By Paige Roth
Science courses were really hard for me. You are talking to a girl who wrote paragraphs instead of diagrams when my organic chemistry professor asked me to explain a synthetic pathway. For many pre-med or pre-vet students, science classes seem like a masochistic but ultimately satisfyingly pleasant challenge as they simply expand their already linear minds to greater heights. I did not experience that pleasant climb. My experience was a bit more Sisyphysian as I watched my giant boulder role back down the hill after each semester.
But I am here to say, I did figure it out. And while I may never be the first student to shout out the answer after my professor flashes a slide with a complex signaling pathway and asks how some hormone’s presence will alter it, I am the student who can figure it out and, even better, explain it to someone else.
I am not going to give you generic tips like sleep more, eat right, go to class, take exercise breaks, for the love of god go to office hours – because if you have come this far I am assuming you have that all figured out or have tactfully chosen what to ignore. Here are some of the tips and tricks I learned to help my non-linear mind tackle the logic required for my courses.
- Study better not more.
My freshman year seemed terribly unjust because I would spend countless hours in the library reviewing material to only see marginal improvement. After that year, I thought about how to maximize my studying efficiency. Realistically, you only have a couple good hours of focus at a time to crank out useful studying. Anything after that usually dissolves into mindless Facebook scrolling or scheduling weekend plans. I started making to do lists for each short study session that included the exact material I needed to cover and the exact study tools I planned to use (flashcards, flowchart, rewriting terms etc.). This proved far more effective than trying to reread every chapter.
- Focus on the material you professor presents.
Disclaimer: some professors really will test you on random paragraphs in textbook reading. But, in my experience, professors generally only test you on what they think is important (i.e. what they covered in class). Prioritize power points and in class material over re-reading supplemental information. But, if you are shaky on a concept covered in class, then review it in the reading. This saves you valuable time and ensures you cover the most important concepts if you are in a hurry.
- Flashcards are still good for rapid recall.
While any science professor will tell you not to memorize, sometimes it’s unavoidable. I kept a running stack of flashcards, particularly for chemistry classes, with critical reactions and terms. I found that I was much more comfortable on tests when I was able to quickly recall a familiar term to contextualize myself than when I tried to apply a broad concept to a specific term I remembered hearing at one point in the lecture. Flashcards also helped me calm my nerves right before exams because they were a tangible way to reassure me that I did have command of a good chunk of the material.
- Handwrite and consolidate notes.
I learned the benefits of handwriting my notes in class far too late. Studies show that you remember concepts better when you handwrite them instead of typing. Now, I will say there were certain classes that definitely required a laptop or I wouldn’t have gotten nearly half of the class content. It is also nice to be able to annotate directly on slides. For those courses, be sure to rewrite your notes on a regular basis in a consolidated form to help you organize and internalize concepts. I used these consolidated notes as study guides in addition to my flashcards before each exam.
- Use study groups strategically.
People often rely on study groups or office hours to teach them concepts through osmosis. My rule about study groups were: 1) never the night before an exam 2) I would only go if I had finished all my own study checklist items. Here’s why. Study groups can be cancerous and kill you confidence before an exam. But, they are also a great way to see how other people approach concepts you struggle with or to catch important concepts you may have missed during lecture. So, it’s important to prepare and feel like you can confidently contribute and teach concepts (that way you are also not the study leech that everyone hates). Also, allowing yourself time after your study group means you can review any concepts you missed after the group session instead of letting your friends terrify you that you are dismally unprepared.
This is by no means a definitive guide, but I hope it shows you have a crafted, modified and strategized my study habits during my four years in undergrad. These were some of the tips I wish someone had told me, so I hope they help you gain some confidence in those difficult classes!