Dear Ally,

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How [Not] to Study for a Science Class

Dear Ally,

Science classes have a rep for being difficult, especially my course, organic chemistry. While I believe some of the stigma against my chosen field is exaggerated, there are ways students can make it harder on themselves.

Here’s what NOT to do if you want to pass:

  • Procrastinate. Cramming is the worst way to study for a science exam. Give yourself time to absorb complex topics and practice problems. Study in small 20-30 minute chunks a few times every day. This keeps you from feeling overwhelmed and gives you time to seek help before the homework is due or before the quiz or exam.
  • Just look at your notes. Study for science the same way you would for math, with pencil in hand, a bunch of problems to do, and a stack of paper on which to write them. Many students believe they can learn how to do a science problem by watching the professor do it and then by looking at more worked examples. Use the examples to look at while you do more problems yourself and then do more of that same kind of problem until you can do them correctly without looking at your notes or anything.

do all the problems.jpg

  •  Memorize everything. Have you ever called someone the wrong name for so long you couldn’t ever remember their real name? The same thing can happen if you memorize something for class the wrong way around. If you need to memorize something, at least make up a mnemonic like: cations are positively charged , think about the “t” being a plus charge. (I’ve got a ton of these.) It’s better, though, to be able to go through a series of logical steps to connect the dots and figure out the answer. Using this approach for the cation example, first you’d need to understand that protons are positively charged, that electrons are negatively charged, and then that cations contain more protons than electrons. This way you’ll be able to explain how cations are formed and other more complex concepts.
  • Don’t ask for help. The time to ask for help is as soon as you feel you’re beginning to struggle. If you perform poorly on a quiz or exam, go to the professor or the teaching assistant as soon as possible to figure out how to correctly do the questions you missed and to see if those questions are related to one or a few topics. It’s just as important to figure out why you answered incorrectly as it is learn what the right answer was. Hopefully you and your professor will be able to narrow your mistakes down to one or two misconceptions that can be explained to you.
  •  Be a lone ranger. In the real world no one does science alone. Find a study group or at least one friend and get together. Don’t be tempted to copy homework since this defeats the purpose of homework. At least have your friend explain how they got the answer. I used to do as much of the homework as I could on my own and then work with friends. For exams, study until you think you are ready and then get together with a friend to quiz each other.

study group

My chemistry study group. Not many women in the class.

  • Read the textbook like it’s a novel. This isn’t English class. Use the book like you would a math textbook or a reference book. The index and glossary are your best friends.  Read  the sections for concepts that weren’t quite clear in class. Focus on the diagrams and tables as well as the vocabulary. Look up example problems to help with homework. Pay attention to the summaries at the end of each chapter, these are gold, but are often overlooked.
  • Ignore the additional resources. There are so many places to find supplemental materials besides the textbook and the study guide (which you should have or get from the library or me), so find your favorites, use them, and share them with your study group.
  • Decide that science just isn’t your thing. Don’t be a self-fulfilling prophesy. If you say you hate something, you will grow to loathe everything about it. If you say you aren’t good at something, you will surely convince yourself that you can’t do it. But the opposite is also true, so go in there everyday telling yourself that you love this class and you’re smart enough.

The last thing is not to give up. I plan to someday write, “When should you bail on a class?” but I hope you’ll never need that one.

Hang in there,

Aunt Sarah


1 Comment

  1. I know this was an agony aunt letter, but I also found it really useful so thank you! I just posted about studying on my blog, the link is if you would like to take a look! 🙂


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