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. Don’t do it! Late nights and caffeine add up to an incomplete understanding of the concepts you need to know. Instead, use these tips to confidently undertake your science reading assignment.
Do the assigned reading before class discussion
This will enable you to ask the teacher/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:
- The summary at the beginning of the chapter
- 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.
Read for understanding
Science textbooks follow an outline format—pay attention to 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.
Scrutinize each paragraph
As you ferret out the facts, you need to keep in mind how they can be integrated with the material from your class. It is also helpful to notice what kind of study support the book itself provides: detailed indexes, glossaries, appendices, website links, etc. Pay close attention to details, formulas, charts, graphs and inter-related concepts.
Read each chapter more than once
It may 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.
Then turn the headings and sub-headings into questions and 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.
Don’t skip sample problems
Sample problems emphasize important concepts in the chapter. Make sure you can solve each problem without referring to the text. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What principle(s) is the problem demonstrating?
- What part of the problem suggests that this principle is involved?
- Why was a particular formula used in this chapter, as opposed to other formulas?
- Why was each calculation performed?
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.
Work with the formulae
They are 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:
- What system or process in the world does the formula describe?
- What does it say about the system or process?
- What can it be used to find?
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.
Check your work
Don’t just check for mistakes. Also be sure that you understand the principles, concepts and formulas that are explained in the reading.
Many students avoid reading science journals, because they are 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.These journals 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.
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, contributed to this article.