AP Biology Tips: Science vocabulary shortcut

Note: This article is based on a guide I wrote for some students who are taking the AP biology exam. But this tip is just as relevant for chemistry, physics, etc.

In AP biology, there is a lot of specialized vocabulary to learn. Fortunately you can use this shortcut. Not only will this help you in AP biology—it will make you a stronger reader, writer, and thinker in practically every subject.

You hopefully already know that Biology means the study of life. The word root bio means life, and the suffix -ology means the study of something. Think of such words as biography (the life story of an individual), zoology (the study of animals), biomass (the weight of living tissue), and many others.

Learning the roots of AP biology vocabulary will help you understand how many general concepts are related. It takes some effort up front, but in the end you'll learn faster and remember more. Here's what I suggest:

Create an AP biology notebook or flashcards and start making a glossary of word roots you encounter. I've provided a few below, but ultimately you'll have to make your own. Here's how:

  1. Whenever you come across an important term in your AP biology class, look it up in a dictionary and you'll find the word's roots (which are usually Greek or Latin).
  2. Divide your notebook pages into three columns. The first column should only be an inch wide. The second and third columns should be almost equal, with the third column slightly wider.
  3. In the first column, write the root. In the second column, write the meaning of the root. In the third column, write the word that first led you to discovering your word root. If you can think of another example of a word that contains the same root, add it to the third column as well.
  4. Skip a space after each root. This should leave some room to write more example words. Whenever you find another word that can be an example, add it to the third column
  5. When you have accumulated more than four examples for a given root, create a flashcard for the root. Carry these flashcards in your pocket, and drill yourself until you have memorized them. Limit yourself to 7 cards at a time.
  6. When you encounter a word you don't know in your reading, try to figure out its meaning based on familiar roots. Always double-check, because this process will sometimes be misleading
  7. When you study topics outside of AP biology, you may notice that words with the same root have a somewhat different meaning in different contexts. Make time to think about how these meanings are related. This will help you develop deeper insights about both fields. For example, ecology and economics both stem from the Greek root oikos, or “home.” Both deal with the movement and distribution of resources, the investment of these resources, the need to accumulate resources and various ways to manage them. You'll find endless examples in both fields.

Here's the beginning of a sample page to show you how to set up your notebook (click on it to see a larger version):

AP biology word roots

More AP Biology Vocabulary Roots

Here are a few more words and their roots to get you started. These are words you have already encountered in the class, or will encounter soon:

  • chlor; “green” ex.chlorophyll
  • eu; “good, true” ex. eukaryote
  • herb; “plant” ex. herbivore
  • nuc; “center” ex. nucleus
  • poly; “many” ex. polymer

Almost any good, old-fashioned paper dictionary will show you the roots of any word you want to study. There are also apps and online dictionaries that can help. Here's my favorite: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php

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