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Biology Study Tips - Reading the Textbook

Most people read the textbook for one important reason: The textbook covers the same information that the professors present in class, and the exams will be based on this information. However, the textbook contains much information that the professors do not cover, and occasionally material is presented which is not in the textbook. Because of this, you should use your lecture notes as your guide to what the professors consider important, and use the textbook as a resource for verifying your knowledge of the details and enlarging your understanding of how the details fit together as a body of knowledge. Presented below are some tips on familiarizing yourself with the textbook and the organization of the chapters; how to pre-read the textbook before attending lecture; how to identify what's important in lecture; how to use the textbook as a reference book; and how to mark the textbook.

Familiarizing yourself with the Textbook

If you haven't already done so, you should devote twenty minutes to looking at the organization of the textbook. Read the Contents Summary carefully. What are the major sections of the book and what does each chapter cover? Which chapters are recommended reading and which are not relevant to the course? Skim the full Contents to familiarize yourself with the sub-headings of each chapter. Read the introduction. The textbook also contains a combined index and glossary. Both are important features, but they have very different functions. Take a moment to look up the term "Natural Selection". First read the glossary definition and then read the sections of the text indicated in the index. The glossary and index provide different kinds of information. In what kinds of study situations would you want to use each?

Chapter Organization

Each chapter has a few introductory paragraphs and a summary. The text is divided into sections, for which the sub-headings are important terms or phrases. There are many photographs, diagrams, tables and graphs which illustrate the topics discussed. The important terms have been printed in bold type, and a self-quiz is included at the end of each chapter. Because the body of biological knowledge has many interconnections, it is difficult to present the topics in a simple serial fashion. Therefore, the initial chapters contain much information which is used as a foundation for later topics, and successive chapters refer back to the foundation material. Understanding the authors' organizational strategy makes the textbook more useful.

Pre-Reading the Textbook

It is helpful to pre-read the assigned chapters before attending lectures. Reading the first few paragraphs and the summary provides the basic structure of the chapter. Reading the bold-faced words introduces you to the sound and spelling of the important terminology, and looking at the figures and reading the captions provide the images which will help you understand the lecture when you hear it. Pre-reading should only take 20-30 minutes per chapter.

Identifying what is Important in Lecture

Once a topic has been presented in lecture, you should know what the professor considers important, and this should enable you to plan your studying. Use your lecture notes to write intelligent questions about the information your notes contain. Many of the questions may be simple, such as "What is differential reproduction?", but you can build from there to more complex questions, such as "What is the relationship between differential reproduction and natural selection?", or 'What is the significance of differential reproduction to the process of evolution?" The simple questions are usually concerned with definitions or basic structures. These aspects can best be studied using flash cards or review sheets. The more complex questions are concerned with relationships. These aspects can best be studied by writing and/or verbalizing the answers. The textbook can help clarify and reinforce your understanding, but only if you know what questions are important and you read with the purpose of answering those questions.

Using the Textbook as a Reference Book

When constructing flash cards to learn terminology and basic information, it is helpful first to write a definition in your own words, based on your lecture notes. Then check the glossary and/or use the index to see the authors' definition. Write this definition on the flashcard also. Use the flashcards to quiz yourself regularly. Shuffle the cards periodically so that the sequence doesn't reveal any answers. Remove cards from the deck when you consistently get them right. Review the removed cards periodically, and return to the deck any cards that you fail to remember. When studying the more complex aspects of the subject, use your textbook as a reference book that you read selectively. Try using the 5-step method outlined below to make your studying time more efficient.

  • Step 1 - Survey the Chapter . If you have pre-read the chapter, you've already done this, but do it again briefly to get a feel for how the chapter is organized.
  • Step 2 - Organize Your Questions . Organize the questions from your lecture notes so that they parallel the organization of the chapter. Add any questions that you may not have thought about, but now seem important. Look for connections between questions. Take a moment to think about the answer to each question before you begin reading.
  • Step 3 - Read to Answer the Questions. Work your way through the text looking for answers. The first and last sentences of each paragraph, and any bold faced words contained, may help identify the paragraph's contents. Skim each paragraph. If a paragraph doesn't seem relevant, move on to the next. If a paragraph answers one of your questions, read that paragraph carefully.
  • Step 4 - Recite the Answers . As you find the answers to your questions, recite the answer in your own words. If you study in the library you may need to do this in a whisper, but verbalize the answer, don't just think about it.
  • Step 5 - Write the Answers . As you finish reading a section of a chapter, write a summary which answers each important question or group of questions. It may be helpful to jot down the page numbers where the answers are located in the text, but if you select your questions and compose your summaries well, you shouldn't need to read the text again. When preparing for exams, you only need to run through your questions and be sure that you know the answers. After all, exams are nothing more than the occasion when you answer the professor's questions.

Marking the Textbook

The reading method presented above does not require you to mark your textbook. However, marking may be an important part of your current approach to reading, so here are some tips an improving your efficiency.

    1. Use a pencil to write with. It can be erased or changed as your understanding develops. Ink is unchanging; your learning grows.
    2. Do not highlight or underline sections of the text. It is time-consuming, distracting and uninformative.
    3. Use vertical lines in the margin to indicate important passages.
    4. Use abbreviations or special marks to flag specific information. (e.g. use "def." to identify definitions.)
    5. Write important questions, number them, and use the numbers to identify the passages that contain the answers.
    6. Write your own footnotes that elaborate, summarize or interconnect ideas.

Grades in this course are based on your ability to answer questions on exams. If your note-taking is directed at asking questions and your textbook-reading is directed at answering them, you are preparing for exams throughout the semester. This preparation is necessary, but not sufficient to do well on exams. You still need to plan you final review of the material prior to the exam, and to consider how best to use your time during the exam. These topics will be discussed in the section on test-taking.