Mastering Biology Terminology In Introductory Courses

Ideas for increasing retention of vocabulary presented in introductory college-level biology courses.

As a teacher, and previously as a student, I have found one of the more frustrating courses to get through is a large survey course like Intro to Biology. The amount of material covered is often daunting, and no topic is covered in enough detail to allow you to get used to the terminology. One of the largest problems is that many students want to succeed but have no idea how to approach the course. It is highly important for students who constantly need help with writing papers for academic purposes throughout the whole course. One of the first things I tell students is that biology courses should be considered and prepared for the same way you would use for a foreign language course.

How to Remember Biology Terminology

Consider the following tips for learning and remembering the many terms that are associated with the field of biology.

Write the words. Write them in your notes. Re-write your notes. Write them on note cards. Write them with definitions that you put into your own words. Simply transcribing word-for-word from the glossary in the back of your textbook is not going to reinforce the actual meaning of the word.

Speak the words. Say them out loud in class (If you have a professor that does not give opportunities for you to speak in class, you may want to suggest they do!). Say them to your study partner when you are reviewing the material. Say them to the wall in your room when no one else is there. Just say them.

Read the words. Biology textbooks have a lot of words in them. You need to find the parts that describe the specific term you are trying to understand and read that section. Highlighting an entire chapter in yellow is not going to help you remember any of the terms, but sifting through the text to find what you are looking for will.

Hear the words. First, you need to listen in class and try to hear what the professor is saying. Second, you might benefit from recording lectures and listening to them again at another time. Some MP3 players have a record feature that will allow you to do this.

Draw the words. Draw the structure, concept, or pathway that is being discussed, and be sure to include clear labeling. Many students are visual learners, and creating a picture of that term on a piece of paper may help with retention. If you feel you cannot draw, consider one of the biology coloring books widely available, or make a copy of figures out of your text and white out the labels so you can re-fill them.

Break down the words. Most biology terms are based on Latin or Greek root words. By breaking down words you can learn the parts of many terms at once. For example, “city” means “cell,” the term “leuko” means “white,” and hence the term “leukocyte” means “white cell”; a white blood cell to be specific. “Cyte” is also included in the names of many other cell types, including “osteocyte,” “erythrocyte” and “lymphocyte.”

Compare the words. Many of the words used in biology sound very similar, but mean very different things. Find the words that look or sound the same and find ways to remember why they are different. For example, glycogen and glucagon differ by only a few letters, but one is a storage molecule and the other is a hormone. The terms might even be discussed in the same chapter or lecture, as they are both related to regulating blood sugar levels, making them even more tricky when it is time to decide between the two on an exam. You could remember that glucagon releases glucose into the bloodstream, and has an “on” together like the word hormone.

Test the words. The best way to learn is through frequent testing of the material. Now, you do not want to wait until your final exam to try this idea. Take advantage of the multiple choice questions in your textbook, or use the website provided by the text to try out some quizzes. If the course you are taking does not provide any of these tools, create your own! Students must use critical thinking when processing the research on their own or asking someone to write my essay for me while considering biological concepts.  This is a very productive way to use your time with a study partner or group. Better yet, each of you prepares a test beforehand and brings it to your session. You can have fun deciding which of you would be the most challenging professor among you!

Succeeding in Your Biology Course

All of these methods may not work for everyone. Different people learn in different ways. Try a few, and if they don’t work, try a few more. One major tip for success is to practice these methods frequently during the course. An all-night cram session is not going to work for this kind of material. Many short review sessions will be much more productive.

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