Can You Teach Yourself Biology?

Are you psyched about biology, but aren’t satisfied with your school’s textbooks? They don’t cover what you’re interested in, aren’t in-depth enough, or they’re too detailed and hardly understandable? Worse, if you’re preparing for a major exam or plan to take up International Baccalaureate (IB) Biology, then maybe it’s time to DIY it.

You can teach yourself biology using various methods. These include reading print and online scientific articles, publications, and blogs; participating in forums, seminars, and workshops; watching videos; listening to podcasts; and enrolling in online courses, especially from leading institutions.

Biology is a subject that builds upon itself, so it’s important to understand the basic concepts before attacking more complex ones. The best way to improve comprehension is to learn the vocabulary and apply what you learn. Take the pain out of learning biology by checking out our recommendations and techniques.

Prep Your Game

First, find out your natural learning style — are you a visual learner or do you like memorizing facts? Knowing this beforehand will help in how you absorb information and understand concepts.

Next, figure out what area(s) of biology you want to focus on. The basic topics in biology are on cells, proteins, enzymes, bacteria, DNA, and RNA. These are the fascinating ones, but you may be interested in something else. Learn what captivates you first to build up steam.

Regardless, you need to either read a few introductory books first or take at least two general biology courses before you can gain an in-depth understanding of specifics. If you plan to pursue biology seriously, however, you may want to invest in private tuition.

Read Publications

If you’re on a budget, borrow from your local library or buy used textbooks from Amazon, eBay, or any leading e-tailer. Experiment with a variety of formats. For mobility, download e-books or PDFs. Also, read science magazines (print/online), such as Scientific American.

Recommended Books

  • The ninth edition of Biology by Campbell-Reece is an amazing introduction to biology. It’s also available in PDF format.
  • The brilliant Campbell Biology Series presents a great introduction to the massive topics that biology covers.
  • David Goodsell’s Machinery of Life is an impressively illustrated introductory volume that’s comprehensive, yet understandable.
  • Biology for Dummies is part of the famous series that makes complicated subjects seem simple. They’re like Cliff’s Notes, but in-depth with fun visuals and anecdotes. Don’t let the ‘dummy’ trademark derail you. It just means books in their series are meant for beginners. Lots of professionals consult them.
  • Biology by Jackie Callaghan and Morton Jenkins provides GCSE questions and answers.
  • Teach Yourself Biology by Morton Jenkins helps you do just that.

Peruse Online Resources

These days, you can learn virtually anything just by typing keywords into search engines. Google is the intrepid student’s best friend. Also, if you just want a quick definition of an unfamiliar term, just visit dictionary and thesaurus websites. All the world’s leading dictionaries and encyclopedias are online. Many of them have their own apps.

Read free online articles. This blog curates articles on basic biology topics. It’s not comprehensive, but it’s good for starters. Scientific literature is available to the public on PubMed Central®, a free archive of biomedical and life sciences journal literature at the US National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine.

This report from Online Universities, 100 Best Reference Sites for Science Students, isn’t just for biology, but other branches, as well. Each link offers a detailed explanation. For basic biology, visit the Life Sciences section.

The Bio-Web offers resources on molecular and cell biology.

Check out the Natural History Collections of the University of Edinburgh, a free online museum that explains evolutionary origins, anatomy, and taxonomy.

Take Online Courses

The leading educational institutions, normally difficult to gain admittance to, are now accessible to the masses through their online courses, most of which are free.

Harvard University

This excellent open course from HarvardX is a project of Harvard University. It’s good for those who want to learn about biology-related to neuroscience, which sits at the intersection of biology and psychology. These resources focus on the brain, hormones, neurons, and the nervous system.

Harvard University Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are free online courses in a variety of subjects. Take them for free or choose to receive a verified certificate for a small fee. MOOCs are an extension of edX, a leader in online courses.

Stanford University

Stanford University Professor Robert Sapolsky’s course on Human Behavioral Biology is offered free on video from the university, which runs for 36 hours. Sapolsky’s 25 lectures are also available on the YouTube playlist below:

Sapolsky gives a well-rounded picture of human behavior from the perspective of biology with an in-depth look at the nervous system, limbic system, and hormones. He also covers the latest discoveries in neuroscience, genetics, and human evolution.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

MIT’s Open Courseware channel stores course notes, lecture notes, assignments (with answers), and videos on the relevant pages for each course.

University of California, Berkeley

Berkeley offers courses from their YouTube channel. Below is their playlist:

Independent Institutions

Watch Videos

The YouTube series of Crashcourse Biology provides a robust framework for learning the basics. Each of the 40 episodes builds on the previous one. The series starts with basic chemistry then proceeds to eukaryotes/prokaryotes, tissues, nutrition, and muscle function.

The Amoeba Sisters videos are a series of short, free science videos that “demystify science with humor, relevance, and comics.” Access their videos from their Biology Learning Playlist below:

iBiology claims to curate the world’s best biology videos. Their YouTube channel features free biology talks by the world’s leading scientists.

Listen to Podcasts

They are a mobile way of being attuned to the latest developments. They give you the skill to discuss topical science stories. They’re handy for getting a feel of how science works and for learning how scientists think. Quality ones include This Week in Virology and Meet the Scientist with Carl Zimmer.

DIY Biology — Practical Steps

Scientific researcher Meredith Juncker and the folks at WikiHow prescribed a formula for studying biology on your own. Here is an outline:

  • Cultivate a positive attitude towards biology to make it fun to study. Connect biological concepts to real-world situations, like being curious about how your body works.
  • Separate complex terms by knowing their prefixes and suffixes. Knowing what each means will help you spell difficult words and grasp their overall meaning.
  • Make flashcards for terms you don’t know. The Free Dictionary has a nifty feature that allows you to make your own cards. Hate lugging around index cards? Download the app on your smartphone or tablet so you can study your flashcards on the go.

To create a flashcard, go to a dictionary or thesaurus page and then tap the flashcard icon in the menu bar. Create four card types: definition, translation, synonym, or antonym.

  • Draw diagrams of biological processes. This is a simpler way to learn concepts compared to just reading.
  • Learn general concepts first before moving on to detailed ones. Make outlines to organize your notes from general to specific.
  • If you’re studying textbooks, answer the questions at the end of each chapter. This will help you synthesize what you’ve learned and retain it. Set aside time for studying biology. Even just 15 minutes daily makes a big difference.
  • Create mnemonic devices. Answer questions from old tests. Focus on the concepts you find difficult. This way, you process the information meaningfully, instead of just memorizing it.


“How does this work?” This is a question everyone should ask before attempting to learn anything. As you answer it, break down what you understand into small sections and then examine the connections between them. You’ll begin to see processes unfold before your eyes.

At first, it may seem tedious. Thankfully, your brain has the ability to absorb new ways of learning. Experts recommend studying science through observation, experimentation, and application. As you progress (by hopefully using our recommended techniques), you will be confident with your newfound knowledge.

Here’s to a fruitful and fulfilling journey into the world of biology.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *