How to Survive Microbiology (5 Important Rules)

Learning microbiology is ironically a lot like experiencing a viral infection. One day the subject suddenly gets in your brain, the next it rapidly takes over your life. The next semester or two you try your best to fight it.

The truth is microbiology is hard. Learning all the bugs and drugs involved still gives me chills to this day. You have to approach it with an equal dose of caution and confidence.

Surviving it involves developing a solid study plan and habit. As well as attempting hundreds of questions to help guide your revision process.

How to Survive Microbiology: General Tips

The following tips can be used as a general guide. They’re good for any educational course – nurse, doctor, physician assistant etc. They’re also very straightforward.

Familiarise Yourself With the Syllabus and Schedule

Reading the syllabus for your microbiology course might seem like an obvious place to start but it’s surprising how few students actually do. The syllabus shows you the road map. You can use it to get a good idea of areas you might already know and others you may need to learn.

The schedule reveals the pacing of the course. Use it to make an immediate note on important dates; quizzes, exams and homework assignments. Put them in your calendar (or organisation system) so you don’t forget.

All this will save you time and stress later.

How to Approach Microbiology Lectures and Classes

If you get the chance to choose your microbiology teacher or professor, do so wisely. A lot of this class is taught in the lab. You’ll want someone who can entertain and engage you in that regard – microbiologists get a bit of a bad rap for being boring.

Check out sites like if you can. Or ask students in older years of study who the best teachers might be. 

As for lectures, I’m a little on the fence. Their value depends on the professor. Sometimes your time might be better spent skipping out on lectures and working at home from other resources (that’s what I ended up doing). Take the first couple of weeks to make that judgement. Don’t just forego them right away.

Microbiology is one of those classes where you need to get help right away if you don’t understand certain concepts. Don’t be afraid to approach or contact the teacher. And get used to Googling around to clarify things.

Prereading, Reviewing and Notetaking

Honestly speaking, I don’t know how useful prereading is in a class like microbiology. I used to skim over things in Wikipedia before class and that seemed to work fine. But that’s only because I hated the formatting and structure of the lecture slides to start with. You might not have that problem.

If you have good class/lecture slides print them out and annotate. Review them the evening after and every couple of days. If the slides have learning objectives, do your best to answer them without looking at your notes. The repeated reviews will pay dividends.

Understand that the core material of the class, the things that you’ll likely be tested on, come from lecture notes and the things the professor or teacher mentions. That’s why taking notes can be vital. Do so using the Cornell method and creating questions for yourself – that’s one of the key tips in my article; how to study medicine more effectively.

Selecting Resources

Outside of your lectures and classes you’re going to need a great reference resource. Having one on hand can help you clarify things fast. Something you’ll be needing to do a lot in microbiology.

The biggest tip I always give when suggesting how to memorize medical textbooks, is that of choosing a good resource first. For you this might be:

  • Engaging
  • Easy to read
  • Clear and memorable diagrams
  • Self-check questions or quizzes

As well as the other things you prefer.

For a few good recommendations – I’ll go more in depth on exactly what I used later, check out Doctor Osareh’s vid below…

I actually like these resources too. I used the Made Ridiculously Simple course in neuroanatomy and found the conversational tone, the funny images and the memorable mnemonics really do aid recall…

The BRS series is another favorite of mine. Especially as each chapter is bookended with MCQ-style quiz questions.

They could be good for you too.

Review Biology and Chemistry

Microbiology is heavily dependent on biology and chemistry. Without a firm basis in these it’ll be hard to survive it. Go back and review each briefly if you can, even if it’s just for a couple of hours or so. 

Trust me you’ll be happy you did it. Especially when the modules on antibiotics mechanisms of actions start. 

Cheat Sheet for Tests and Exams

One thing I got a lot of benefit from when facing microbiology midterms or class tests was to create a one-page cheat sheet. This is just a primer on the core concepts. Something that can be read in a couple of minutes in the lead up.

If you can put this together using something like the Feynman technique – or by mapping it out without looking at your notes – even better. 

Also remember to take all your notes, cheat sheets, class slides and whatever else and use them to quiz yourself periodically. 

How to Memorize Microbiology

I’ve written before about how I successfully memorized microbiology. My strategy comes down to heavy flashcard use. But only flashcards with simple facts on them – I don’t like the big information-dense ones I see lots of other students making.

Another thing; save time by using other people’s cards. Use electronic flashcard apps like Anki or Quizlet and run through public decks. Pepper’s microbiology Anki deck is considered the gold standard from a USMLE perspective. This will also work for non-US or non-medical courses too. It’s part of Anking’s broader Zanki overhaul deck (I talk about this here). 

If you’re making your own flashcards (can be a good thing to do), irregardless of whether you go paper or digital, consider the following things:

  • 1-2 facts per card
  • Create your own colorful illustrations (useful for agar mediums, chemical tests, bug morphology etc)
  • Comparison tables (can really help with classification differences)
  • Mnemonics (create your own for lists etc)

Of course I can’t speak highly enough about Sketchy Micro as a resource here. Especially when it comes to memorizing microbiology fast. 

Sketchy’s videos are short (4-5 minutes), tell funny stories and create great mnemonics to help remember bacteria, viruses, parasites and the like. It’s also the resource that Pepper’s Anki deck is based on too. So your workflow (watch a video first, then pull the corresponding cards) can be nice here.

How to Get an A in Microbiology

Get an A by incorporating most of these tips, implementing an effective workflow and practicing with a ton of microbiology-based question banks and books. Flashcards build on your notes. Questions build on that foundational knowledge.

The two approaches; questions and active recall (in the form of flashcards), should be enough. Just make sure your flashcards incorporate the class and lecture materials that are likely to show up in your University-specific tests. And keep searching (and doing) as many new questions as you can.

One question book I found amazingly useful in this regard:

Exceptionally well-detailed answers. These help to fill knowledge gaps (which I had a LOT of by the way). 

It might also be worth checking out the question banks of resources like Lecturio (see my review) too. But they’re not strictly dedicated to microbiology (they’re more clinical case based in format) unlike those above…

How to Study Microbiology in Medical School

Some general tips for MBBS students learning microbiology would be to ensure you understand the following areas:

  • Types of microorganisms
  • Classifications of microorganisms
  • History of microbiology
  • Infectious microorganisms (symptoms, signs and pathologies)
  • Helpful microorganisms (lactobacillus etc and those that help physiological functioning)
  • Different fields of microbiology

Knowing your way around these topics will put you in a solid test-taking position. Use comparison tables and diagrams as much as possible. They can really help separate all the differences in your mind.

Obviously all the tips above apply also. Particularly the more general ones about the syllabus, resources and the approach to lectures.

You’ll need to know microbiology very well in med school.

How to Study Microbiology in Nursing

Nursing is a little lighter on the detail compared to an MBBS. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily easier though. Labs are a part of nurse-based study of microbiology as they are anything else.

Get a grip on it right away by knowing the following:

Again focus on the foundations first. Then expand out your knowledge from there.

The same general tips apply to pre-nursing too. As this video helps to show…


Microbiology doesn’t need to be the intimidating class you expect it to be. Getting involved with labs, volunteering to help with cultures and tests etc, are ways you better see how it all fits together. 

Finally, have the confidence and belief that it is something you can conquer. With a good plan and a process in place, there’s really no reason to feel otherwise.

Image Credit – @pawel_cervinski at Unsplash