Resource Materials for the Biology Core Courses ----------------------------------------------Bates College

Tips for Studying to Learn Biology: Conceptual Frameworks


Most students have been trained by the type of exams they were given in high school to memorize facts, highlight text passages, and reread their lecture notes several times before an exam. For the vast majority, this process functions to put a jumble of facts and fuzzy images of your textbook and lecture notes in your short term memory with no framework for organizing the information for later recall and application for solving new problems. Furthermore, the information you do manage to poke away up there tends to disappear pretty quickly when no longer needed (e.g., the day after the exam).

An analogy: This approach to studying is akin to staring at a pile of building materials (bricks, boards, shingles, nails, etc.) and attempting to memorize what is there in hopes that you can make some sense of it. In practice, those materials can be combined to make a house, for example. Without the blueprints, i.e., conceptual plans of how to assemble the materials to make a house, however, it would be difficult to understand how all those pieces go together. If you first study and understand the blueprints from the foundation (major concepts) on up, you'll recognize more readily how the components of the house (supporting concepts) come together and how the different materials (facts and other details) are used at each level to build the overall structure (conceptual framework). A house builder thinks about construction as a series of modular activities - excavation and site preparation, forming up and pouring a foundation, framing and sheathing the deck, framing exterior walls, framing windows and doors, installing the wiring, etc. While the house design may be different for another project, that is primarily a rearrangment of recognizable and routine construction components. Acquiring knowledge in biology (or any discipline) can be approached in the way - see the big picture, learn the supporting components and concepts, learn the details of each and how they work together. Once you've "built" a house, you'll be able to apply that knowledge to other projects.

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1. Start by identifying the major organizing concepts. Make sure you understand the functional significance of each in the context of biology. These concepts usually can be identified by looking at the lecture syllabus for the daily topic and the corresponding chapter titles in your text book. In many modern introductory level texts, the chapters each constitute a major conceptual area. Subdivisions within the chapter go from broad concepts to supporting concepts and finally, the details.

2. Once you mastered the major concept, move on to the secondary concepts and determine their functional significance in the context of the larger concept. Most biology textbooks, you will notice, use these secondary concepts as the major subheadings within each chapter and lists them on the first page of the chapter. The lecturer, in delivering a lecture, will usually present the information in this same fashion...major concepts > secondary concepts > supporting details. Further, the textbooks typically provide a figure relevant to the most important concepts to augment the text.

3. Now learn the more detailed information that supports the secondary concepts. Each secondary concept is linked to supporting details that more fully explain the particulars. These details are easily found in Campbell in the form of the minor subheadings, figures and tables, the boldfaced terms, and techniques boxes.

Overall then, you want to build, by your study methods, a conceptual framework for each major concept in your brain's HARD DRIVE, i.e., long term memory. When you encounter a new question or problem to be solved you will have an ANALYTICAL framework of information to work from. You will find that if you understand the broader concepts, the details that seemed so hard to manage and keep straight will now have a framework in which they can be pigeon holed and applied. Furthermore, you will quickly begin to see the connections between major concepts which will broaden your understanding of biology.

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An example: one linear progression through a conceptual framework.

I. Inheritance is a major concept within biology.

(you fill in the functional significance, etc. here)

A.chromosomes and genes are fundamental subconcepts of inheritance.


1. Meiosis is the cellular division mechanism by which genes and chromosomes are passed from a diploid "parent" cells to haploid cells which will be used in sexual reproduction.

a. crossing over and independent assortment are mechanisms which create genetic diversity.

Now at this level you might do the exercise of drawing out the stages of meiosis to makes sure you understand just how cells go from 2n to 1n.

In the long term, you will probably forget the details of such diagrams for immediate recall. HOWEVER, if you understand the function of meiotic cell division, i.e., 2n->1n, you will likely be able to work out the details of the mechanism because you know where to start and where you have to get to, and the basic important roadmarks along the way.

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When you have a good working inderstanding of the major concepts, it is much easier to add new information, e.g., greater levels of detail later in other courses or as you conduct research. Ultimately your conceptual framework will become multi-dimensional as you make the cross connections between concepts. At this point you'll begin to think analytically about problems. Better yet, the information will be LEARNED and will become a tool for thinking about unfamiliar problems.

You will recognize when you have learned and understand a system WHEN you can work out what happens when it is perturbed from the normal.

A way to practice this is to play the "What if.." game. For example: In a dihybrid cross with Drosophila we expect the genes are on separate chromosomes and will will therefore assort independently. But what if they aren't? What would we expect from this cross or another particular kind of cross if the genes were linked? What if one was sex-linked? Or caused viability problems?


By now you must realize that most exams you'll take in college are not regurgitation exams. Most biology exam questions are designed to have you APPLY your new found knowledge to work out a SOLUTION to problem or situation you may never have seen before. The key then, is to have your conceptual frameworks well in hand so that you'll recognize what's familiar in those unfamiliar problems, and then analyze them by applying your knowledge.

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Following is a simple routine for preparing for exams.

1. Ongoing studying: building the conceptual framework

Studying to learn must go on continuously and not just be confined to the two or three days prior to an exam.

  • Prior to each lecture do the suggested reading to initiate familiarity with the topic area and identify the major concepts.
  • When you review your lecture notes (daily), clarify the major conceptual points and their functional significance.
  • Identify the supporting concepts and their functional significance.
  • Review and understand the details. If you find gaps where you missed something the lecturer said, see if the details can be found in your text. Seek clarification of any information you don't understand immediately by attending office hours and help sessions.
  • Once you have reviewed and clarified your notes, review the relevant material in the book and make any additional clarifications in your notes.

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2. Pre-exam studying: nailing the details

  • Carefully review your lecture notes and relevant text readings to cement the concepts and especially the more detailed suporting concepts and mechanisms. Seek any further clarification at this time.
  • As you study, draw diagrams or pictures as needed to help you see and understand the processes; this is especially important for the quantitative aspects and understanding mechanisms. Make additional notes in the margins of your text to help clarify information found there; do the same for the figures which often show the mechanistic aspects graphically.
  • When you encounter things you just can’t sort out, then go see your instructor for clarification or post your question via email.
  • Attend the PALG (Peer Assisted Learnig Groups) sessions if they are offered with your course. This is a very effective way to learn to work with your peers to study.
  • Try using group study to work out the concepts and supporting details, including mechanistic explanations where needed. Ask each other to explain or clarify details at all levels. In trying to clearly explain a concept you will likely find your own weak spots.
  • Attend review sessions and come prepared to seek clarification of lingering problems. Bring your questions with you, don't wait for others to ask.

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3. In the exam setting:

  • READ each question carefully and determine, from the context of the question, which concepts apply to it. Start working down through the conceptual framework of the problem and then answer it. Even if you can't immediately sort out a detail, by having the conceptual framework well in hand you'll have the tools to perhaps work it out rather than just writing down all the words you can think of that might relate.
  • If you get hung up on a question, leave it and move on; then come back to it and you may see it in a different light. It is not unusual for helpful information to pop up in other questions.

4. Post exam:

  • Review your exam and note areas of weakness. Go back to your notes and see if you were sufficiently addressing the concepts and details.
  • Seek clarification of incorrect answers and correct your notes as needed.

Suggested Reference

Drewes, Fred. 1997. How to Study Science. 2nd ed. WCB/McGraw-Hill, Boston, MA. 122 pp. (ISBN 0-697-15905-1)

This is a very handy discussion of how to study for almost any kind of material presented in science courses. Many suggestions can be found as to ways to make your studying more effective including tips on how to write more effective exam answers and how to analyze your exams to determine where your weaknesses may lie. Greg Anderson has a copy if you are interested in browsing through it.


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Modified 9-27-12 gja

Department of Biology, Bates College, Lewiston, ME 04240