Dr. P's guide to success

Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”


  • Learn to think like a biologist.  Our central question--"how do animals work?"--is fundamental to biology and offers perfect material for practicing to think like a biologist.  Why have some designs but not others been favored by evolution?  Why are particular types of body design paired with some types but not others?  In what evolutionary order did different components appear, and why?  How have basic aspects of form and function been altered in subtle or dramatic ways among related taxa?  What aspects of animal design are imperfect, reflecting the limitations of phylogenetic history?  Learn not just to recognize patterns, but to understand processes.  Formulate and ask your own questions of new material.  Comparing information as it accumulates is an essential scientific skill.

  • Respond to grades constructively.  Learn to think of grades not as rewards/punishments but as feedback.  My job is to help you to identify ways to learn better, and a grade you receive should be just one step in a dialogue about how your understanding of course material can improve.  Many studies show that success in school, and in life, is linked more strongly to an attitude that "I can do better if I work harder" than to "native intelligence."  People who are smart and convinced they don't need to work as hard do more poorly at facing life's challenges.

  • Attend all lectures and take notes. Lectures will put special emphasis on material so that you will know how to navigate the detail.  Taking notes in your own words helps you to organize information in the way you learn it best.

  • Take responsibility to learn actively.  Lecture is for organizing and explaining; actual learning takes place more during study time outside of class.  Because our time in lecture is so limited, I look for ways to organize the information in a way that will make it clearer when you put in the time to learn it. 

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

  • Read for scientific insight. When reading journal articles and Research Focus Boxes, pay careful attention to the questions asked, the methods used to answer them, and the basis for conclusions.  Make sure you understand figures and tables, which are useful for creating questions on exams.

  • Review/relearn lecture material soon after each class.  There is too much accumulated material to cram into an organizational scheme in your brain if you try to learn it just before each exam.  Read over your lecture notes after each lecture, using them to identify what you do not yet understand.

  • Make full use of time in labs.  Labs provide hands-on experience and expect you to cover animal classification in greater detail than in lecture.  You will have access to the material only during that lab period, so make full use of it, your instructor, and your peers, and do not plan to leave early. 

  • Get started early on writing assignments. Do not leave writing until the last minute.  You could get trapped with an article that you don't understand or don't like.  Good writing requires background reading and creative thought, which cannot all be accomplished the night before an assignment is due.

  • Ask questions! Be sure that material is clear in your mind. Ask for clarification in lecture, come to office hours, study with your classmates.  A general and important rule in my class: there are no stupid questions or comments!  On the other hand, be prepared for me not to just give you the answer but to probe your understanding to see where your misconceptions lie.  You will learn more by verbalizing your understanding of the material to others, whether it is initially right or wrong.

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