Dr. P's guide to success


  • Learn to think like a biologist.  Our central questions--"what determines where organisms are found, how many are found there, and how patterns of distribution and abundance change over time"--are fundamental to biology and provide perfect material for practicing to think like a biologist.  Your goal is to learn not just to recognize biological patterns, but also to think through how you would determine the processes that lead to those patterns.  Whenever you see a pattern, always formulate your own questions about how it arose.

  • Attend every lecture and take notes!  Lectures will put special emphasis on material that you won't get only from reading the textbook.  Taking notes in your own words helps you to organize information in the way you learn it best.

  • Take responsibility to learn actively.  Lecture time is only a small portion of your opportunity to learn.  I use this limited time to organize information in order to help you to navigate the detail when you study, write, and read more outside of class.   Integrating information as it comes in is an essential scientific skill. 

  • Come prepared. Reading the assignment before class will allow you to understand more of the lecture material, to ask better questions, and to participate.  Reading the assignment again after lecture will allow you to use the organization provided to absorb more of the details.

  • Read for insight. When reading journal articles pay careful attention to (1) the questions asked, (2) the methods used to answer them, and (3) the basis for any conclusions drawn.  Make sure you understand figures and tables, which make for good questions on exams.

  • Review/relearn lecture material soon after each class.  You will need to master too much accumulated detail to cram the material into your brain just before an exam.  Use the lecture notes to learn how to recognize what you do and do not understand.

  • Make full use of time in recitations.  Recitation provides an opportunity to develop the skills that are most essential to your development as a biologist.  It is also your best opportunity to ask me questions  about your work and to benefit from working with your group.  Do not plan to arrive late or to leave early.

  • Benefit from group work.  The secret to working in groups is to be independent before being collaborative.  If you all do a task together, your one collective effort could very well be wrong.  But if you each first do a task independently and then compare notes, you are more likely to be able to correct each other.

  • Get started early on writing assignments. Do not leave writing until the last minute.  Use the multiple weeks devoted to each recitation project to build your final product, rather than thinking you will get it all done at the end.  If you try to cram you will be frustrated and your grade will suffer.  Good writing requires background research and creative thought, which cannot all be accomplished the night before an assignment is due.  Scientific ideas and presentations take time to work through problems. 

  • Take writing seriously. Turning a complex set of interconnected ideas into a linear string of words is one of the hardest things we do, but also one of the most important.  Take my feedback seriously and not personally, as I invest a lot of time and energy into trying to show you how to make your writing more precise and concise and your ideas more evidence-based.  Take advantage of two important resources: (1) read the article by Gopen and Swan (1980), "The Science of Scientific Writing" and (2) take advantage of the writing center on campus. 

  • Ask questions! Be sure that material is clear in your mind. Ask for clarification in lecture, come to office hours, study with your classmates.  I go by the rule that there are no stupid questions or comments. You will learn more by verbalizing your understanding of the material to others, whether it is initially right or wrong.

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