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How to Study for Biochemistry: Tips and Techniques

Biochemistry is a challenging course that uses a combination of many concepts found in General Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, and Biology. Studying biochemistry is a huge time commitment if you want to succeed.

1. Don’t Memorize Biochemistry Facts, Learn Concepts

Time and time again, students taking Biochemistry try to memorize topics, regurgitate them on the exam, and then flush the information to allow for the next topic. Like cramming, this technique is one of the least effective ways for you to learn biochemistry.

Most students taking Biochemistry are obligated to be there as a STEM degree prerequisite. For those of you stuck with Biochemistry as a required course, you need to learn the material instead of memorizing. If you learn and understand how enzymes replicate DNA, you won’t need to memorize factoids about each specific type of replication.

You can translate your knowledge about DNA to RNA replication That doesn’t mean memorization isn’t a part of studying biochemistry.

Things like amino acids, nucleic acids, lipids, and steroids are biomolecules with structures and names that will have to be memorized.

On the other hand, their functions and chemical processes will need to be learned.

  • Why is this molecule called an amino acid?
  • How does pH change biomolecules?
  • What chemical conversions are happening during the citric acid cycle (TCA, Krebs cycle)?
  • What chemical conversions are happening during the citric acid cycle (TCA, Krebs cycle)?

Deal with these processes in pieces. There is chemistry in biochemistry, but unlike chemistry, biochemistry is centered on a finite number of reactions.

One set of core reactions is used over and over again in Biochemistry courses. If you understand the reactions, you can then apply them to multiple systems throughout biology

2. Stay on Top, Don’t Procrastinate

One of the biggest struggles for students taking Biochemistry will be trying to keep up with the sheer volume of information thrown at them.

Most biochemistry courses are upper-level courses and instructors will assume that students taking Biochemistry already know the basics of chemistry and biology. So how do you cope?

Well, you will have to develop two different studying techniques: a. review and b. learning.

a. Review

First off, look through the material before you arrive to class. Pay particular attention to figures and graphs. Have a rough idea where the lecture is going and be prepared. Time is precious, and it is asking a lot to study biochemistry daily, but you will benefit greatly if you set aside time to study every day.

These study sessions don’t need to be 3-hour long blocks; these are short reviews. Throughout the course, there will be concepts that you know already and those that are completely bewildering. If you have 10-15 minutes (say on a commute or eating a meal), review the concepts that you are already familiar with.

Like muscle memory is built from repetitions of movements, Biochemistry knowledge is built by reviewing basic concepts over and over again become second nature.

This may include amino acid names and structures, equations, and scientific terms. This will be a big confidence booster as you take exams and can confidently identify and answer questions both accurately and quickly.

b. Learning

Now, for those concepts that are truly confounding you: set them aside for a block study session. You should set aside 2-3 hours a week for a longer study session where you can spend the time to read up and learn new concepts.

Do not try to cram; cramming is the least effective way to learn for students studying biochemistry. By breaking up the review and learning process, you can begin to build up your knowledge base. Read on about how to effectively use your time during longer study sessions.

3. The Marathon Study Techniques

You sit down at the library for a three-hour chunk of studying. So far so good, but then you hit a wall. Instead of becoming demoralized or resorting to memorization, here are some tips for climbing the wall step-wise. First off, you’re not alone. Coordinate and form study groups if you can.

Some topics may click more with others, and they can help explain it to you. You might even understand a concept that others don’t and you can polish your knowledge in that area by explaining it to your peers. Many concepts can be learned thoroughly by teaching them to other students.

Remember that you have resources other than books and the internet. Course instructors, teaching assistants, or online professionals are willing to help. People inherently enjoy talking about their favorite topics and will go out of their way to make you understand. Just ask!

Another idea to remember when you hit a wall is that biochemistry is very visual. Knowledge retention from reading text is generally low. The strongest way to learn biochemistry is to write it down. Take notes by hand and rewrite those notes to reinforce ideas.

Repetition is the mother of all learning, and you cannot study biochemistry without writing out structures.

What do you do with those notes after?

Use them for your short review sessions!

Also remember that biochemistry is rooted in organic chemistry; you will have to draw a lot of structures, and the best way to do this is by hand.

Break up the work; studying a single topic for an hour will just exhaust you. To switch it up, try a couple of practice problems as a self-evaluation. Look at the figures in your lecture notes or textbooks and determine what they mean.

Try to find articles or blogs on topics associated with what you are learning. Lastly, look at old exams if you can. This will help you familiarize yourself with the types of questions that are asked and the topics you need to study the most.

Take a practice exam online, see which questions you miss, and learn from your mistakes.

4. Look at the Big Picture before Zooming in on Details

Approach biochemistry as you would a piece of art; appreciate the painting before analyzing the brush strokes. Like all courses, Biochemistry is taught in sections.

For example, one topic may be carbohydrates. What you should do immediately is review the basics of carbohydrates:

  • What are they?
  • What structural elements do they have?
  • How do they behave?

From these broad questions you can move deeper into specifics:

  • what types of carbohydrates are used in biochemistry?
  • What reactions do they undergo?

Always try to relate the specifics back to the big picture and try to relate topics to one another. You learned about carbohydrates,

  • What about lipids?
  • How are they the same or different?
  • Do they interact?

Eventually, you’ll have one of those ‘a-ha!’ moments where you see how the pieces fit together. When it comes to biochemical pathways, start vague. A goes to B.

Then go into greater detail: substrate A goes to product B using enzyme C.

Keep building on this and eventually you will be able to drop in casual conversation that succinate is converted to fumarate by succinate dehydrogenase as part of the TCA cycle, and (big picture) the TCA cycle is necessary for life.

5. Use the Nomenclature

There are so many terms in biochemistry and their names have specific meanings. If you understand the terminology, you pretty much understand whatever process is being described.

From the example above, succinate is converted to fumarate by succinate dehydrogenase. The word dehydrogenase is a technical term that gives the following information: this bio-molecule is an enzyme (-ase) and it catalyzes dehydrogenation, which is a type of red-ox reaction.

So in this pathway, one bio-molecule will undergo an oxidation while its partner undergoes a concurrent reduction. One name gave all that information. This is the importance of understanding and using proper terminology.

To say Taq polymerase is a protein is technically correct, but calling it an enzyme is more descriptive in both its origin and function.

When you truly start to understand biochemistry, you may even start pointing out the misuse of technical terminology in everyday media.

6. Organize Your Biomolecules

Conveniently, all the bio-molecules we study can be grouped into families by their behaviors. When looking at biomolecules in lectures, if you can quickly identify the type of molecule and its family, you can predict how that biomolecule will behave.

The major groups of molecules are proteins, lipids, carbohydrates, and nucleotides.

  • Proteins are composed of strings of amino acids and act as structure elements, enzymes, and receptors.
  • Lipids are the fatty acids and steroids that make up cell membranes, act as cellular signals, and are used as an energy source.
  • Carbohydrates are sugars found within cells and act as primarily as fuel, but also as structural support and are needed for cell signaling.
  • Nucleotides are the building blocks of genetic material and are also used for signaling and carrying energy.

Other small molecules you will encounter outside these major categories may include vitamins, signal transmitters, and metabolites.

There are, of course, exceptions to the family rule, but these four molecule groups are a good starting point. You can build from here and ask yourself how the different families interact with each other.

7. Understand and Deconstruct Figures and Graphs

As mentioned above, biochemistry is extremely visual. Biochemistry studies the interaction of biomolecules with each other, often depicted graphically as spheres touching other spheres and causing a response.

Graphics like these are big picture models that hide the intricacies of what is going on at the molecular level to avoid overloading students with information. As you progress, you will be able to interpret figures more easily and know which specific processes are involved.

Graphs are visual depictions of mathematical data that you will have to interpret. The most common graphs in biochemistry are used to describe enzyme kinetics; for example, you will see a lot of Michaelis-Menten plots. Become familiar with how to read graphs.

Look at the x-axis (bottom horizontal) and y-axis (usually left vertical side) and take note of what is being plotted and the units. Some examples are meters v. time (velocity graph), nm v. absorbance (UV-Visible spectrograph), and concentration v. velocity (enzyme kinetics).

Even if math isn’t your strong point, become familiar with reading graphs and how to quickly identify key points quickly such as intersections between curves and the x or y-axis, halfway points on lines, and where curved lines plateau.

Your job during exams will be to determine how these graphs will change when and outside force is exerted on the biological system.

8. Final Tip! Make Biochemistry Relatable

If you’re still having trouble understanding concepts while studying biochemistry, try looking at them with a different perspective. Many students are taking Biochemistry because of their interests in health or biotechnology.

During lectures, a particularly good question to ask is if the instructor could give a real world example. For example, in enzyme kinetics, students often get confused between competitive inhibitors and noncompetitive inhibitors.

Fortunately, the use of inhibitors is commonplace in pharmaceutics. A hallmark of competitive inhibitors is that they are transient, lasting a short time like pain relievers for headaches.

Noncompetitive inhibitors work by changing the conformation of enzymes, deactivating them; one example is azidothymidine, an anti-viral drug that prevents the spread of HIV. It is easier to recall information that you have a positive, practical association with than just trying to recall factoids.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, this guide will help you in studying biochemistry. You don’t need to know 100% of the material. The most important thing is diligence and learning from your mistakes. Biochemistry is a field that is rapidly changing.

The structure and function of DNA were only discovered in the 1950’s, and now just over 60 years later we can already genetically engineer cells, cure or eradicate certain diseases, and increase the general health of a population.

There are so many exciting real world applications of biochemistry you can connect to the course if you know how to study properly.

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