Back to Science Education

Undergraduate Student Resources

Welcome to College!

You just successfully made it into college and have to adjust to this new environment with all of it's exciting opportunities and new challenges. New opportunities and new challenges go often hand in hand, and your success in college, and in your desired future career, will depend on how you respond to these new challenges.

What are your expectations for college?

You may feel that college should be a breeze, since you have aleady proven yourself in highschool and earned plenty of A's and B's. Or you may expect college to be a bunch of courses that are obstacles in your way to what you really want to do, e.g. go to Medical, Business, Law or Forestry School. If you are thinking that way, you are likely missing the point of college and are at risk of falling behind your peers who view college as a chance to develop and hone the very skills that will make them successful in college and competitive for any career they chose to pursue after college. And remenber, there is no such thing as an "A student" - grades are not assigned to you as a person, but based on the knowledge and skills you demonstrate on course-specific tasks. And these tasks and skills have just become more challenging. However, you can develop strategies to face these challenges and be successful. For example, the syllabus and the learning objectives of the course you take will give you some information on which skills are expected from you in that particular course, and how they are assessed. Make sure to take note of that and, if unsure, ask the instructor. 

Thinking skills

If you did well in highschool, you have a good chance to do well in college, as long as you are willing to challenge yourself beyond your current cognitive skill set, which tends to be heavily memorization-based in highschool. If you struggled in highschool and had to work hard for your grades, you also have an important prerequisite for doing well: the ability to engage in your own learning and practicing your thinking.

The ability to memorize facts and explanations is a good skill to have, but in college this is now a prerequisite, and no longer the ultimate goal of learning. To use a sports analogy: You just made it from the minor league to the major league, which requires the development of additional skills to do well and excel. At this level you are still expected to memorize and remember/recall content (facts and simple explanations), but in college you are also expected to develop and master higher level cognitive skills, which allow you to work with the facts and explanations you have memorized. 

Remembering facts ("remembering") and basic explanations ("understanding") are often referred to as lower level or passive thinking skills, since they require you to simply remember and recall facts and explanations as memorized. To work with this learned content material you will have to be able to transfer ("apply") what you learned to new contexts, you will have to compare and contrast processes and solutions to a problem ("analyzing"), and you may have to justify which solution is better syuited for a given problem ("evaluating"). You will also have to synthesize learned material, generate new explanations and ways to use evidence to test your explanations ("synthesizing"). These thinking skills are generally referred to as higher level or active thinking skills, because they require cognitive processing of the input and generation of a new output. These are also called critical thinking or scientific thinking skills (even though you also need them for every day critical thinking - science or not).

How to develop and practice higher level cognitive skills in college

You are now increasingly expected to apply what you learn to new situations, to analyze data and step-by-step processes, evaluate alternative scenarios, and use evidence and logical reasoning to justify your conclusions. You will also be asked to synthesize information and to generate novel ideas/explanations and design rigorous experiments to test them. These higher-level thinking skills are also known as "critical thinking skills". Critical thinking skills are not only essential for science, but also pretty much for any important decision you will make in every-day life and in your career. At this point, you may think... who cares? why do I need to know this? Just tell me what I need to know! - Well, unfortunately, it does not work that way.

New evidence from cognitive and neuroscience shows that we are all in charge of your own learning. An instructor can help by challenging you, while providing learning support (more at the beginning, less and less as you learn the skill), but you are the one who has to do the learning, nobody else can do it for you. To use a sports analogy: Imagine a gymnastics coach who gives a lot of support when you learn the hard moves, e.g. on the uneven bars, and then slowly steps back as you keep practicing and become more secure and ready for the "competition" (exams). In this example it is pretty apparent that you will be better at the skills (and get more points from the judges) the more you practice, and that you will have to practice the difficult moves much more than the simple ones (e.g. getting on the bars/memorization). If you are more into basketball, imagine practicing sinking 3-pointers for an important game, or if you are a musician, imagine practicing for a concert. Coaches (teachers) are there to help, but you need to do the work. There is no way around it. You may start out reading about other athletes or musicians to get motivated, or you watch videos of star athletes, or listen to master musicians, but this alone will not help you do well as an athlete or musician yourself. At some point you have to get out there and practice, practice, and practice some more. In the process you will make mistakes and learn from them. Mistakes are part of the process. So go out and practice, noone else can do it for you! And the more you practice, the better you will be prepared. for the exam. Don't expect to be just a passive learner, passively listening in class and memorizing, and then do well on critical thinking tasks on the exam. 

Learning means changes in synaptic connections and neuronal processing

From neuroscience we know that practice generates and strengthens new synaptic connections in the learning and memory centers (for both facts and skills) in your brain, and that the type of practice affects the type of connections formed: Critical thinking relies on different connections than memorization, so make sure to practice it after every class, and make it routine before the exam. The last thing you want is to have to develop a new thinking skill during an exam (it's almost impossible).

Learning takes time. Especially the higher level cognitive skills (critical thinking) require physical rewiring of your brain and strengthening or formation of new synaptic connections. This doesn't happen instantly but requires repeated practice. You can't learn these skills or make these connections by listening to others, incl. your instructors, or reading about it. You will have to practice these thinking skills and exercise your neurons to achieve these physical changes. Ideally your instructor will offer you practice opportunitities during class or as homework. Use these opportunities! Don't take short-cuts.

But no matter how much practice your instructors offers: practice on your own as part of your study routine after each class. Like with any other skill that is based on efficient synaptic connections: the more you practice, the more you challenge yourself, the better (faster, efficient) your skills will be. Just like a musician gets better with practicing her/his instrument and an athlete gets better with additional training, you will be a better thinker the more often you engage in the exact type of thinking you want to excel in. 

How to study your success in College and in Introductory Biology?

Other than being aware of the different cognitive skills and your own role in learning and practicing your thinking skills...

1. know your instructors expectations and prepare for class

Make sure you know what your instructor expects from you before coming to class. Many syllaby have reading assignments for each class session. Please note that different instructors use the assigned readings differently, please be aware of that and make sure you are not assuming what your instructor may expect based on your other classes. If this information is not provided in the syllabus, ask your instructor how to use the reading, e.g. whether you need to read and learn all the details in the text before class, or whether you should read and summarize paragraphs to get a general overview of the topic before class, and then learn the details that directly relate to what was discussed in class afterwards, or anything else. Also make sure you know whether you are expected to do a preclass quiz on your readings, clicker-questions in class, or whether it counts towrads participation in class. Mark all the dates in your calendar and check the class website regularly.

For example in my class I expect my students to (1) scan the reading and summarize paragraphs for a big picture overview of the class topic before class, I ask them to (2) take good notes during class: why is that important? and how does this work? (higher level) not simply what do I need to now? (lower level), and then to (3) take their notes and use them to focus their in-depth reading on relevant text passages in the reading after class, before (4) reviewing and (5) self-testing, including self-testing for critical thinking.

2. get the most out of class

This requires attention (focus, don't multi-task), engagement (find a way to make the material relevant to your life), and good note-taking. Research shows that higher level thinking is inhibited when attention is divided.

3. study and self-test for critical thinking after class

Schedule study times for all your classes in your weekly calendar. For each hour in class, spend 2 hours studying out of class. Make sure to schedule the study time for a given class session before the next class so you have mastered the previous material and can fully participate and benefit from that class. For instructions on how to practice critical thinking along with memorization see the selftesting instructions below.

4. prepare for the exam situation

If you are anxious, easily distracted, or your eyes tend to wander during thinking, chose a seat in the front and/or side of the class room to minimize distractions. If you second-guess yourself a lot, or tend to rush see the exam taking instructions below. If you generally suffer from exam anxiety go for a run or brisk walk before the exam (i.e. use the biology of your body to reduce the physiological stress response).  Also take a few deep breaths before moving on to the next exam question.

5. learn from your exam performance and adjust

Many students are only interested in their grade, and possibly grading errors, but otherwise ignore their exam. This is a big mistake, because your exam can tell you a lot about your strengths and your weaknesses in studying and exam taking. By analyzing these strengths and weaknesses you can focus on improving your specific weak points, rather than doing more of the same (a common response by Introductory Biology students to a low exam grade), which is not the most time- efficient and effective strategy to improve your skills assessed on the exam and your grade.

Over the years, I have developed a set of guidelines and supports for my students that helped them with these steps and that will help you to do well in Intro Bio as well (as long as you apply them):

 

Resources [under construction]

How to well in class (Examples from Introductory Biology)

Blooms Taxonomy of cognitive skills

Question examples for different cognitive skills