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Surviving immunity

Wednesday 10th, August 2022

Brianna Argall

Immunity is generally considered one of the most challenging topics in high school biology, which isn’t helped by the abundance of confusing terms. If you’re struggling with telling apart an antigen from an antibody, this is the article for you. Here are my key tips for immunity:

Break apart key terms

This is a tip that applies generally across biology. Biologists tend not to be very creative with names, so learning some of the key parts of words that come up frequently can help a lot. For example, we can break phagocyte into “phago” - eating and “cyte” for cell. This describes, you guessed it, cells that “eat” (engulf and destroy). Specifically, they’ll be doing this to pathogens and other foreign material in your body.

Similarly, remembering that “macro” means big, a macrophage is a big cell that eats things i.e. it’s a type of phagocyte. Not every term is going to make intuitive sense immediately, but the more that you’re able to connect the words to other information, the easier it will be to remember them. 

Draw diagrams - LOTS of diagrams

There are lots of processes involved in immunity as well as many different types of cells and noncellular components to remember. To keep things clear, make sure you draw flowcharts of processes, diagrams showing connections between ideas, and use summary tables for cells. I highly encourage you to make your own. If you have access to other high quality summaries use these to check your work for accuracy.

The specific type of diagram you use will depend on the content you’re looking at. For example, mind maps can be great for the first line of defence, whereas the second and third are likely to require a combination of diagrams for maximum effectiveness. You might also have some diagrams that that combine different lines of defence, such as summaries of leukocytes (“leuko” means white).

Don't get nitty gritty too quickly

It’s crucial to not fall behind in your basic conceptual understanding or else you’ll find yourself becoming very confused. This can have a spiralling effect where you are unable to understand the new content in class and so fall further behind. Immunity is tricky enough to keep on top of even just staying within what you need to know, so avoid getting bogged down in the details at the start. Before you worry about the exact components of an antibody make sure you can confidently distinguish these from antigens. 

Once you are confident in your basic understanding, that’s when you can build a more detailed picture. Until then, it’s better to focus on staying afloat and keeping up than to dive down into the murky depths. For example, it’s better to understand the concepts around phagocytosis and antigen presentation than to remember which phagocytes are derived from monocytes.

Use exam style questions early

Following on from the previous tip, it’s ok if at the start you aren’t hitting every piece of jargon in the examiner’s report. On the other hand, if you’re listing key points that are highly distinct from the suggested answers, this is probably a sign that you’re focusing on the wrong information. Early exposure to exam questions will help you build confidence in what you need to know - especially in a topic as information dense as immunity. 

Additionally, by doing practice questions you’re engaging in an active form of recall that will help build strong memories. The study police aren’t going to come after you if you use aids - like notes - to help you, or if you redo questions again later (something I encourage!). However, you might just find that the confidence, memory, and skill boost is an invaluable aid in your studying toolkit.

Best of luck with your immunity study!

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