Getting the most out of Studying

By Paula Rincon

January can be as festive as it can be scary to students. It marks the end of the holiday break and the beginning of a new school period. If you’re one of those plan-ahead, goal-setter students, I am pretty sure that getting excellent grades in that Biochemistry class is one of your New Year’s Resolutions. And by now, you should know that in order for that resolution to not fail, you have to make an effort a little bigger than just attend class religiously!

A study back in 1983 compared the test results of students who were given class manuscripts with lecture notes versus results of students with skeleton-type handouts lacking lecture data, encouraging active note-taking during class. Surprisingly, even though the students reported having a preference for the over-informative version of the lecture handout, those who were given the skeleton-type one performed significantly better at their post-lecture tests1.

As students, we can relate to this. I remember being so active at the beginning of my lab sessions that I would very rarely take notes at the introduction of my lab sessions. I could be found messing around with the biochemical test set-ups or checking the progress of my chromatography. And yes, I don’t have enough fingers on my hands to count the times I failed my lab quizzes.

And it’s little wonder, since Biochemistry is such a tough subject that requires extensive memorization of long enzyme names and reactions, chemical compound structures, and overall pathways. So how can we make sure we are good note-takers? Here are some tips:

  1. Print the lecture before class2,3: It helped me a lot to come to class prepared with printouts that had an outline of the lecture topics. That way, I made sure I could sketch my own compound, draw arrows, and write down any information that would help me associate an enzyme with a particular reaction as the lecture proceeded.
  2. Color pencils: –or pens, were my best friends when taking notes on my printouts (as opposed to notes in my textbook, which I will describe next), because they let me color-code enzymes, substrates, arrows, and catalysts. I could have drawn an entangled mess of arrows, but I could always follow the progress of reactions by making reference to the colors used.
  3. Bring the textbook to class: I must admit, I did not do this always (I could have trained my back muscles better had I added those extra pounds to my backpack for sure), but it particularly helped if I had read the textbook chapter(s) in advance. I tend to simplify processes that I read in the form of paragraphs on the margin of books. That way, I can have a visual representation of the process in a chronological way.
  4. Writing down analogies and examples help: If your professor uses a burger as an example to explain the process of fatty acid metabolism, make sure you take note of that burger. It will help you easily remember the concept!

Now, if you are riding the new wave of electronic note-taking, I recommend applications like Notability or iAnotate that let you type over .pdf files and other file formats. With these apps, you can draw figures in between your text, use pictures taken with your camera, and even record your lecture and embed it in your notes – all simultaneously as you type.

Lastly, if note-taking is not your thing because you are not too much of a “tactile learner” like me (meaning, you don’t use writing and sketching as your main learning technique), it’s not the end of the world!

I had two different biochemistry professors. Both outstanding and with an inherent love for the subject (which obviously helped me love biochemistry even more). My first teacher had a rather patronizing voice. He would bang on desks in excitement every time he’d get to the end of a metabolic pathway and elucidate the amount of ATPs spent. My second teacher had a more soothing tone and his lectures were charged with pauses that not only allowed for an easy digestion of the concepts, but encouraged students’ questions. I used my different professors’ teaching styles to trigger mental connections that would remind me of the lecture content.

  1. Paying attention and keeping track of the little nuances of your lecture: this will aid your memorization process by letting your brain store information by associating it to certain experiences. This way, the information can be readily accessed at the moment of reviewing material. This is one of the reasons why I never missed a biochemistry class!

**This article is dedicated to my two biochemistry professors: Jesus Alfredo Uribe Ardila at University of Los Andes, Colombia, and Scott Grover, at California State University, Los Angeles. Thanks for your tutelage, advice and encouragement throughout my undergraduate journey.


  1. Russell IJ, Caris TN, Harris GD, Hendricson WD. Effects of three types of lecture notes on medical student achievement. J Med Educ. 1983 Aug;58(8):627-36. PubMed PMID: 6876123.
  2. McLennan MW, Isaacs G. The role of handouts, note-taking and overhead transparencies in veterinary science lectures. Aust Vet J. 2002 Oct;80(10):626-9. PubMed PMID: 12465815.
  3. Morrison EH, McLaughlin C, Rucker L. Medical students’ note-taking in a medical biochemistry course: an initial exploration. Med Educ. 2002 Apr;36(4):384-6. PubMed PMID: 11940180

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