the place, and stumble upon a path. In other words, I often initially assume that I don't have enough info. to even start the problem, and very often  I'm wrong ... I just haven't exerted myself. (I think some of this is the fault of cookie cutter textbook questions which had been my science experience before your class...questions in which you need to regurgitate one thing, or need to be familiar with one mechanism, and if you know it you know it, and if not, you flip through the text till you find it.) Your problems cannot be done on auto-pilot, and no answer lurks in any cranny but those of your mind (and the back of the book).

From another student:
 “I followed your advice and it worked! I got an 88!” So I asked, “What did you do differently?” Students says (more or less) I stopped doing the homework as if it were a chore to get through and started thinking about it. Also I started looking for the main issue and stopped worrying about all the possibilities. I stopped chasing zebras.

Why zebras? They say in medical school, "When you hear hoofbeats in Central Park, don't think of zebras." In other words, check out the most likely solution -- the horse, in this case --  first!

From yet another student:
Doing the problems over is a waste of time. (He says “I can’t overemphasize this too much.”) You have to do it seriously the first time, but once you’ve done it, you know the answer and it isn’t the same. This student suggests the following approach: Do the problems once. After each problem, write down what you learned from doing the problem -- not the answer, but the principle or idea that you learned from doing it. Review the list of principles, not the problems themselves.

Not everyone agrees with this advice (not to do the problems over) -- some people like to do some or all of the problems a second time as a review. But most students find that doing the problems over and over doesn't help much. It's struggling with the problem the first time, when you don't know the answer, that really pays off.

A compromise position, from an experienced TA: I like to do the problems twice. I do them the first time when the subject comes up, and then I do them a second time, right before the test. That way there is such a long time between the two tries that I've forgotten the answers, and it's like a new set of questions!

 Here's what two students in '04 had to say about drawing pictures:

Student #1
Before the exam:
I just wanted to email you and let you know that I have been drawing pictures for every question in the problem book, and it has been a huge help. Hopefully, I can get comfortable enough doing it, that I can carry it over to the test. ... I truly recommend that method for anyone that has problems with the exam.
After the exam: I just wanted to let you know that I went up 10 points from the last exam, mainly I believe, because of your advice about drawing pictures.

Student #2
So with the final exam behind me but with its memory still fresh within me, I thought I'd relay to you some of my thoughts on the exam .....  I made an effort to implement what you told me at your office hours. In particular: Instead of reading the question, visualizing the situation in my head, and writing an answer right off the bat, I instead made use of scrap paper- a LOT of scrap paper. While reading the questions I summarized the depicted situation using bullet points and drew a diagram whenever possible. Then, before I answered the question on the exam page I answered it first on scrap paper, read it to ensure it made sense, and edited it before writing it on the exam page. .... I think that by honing HOW I answer the questions instead of just answering them, I may have improved significantly.

How to "Go over your notes"

A former student, who found C2005/F2401 quite difficult, took a supplementary program for premeds over the summer and said the program was "very beneficial."  So I (Dr. M) asked "is there is any general studying or learning advice you picked up that you would like to pass on to others?" This is what the student said (quoted with his permission):

"There certainly is.  Everyday we had a review session for whatever material we had gone through that day. Those sessions were directed by  Medical students.  I would have never realized how beneficial studying new material right after the lecture would be. I also realized how beneficial it was to actually have to verbalize what I know or learn in front of a group of people ... whether it be other students during a study session or the TA's. I wish other students would take advantage of these very simple but immensely beneficial techniques ... as they are great help ... especially in a class with a format comparable to that of C2005/F2401."

General Advice from a very successful tutor  (& student)

            This information came in response to the following request: ‘Prof. M and I (Dean Mitchell) need to know how you communicate bio material to the students you tutor, so that they improve.  Can you let us know your tricks; they're quite important.’ Here is his reply:

            One of the beauties of getting to work one on one with students is that you get to develop a specific prescription that takes into account that particular student's weaknesses. That being said, there are some broad strategies, and most of them I got directly from Dr. M. (Note: He required his tutees to read all the advice tips, especially the ones about making your own handouts, not using pronouns, and how to do problem solving.)

            On the whole, I think that most students don't study efficiently.  Dr. M wants you to understand the systems, and their relationships.  Thus, for me at least, I think drawing out the systems and explaining them to someone else is a good test, and should be an integral part of studying, i.e. a habitual component (I made my students do this for me each session). The next steps once a system is memorized, then making yourself go through thought experiments whereby you imagine what would happen one by one each part broke down. Also, making your own organization schema, not just using the handouts they give out, is really really really really helpful when you are trying to synthesize a new, large data set.

            Pushing through the inertia of simply memorizing a bunch of data points into the realm of having a step-wise understanding of how the various pieces contribute to the functioning whole is not something that many students have done before, so it takes some trial and error. This takes a real commitment of time and energy, and it's best done with periods of time studying alone and then in pairs or groups (for review).  As well, I make a long list of questions that I come up with during studying/doing problems and then I ensure that I have all of those questions answered before the test.

Using Office Hours

           A successful student in 2011 wrote: Going to your office hours (& review sessions) was extremely helpful.  Even when I didn't have a specific question myself, other people's questions brought up nuances that prompted your elaboration on the subject that often made the big picture more clear.
How to organize your studying

This is a study plan from a very organized student in F2401/2 (recitation optional) who had no previous biology background. Those with some previous bio. experience could probably skip step 1. The plan below may not be for everyone, but the general idea of studying regularly, and not putting it off until just before the exam, seems very good to me. 

1. Read Purves (Sadava) before class--the illustrations are great and the level of complexity was perfect for my first exposure to the material. Note: During this read, I only looked for the gist and didn't worry if I lacked complete understanding. Time allotted  -- approx. 30-45 min.

2. Take notes during class. Regardless of how effective the outlines or notes were, I took fairly copious notes during class. Looking back, class made a stronger impression when I wrote.

3. Attend recitation, and if possible, do so right after class. If I attended recitation immediately following class, I found that the material really sank in, and I could ask about any section of the material that I found unclear. It is also a great place to find study partners for whose learning styles complement your own. Time allotted  --  two hours per week. (Remember, this student was in F2401 where recitation is optional.)

4. When studying return to the LECTURES SPECIFICALLY--This for me was the clean up hitter of the semester. I would return to the lecture on the days that we did not have class and go through it line by line, using the text book (Becker) to fill in background that I needed for the lecture (for 2nd term with Dr. G the physiology book was critical and cool.) Time allotted -- varies by section, about 5 hours per lecture including the next section.

5. Answer the homework set questions listed in the lecture--As you reach sections of the lecture notes that have questions listed ANSWER THEM RIGHT AWAY! It was the best way to check my understanding of the lecture notes. As you no doubt have heard from the TA's, most students learned as much from the lecture notes as from the lectures. More importantly, it will start to train yourself to answer HW questions in blocks of three to four -- nearly an hour exam's length. Time allotted -- see above

6. Answer any remaining HW/recitation questions after you have finished -- assuming that you have completed everything above this should be far easier. Continue on to review with friends and settle any remaining issues.

TOTALS: Average time commitment out of class--two hours per non-lecture day, four days per week (one day off completely)  found that this method blocked out enough time so that as long as I was studying with fairly good efficiency, I had more than enough time to learn, and therefore enjoy. Students should definitely improve on this plan where ever they are inspired to do so. I hope these suggestions help students get both the numbers on the exams that they need and the enjoyment of the material that they want!

Note from Dr. M: This student was extremely thorough, so his time estimates may be on the high side. The important part is to study regularly as you go along.

Miscellaneous Advice from a former TA and Excellent Student

Student-contributed study tips, collected and contributed by TA Paul Mullan (11/98)

-Do problem sets and teach them to someone else
- Understand how all the systems fit together
- Concentrate on notes and handouts
- if out of time, only do starred problems (but then you might miss the basics in earlier ones.)
- highlight the text first, then organize notes
- do reading by yourself and then do problem sets with a partner
- don't look at answers until you have written yours
- study without distraction
- take attentive notes
- write out questions to the problem sets.
- understand exactly what test criteria is asking for.
- diagram part in the text
- use original notes and rewrite them
- make a list of the tricky points of each concept to remember
- make flash cards with Q and A
- don't read textbook unless you misunderstand a PART of the lecture
- use web lecture as a supplement to the class notes
- don't do problem sets until you are confident with material
- leave some of the starred problems for review in the last week.
- draw lots of diagrams

Paul Mullan's own tips for preparing for and taking tests:

Because many of you have asked me for advice, here is what I do. This is NOT what you HAVE TO DO, but just give insight into how i like to do it.

- Time yourself during problem sets; it is important to take your time to understand each question, but you must also learn how quickly you can resurface different conceptual information in your head, so that you know what you need more practice on.

-During exams, use the time method of quickly calculating how much time you have for each page. That way, when you see you have gone over the time allotted, you need to wrap up the page in 10 seconds and move on. If you have enough time at the end you can go back. This method ensures that you see and try every problem. So many times people do not even get to prove that they know the information because they ran out of time.

- The night before the test, look at your old tests. Laugh out loud at the silly mistakes you made. Reread all the questions, and think like the testmaker, realizing what exactly the question wanted you to prove to it that you knew.