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Studying Science: The Six Keys to Success
22 May 2006
Students often don't know how to study science. It isn't like studying other subjects. We asked the experts for advice, and they gave us some very practical tips. This how-to article may not make you a science whiz overnight, but it will help you get on top of all that studying!
New students often don't know how much time it really takes to study science. You'll need to make the most of every minute.
The first step in managing your time is to do a realistic accounting of how you currently spend your time. Keeping track of your time, hour by hour, can really help. Remember, you are doing this for yourself - so be honest. For a week, take notes on how you spend your time. Include everything: eating, dressing, getting to class, studying... watching TV, working out, surfing the Web, etc.
After a week of keeping track of time, look closely at your hourly and daily schedule. Now, begin to develop a new schedule. Different people have different cycles, so don't rely on someone else's timeframe for studying.
As you create a new time plan, keep in mind that some of your courses may require a lot of study time outside of class: For instance, you might need to spend 16 hours (or more) per week on chemistry. Biology may take another 15 study hours per week, and math may require 9 to 12 hours weekly.
Also, when allotting time, try to be as specific as you can - i.e., rather than simply planning to "study chemistry," specify how much time you'll spend on solving problems, studying for an exam, etc.
Be sure to include non-academic tasks in your schedule, too, such as working or managing personal responsibilities. And don't forget to make time for eating and sleeping!
Next, work up a new plan for spending your time, and try it out for a week. Decide what works and what doesn't, and revise your schedule accordingly. A good time management schedule is not written in stone. You should re-evaluate it regularly (i.e., once a week), and adapt it to suit your current study needs.
Of course, drawing up an efficient schedule is the easy part. The real challenge is sticking to it!
Studying while you're on the bus or subway may sound like a good use of time, but it really isn't. People study most effectively when they are alert and undistracted. That's why it's so important to create a dedicated study space.
Your study space should enable you to (a) focus solely on the subject and (b) concentrate for long periods of time. It might be a whole room, part of a room, or a study cubicle in the library.
Whatever and wherever it is, your study space should be your own personal sanctum sanctorum.You need to use it for studying only. If you need to take a break - to talk or eat or play music - then do it somewhere else.
Part of what makes a study space effective is that your brain comes to associate it exclusively with studying. As soon as you enter that space, you just click into the study mode. This, in itself, is an enormous time-saver.
Once you've created a study space, stock it up with all the essentials, such as:
What should you banish from your study space (other than your friends)? All TVs, radios, CD players, PDFs with IM, and cell phones. By and large, they're just distractions that will slow down your thinking and make it hard to concentrate.
However, there is an exception to this rule: Some types of learners - i.e., those with attention deficit challenges - actually work better with a little background sound. By this stage in your life, you should know yourself well enough to understand what distracts you and what doesn't. Just use your discretion.
Last of all (and needless to say) the best study space in the world is pretty worthless... if you don't use it.
Are you intimidated by your science textbook? If so, you're not alone.
Developing an in-depth understanding of complex scientific principles can take an enormous amount of time and effort. Tackling a difficult text can be daunting, even for the most intelligent student. So daunting, in fact, you may be tempted to put off your assigned reading until the last possible moment.
Before you give in to the urge to run screaming from the room every time your eyes fall on that textbook - remember: It's not going away.
The only thing procrastinating will do, in the long run, is stress you out. You'll find yourself up late at night, rushing through the required reading and struggling to stay awake - which only makes it harder to grasp difficult concepts and easier to overlook key terms. (Besides, there's only so much latte one human being can drink.)
Before tackling your reading assignment, it helps to understand that reading a science textbook is not like reading a novel. It's a whole different creature, organized in a whole different way. Science textbooks follow an outline format - which you can tell by looking at the way the material is laid out on the page: the larger the heading, the broader the topic; the smaller the heading, the more specific the topic.
So... how do you read a science textbook? You have to scrutinize each paragraph carefully in order to extract important details, formulas, charts, graphs, and inter-related concepts. As you ferret out the facts, you need to keep in mind how they can be integrated with the material from your class. It also is helpful to notice what kind of study support the book itself provides: detailed indexes, glossaries, appendices, Website links, etc.
Here are the nuts and bolts of reading your textbook. First of all, as obvious as it sounds, be sure to do the assigned reading before the lecture, not after. This will enable you to ask the professor to clarify anything you may have found unclear in the text. S/he also can explain any differences between the way a topic is covered in the text and the way the material is presented in the lecture.
Before reading the assigned text, read (a) the summary at the beginning of the chapter and (b) the questions and problems at the end of the chapter. This will give you clues about what the author wants you to gain from the reading.
After this, allow yourself enough time to read each chapter more than once. Unless you're a genius, it will take you several readings to fully grasp and absorb the material. Don't start taking notes until your second reading - and when you do, follow the same format that the author used, using the chapter's basic structure as a guide.
After re-reading and outlining each chapter, turn the headings and sub-headings into questions, then see if you can answer them through either the class notes or your own knowledge of the topic. If you can't, go back and review that section of the chapter.
In addition to answering any assigned questions and/or solving problems, divide any unassigned questions among the members of your study group and try to answer them as well. (See "Join A Study Group," below.)
It is extremely important to read and understand the sample problems highlighted in yourtextbook. Why? Because they emphasize important concepts in the chapter. Ask yourself the following questions:
Try to make associations between the system or process described in the problem and the scientific principles that are being applied. In time, you will begin to see the same principles recurring.
Once you fully understand the concepts, you'll be able to solve the problems on your own. Make sure that you can solve each problem without referring back to the text. Note: In this process, there are no shortcuts!
Formulas are also an important component of the problem-solving process. They are concise, mathematical statements that describe and make sense of some system or process in the real world. If you have only a superficial understanding of the meaning of a given formula, you will use it inappropriately. To gain a thorough understanding of this relationship, ask yourself:
Think of ways to apply a given formula to your own experience. After you have calculated an answer, make sure that your answer has addressed the problem's underlying question.
Finally, review all the problems you have completed - not only to check for mistakes, but also to be sure that you understand the
Here's another word of wisdom: Try thumbing through the scientific journals. They often have valuable information that can help you better understand your coursework. (They also can be a great resource when you're trying to make a decision about your health career.)
Unfortunately, many students avoid reading science journals, because they're put off by the terminology, tables, graphs, and diagrams. Don't let that deter you! A good journal article can make a complex scientific topic come alive.
If you want to be a successful student of science, you must master two essential in-class skills: effective listening, and effective note-taking.
Effective listening begins with (a) pre-reading and (b) having an idea of the topics that will be covered in a particular lecture. As noted above, pre-reading gives you key information about complex ideas the professor may cover in class. It also gives you a chance to raise your own questions and deepen your understanding of the topic.
Effective note-taking is also crucial. You need to develop a comprehensive record of the professor's ideas, so you can carefully review them later. Think of your notes as a handwritten book. If your note-taking skills are poor, your book - and hence, your knowledge of the subject - will be incomplete at best, and inaccurate at worst.
The first step in note-taking is to have the right tools on hand: pens, pencils, highlighters, and a notebook with plenty of paper. Find a format of note-taking that works best for you, and stick with it. For instance, use the main portion of your page for lecture notes and the margins for additional facts and insights (i.e., textbook page citations, URLs, or recommended outside reading).
Be sure to highlight any questions you have about the material; if the professor doesn't address them during the lecture, ask him or her about them afterward.
Get to class early enough to sit in the front, and really focus on the lecturer: maintain as much eye contact as possible, and notice his or her gestures and expressions. Body language can speak volumes about which part of the lecture is most important. Also, always write down whatever the professor writes on the blackboard. If the professor thinks it's important enough to write it down, so should you.
Understanding a professor's motivation or goal in a given lecture is as important as discerning what a textbook author is trying to convey in a given chapter. Professors use lectures for different purposes, and if you can discern his or her purpose, you can take better notes.
It is also important to put each lecture in context: Think about how it relates to previous lectures, assigned readings, and the class syllabus. To that end, before every class, it's a good idea to review your notes from the previous lecture.
Be discriminating about the kind of notes you take. You don't need to write down every word of a lecture; make note of just what adds to the knowledge you've already gained from your textbook reading. Your notes also should answer any questions and/or clarify any confusions you may have about the material.
To make your class notes clear and concise, re-read them as soon as possible after class (ideally, within 24 hours); as you re-read your notes, highlight them and add explanatory information, as needed; if necessary, rewrite the notes altogether.
Reviewing your notes after class is an important discipline, for three reasons: (1) It can improve your comprehension of the topic; (2) It can increase your retention of what you've learned; and (3) It makes studying for exams much easier later on.
The best students - like the best health professionals - don't work in isolation. The friends you study with become allies in learning: You cheer each other on, brainstorm together, divvy up topics, and help each other study for exams. There's strength in numbers!
What makes for a successful study group? A study group should be carefully selected. Generally, a good size is 3 to 5 students. You should choose students who are committed to succeeding. Do not choose your group based on friendship; base it on commitment and similarity in study styles. Someone who is a night owl may not work well with an early morning riser, although they may both be diligent and committed individuals!Study groups should meet on a weekly basis, ideally for about two hours a week per class, but longer as exam time approaches. Generally, it is a good idea to meet toward the end of the week, because study groups are best used for reviewing material.
Each member of a study group should have clear responsibilities to cover specific material. This reduces the chances that somebody will come to the study group unprepared.
If a member of the study group comes to the meeting unprepared on a regular basis, you need to encourage him or her to find another study group. Study groups fall apart when some members feel that others are not doing their fair share. Giving each study group member specific responsibilities will make it easier to hold everyone accountable.
Study groups are particularly useful for reviewing material before an exam. As the exam approaches, expand the time that your study group meets. Discuss concepts you're not clear on and quiz other members of the group. The more practice you have answering questions, the more successful you will be on the exam.
In addition to helping you prepare for exams, effective study groups offer several real advantages. They allow students to share information, which helps everyone in the group to clarify what they do (and do not) know. At the same time, when you need to use other members of the group as resources, you get a much better sense of what you still need to learn.
Study groups also provide you with valuable information about a variety of different study methods. Being in a study group also helps you to stay on top of your workload, because you have to be prepared for the weekly meetings.
We've all been there. You played, now you pay: The exam is tomorrow, and you're trying desperately to make up for lost study time - all in one night.
Cramming is stressful and exhausting, but even worse, it's not very effective. Even if you manage to recall the facts long enough to pass the test, you're unlikely to retain them, much less truly comprehend the subject matter. In the long run, it's easier and more effective to begin studying well in advance.
Step One is to reconcile yourself to the whole concept of exams, and why they're even needed. In science-based academic programs, the primary way a school measures your understanding of the material is through your performance on the exams. Thus, it's in your own best interests to prepare as thoroughly as possible for every test.
The watchword in studying for exams is organization. Put all of your materials - lecture notes, textbook notes, handouts, problems, etc. - into a coherent and logical order. This will enable you to more easily condense and review all of the relevant material.
Find out exactly what will be covered on the upcoming exam, then organize your information into manageable increments and develop a schedule for studying them. In organizing your materials, remember to look for the relationships between and among different concepts.
Use study groups to review course concepts, formulas, and equations - as well as to review the problems you already have solved. It's also agood idea to prepare your own problems for the group to solve. (See "Join A Study Group," above.)
When studying for an exam, the best approach is not only to prepare for whatever subject matter the exam will cover, but also to develop specific techniques that apply to the particular type of test you might be given.
Science exams fall into two formats: essay and objective.
Essay exams involve (as you might suspect) writing an essay. They also require you to solve problems, which usually take the form of mathematical essays (which explain a concept mathematically, as in solving a problem for X).
Objective exams consist of short-answer questions, true/false, fill-in-the-blank, matching, multiple choice, and/or multiple-multiples (also called "K"-type questions, which ask: "If A is thus and B is this, then K is what?")
Start the study process way ahead of the exam date. If possible, find out what the format of the exam will be. If the course is problem-based, do as many problems as possible that illustrate formulas and equations that were covered in class and/or the textbook. You may want to purchase a solutions manual for the course, if it is available. If the exam will be more concept-based, make sure you understand, not just the facts themselves, but the relevant principles.
The night before the exam, try to limit last minute studying. Just spend the evening relaxing in whatever way works best for you - go for a walk or a swim, have a massage, eat a good meal... and perhaps most importantly, get a good night's rest. You'll need to be alert in the morning!
When you finally sit down for the exam, take enough time to read the instructions and exam questions carefully. It's easy to misread something when you're under pressure, so take a deep breath and bring your full attention to each question. And for multiple-choice questions, make sure you read all the possible answers before you choose one.
While you're taking the exam, pace yourself: Don't spend too much time on any one question. If you find yourself struggling with a question, leave it and move on. You can always come back to it later, when you've finished the rest of the exam.
Finally, when the exam is returned to you, review your errors and be sure to resolve any misunderstandings that you had.
Learning the sciences is a building-block process. You need a strong foundation in order to fully understand the material. And, like building a stone wall by hand, it is a labor-intensive job. There's only one way to accomplish your goal - by spending many hours studying (and re-studying) the concepts.
Mastering the sciences can be tough work - but with enough concentration, commitment, and strong study skills, you can succeed.
This article was co-written by Dr. Stefan Bosworth, author of several MCAT preparation books, as well as books and articles on learning skills for the sciences; and Lolita Wood-Hill, Director of Pre-Health Advisement at Yeshiva University.
Last updated: December 4, 2013
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