No. 3:  The Rule of Simplification

    For any structure, event, or principle in biology, there are complicated and there are simple ways to memorize it.  Find the simple ways, and you'll save time AND remember them better.

    In lecture and in the text book, we present material in depth, with supporting information and illustrations, sometimes in great detail, because you need that detail in order to picture and understand each topic.  However, once you've heard and understood the detail, you probably don't need all of it in order to memorize the fact, structures, principle, or event.  

    I may have shown you a color illustration or a photograph, given an example, and explained the details.  You COULD learn the material by memorizing the text or my lecture, along with the illustration(s).  ALMOST ALWAYS, though, there is a much simpler way.  Once you understand the concept, you can usually distill it down to its essentials--a very simple sketch, perhaps showing two or three or four stages of events, perhaps with a few key abbreviations thrown in.  (In fact, this 'essentials' version is known as a 'chunk' in learning, and 'chunking' is how experts think.) IF you can simplify it, your memory task is much easier, and usually you can recall it with many of the details you didn't include in the sketch.  Realize that all of biology refers to real physical objects or events, and so all of it can be represented in sketches.  Words are necessary to explain those sketches, but if you have the sketch and the terms for it, you can reconstruct a description.
    This is exactly the way I (your professor) study and learn in biology.  I know that my brain is slow to memorize complex but accurate diagrams, often with multiple colors.   The task is too hard, the sketches too complicated.  I know that my brain is slow to memorize even a few lines of text.  I can't even memorize short song lyrics.  However, I've learned to be good at chunking: simplifying complex structures or concepts down to their essentials.  And, I've learned to be fairly good at matching the more complex aspects of a process back to the correct part of a simple figure. Years ago I learned that on an exam, if I quickly redrew my simple sketches in a margin, that I could then describe the associated events or structure in detail, or explain what would happen if something was changed, or predict an application of that principle in a new situation.

    For more on how to do this, you can go to my section on 'Minute Sketches' [Instructions for Minute Sketching as a pdf file].  

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Last updated  9/01/2009
College of William and Mary, Department of Biology