Ladder operators refer to some sort of blue-collared workers, right?
November 19, 2009 5:40 PM   Subscribe

Help me pass a subject I hate.

I'm an undergrad in a chemistry program.

My grades are...mostly solid, if not spectacular; bombed my third year (failed two courses by like 2%, C'ed the rest) from burning out, but otherwise okay. Took a year off to work in my field, came back, much more centered.

Overall, I don't think my study habits are too bad. That being said, from a combination of misinformation by someone I used to trust/respect and just general inadequacy in the subject, I'm still struggling badly in my quantum mechanics course. It's really scaring me.

Mathematics really isn't my forte, and frankly, quantum makes my head spin. Still, I understand the principle of just buckling down and do the damn studying anyway, but my semester is extremely short on time. I have another course I'm taking at the same time (physical chem, which I also failed...but upon applying myself, I am breezing through the course, so it's not like I'm not trying this semester), as well as two labs. The regular one is time consuming but not so bad, but the other one is a directed studies that takes about 5x more time/effort than my ex-friend/ex-supervising-grad student told me it would. The exact details of the blowout isn't really relevant...the only part that is relevant is that due to said blowout, my project got switched halfway through the term, so I'm literally scrambling to make enough progress so I have something to do my oral defense + paper on. Hence, spending a rather ridiculous amount of time in the lab (I've slept at school, worked until half-past midnight, etc).

I don't have high aspirations for quantum; I just need to pass the course as it's required for my degree. I failed the midterm (but 54% of the class did, and the average was 49%, so I'm not alone...we're allowed the option of putting 100% of the grade on our final, but the professor won't scale), and I'm terrified for the final because I at least thought I understood the material for the midterm and still failed the exam, whereas the material being taught now can be Greek for all I'm understanding of it. P-chem is being ignored currently as I'm still solidly on track for that one, but between the two other labs and living rather far from school, by the end of the day when I get home all I want to do is sleep. Even if I do make myself stay up, writing lab reports is about the extent of my brain power; my eyes just glaze over trying to study quantum and I end up going "so what did I just spend 4 hours reading?"

I've asked the prof for tutors; he just said I should do more practice problems (I should) and see him in his office more (I also should). On principle, I know I can pass this course if I really just buckle down and practice the 279235479012389 recommended study questions...but time is a rare commodity and I don't have the 36 hours in one day I really, really need.

I don't study in groups well (we always just end up talking; I prefer to study on my own), and I can't really do the 'study in 10 minute chunks' thing either. If I work, I really need a quiet area and 3 solid hours to just plow through it. Coming back home at midnight after leaving the house at 9:30, and with eyes glazing over, however, is really not conductive to plowing through quantum mechanics.

I admit I can procrastinate, but no more than the average student (and nowadays, after I got my head straight after my year off, probably less...I came home on a Friday night, ate dinner, sat down and started working on a lab report straight until 6 am Saturday morning). Fear is a great motivator, since I'm not 'allowed' to retake a course more than once unless with special permission from the Dean. I just need more time...and I don't have more time. I make do on about 3-5 hours of sleep a night on average, sometimes broken up into powernaps (and then naps on my very long bus ride to/from school). I don't know what else to do. do I generate enough time out of the same 24 h/d to enable me to study this dreaded subject effectively? I feel like I'm trying to wring water from a stone here. This term is burning me out again, although I generally like my major (at least enough to want to finish the damn degree).

For what it's worth, I'm writing this in piecemeal while waiting for a reaction to finish, so it's not like I'm wasting potential study time here. Again, can't do the '10 minute bite-sized studying', although I wish I could.

(Given that it's about two weeks until end of term, and less than a full month until finals, I don't think dropping out is possible and/or will go over too well, even if I talk to an advisor.)
posted by Hakaisha to Education (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Have you looked at study guides made for quantum? Maybe something along the lines of this? I'm not recommending that particular one, just that you should maybe find one? It's been a long time since I took quantum, but I remember have 3 or possibly even 4 study guides like that and I was able to piece together the info I needed from them.

I also used to have this book and I do highly recommend it. It will help you with the math.
posted by sickinthehead at 5:47 PM on November 19, 2009

Why do you need your prof to give you a tutor? Why can't you just find a tutor from among the grad students or students who have previously taken the course and hire them yourself? Am I missing something there? Because I think that'll help the most.
posted by Ashley801 at 5:51 PM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I just need more time...and I don't have more time. I make do on about 3-5 hours of sleep a night on average, sometimes broken up into powernaps (and then naps on my very long bus ride to/from school).

Any way you can find a sublet closer to school (or even pony up the money to rent a hotel/motel nearby a few nights a week) for the last month until finals? It sounds like the long commute might be a big part of the problem.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:06 PM on November 19, 2009

Response by poster: Graduate students (or just anyone I've asked who've taken it 3 or more years ago) were generally of the opinion that it's a wicked hard course, but just do practice problems, and especially review past exams thoroughly because he just takes the old exams, change the numbers, and give it to you. He does not give practice finals, just practice midterms (our midterm was given back last week; we have a late exam), and the consensus is that everyone gets like 100% in the midterm and brutalized on the final so it all evens out.

However, within the last two years (this year and last) he's changed the format of the midterms significantly. I don't know the stats of last year's exam, but like I said...this year, 54% failed the midterm. Typically this course has a fail rate of about...15%, I think? At the beginning of the year, the prof mentioned that last year, he failed about 25%. It could've just been a poor year...but I think the format-changing has something to do with it, too. That's why I wanted to ask for a tutor through the prof--like, one of his grad students. I figure someone he recommends would have a better chance of following his course vs. a general quantum course, but like I said, he just recommends me to do the millions of practice problems he tells us to do and go see him in his office more.

He's not a bad guy, really, and I don't argue the fact that if I'm not good at the course I shouldn't get a good grade. I just want to pass.
posted by Hakaisha at 6:10 PM on November 19, 2009

I failed a class once, and retook it again. The thing that got me through was doing all the 10% stuff, the stuff that wasn't worth much, but it added up. Never skip assignments.

The class you're breezing through now? ease up there a little, and make some time to do the practice questions for quantum. You might not find 3 hours, but can you find 1 hour? 1/2 an hour?

Go to the office with any questions, make the guy earn his pay. (It's blind marking for the exam, right?)

Oh, and schedule in some sleep. It may seem unproductive, but if you get some solid sleep at night maybe you could use the commute to work on practice problems/do the reading.

Practice questions are painful but necessary- there is no other magic bullet. They really help you understand how to do problems, apply theory- which is what you need for the exam.
posted by titanium_geek at 6:48 PM on November 19, 2009

Best answer: My condolences, quantum can be a pain in the ass. I think the practice problems may be your best bet after all. Even if the professor changed the format, I would wager that the exam questions will be selected from a fairly tractable set of problem types. Categorize the types of problems as much as you can and learn how to do problems of a given type. Develop and record simple algorithms to guide you through a problem of each type (when I see A and B in the problem, chances are I have to apply equation C to get D, etc). Keep in mind that:

a) You are not studying to understand the material. You are studying to pass -- don't waste your time trying to develop a thorough understanding of the material, just focus on the problem-solving algorithms. This is terrible advice if you genuinely want to learn something, but I think it's appropriate in your situation.

b) You don't need to figure out how to do absolutely everything. A strong grasp of 75% of the information is better than a weak grasp of 100% -- but hedge your bets by trying to develop a basic qualitative understanding of the material you don't have time to review in detail.

c) I am going to guess that if 54% of students fail the final as well, there will be a curve, no matter what the threats are. Don't freak out. And stay calm during the test itself -- your brain has stored a lot more information than you think it did, but you have little chance of recalling it if you are panicking.

And if you skimp too much on sleep, you will retain much less information from studying and earn less bang for your buck.
posted by Behemoth at 7:10 PM on November 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

The prof told you what you need to do to succeed. I suggest doing it. It's pretty much as simple as that. Practice problems, and go see him to talk about what you're struggling with.

Your post reads to me like you're putting a lot of energy and effort into convincing yourself that you can't do it. I strongly encourage you to direct that mental energy into just, you know, getting it done. The term only runs for a few more weeks. You can do it.

One thing that might help: remember that with quantum, you need to just let go of trying to understand and trust the math. This was really really hard for me when I took quantum as an undergrad (BS Chem, went on to do physical biochem in grad school) and I literally cried in the prof's office about it. He was great and said, no one understands how it works that way, but it does, the experiments bear it out.

If this is part of what's getting you bunched up, well, let it go and just crank through the math. Good luck.
posted by Sublimity at 4:38 AM on November 20, 2009

Geez, I didn't know my past self also had a MeFi account. Everyone above has given you the important advice- lots of sleep at the appointed hours of sleeping, particularly. Naps are awesome and such, but getting 7-8 hours of quality sleep is way better than two segments of 3 or 4 hours. Was your lab report due on Saturday at 7 am? Why not get some sleep, wake up a bit early and finish on Saturday?
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 9:08 AM on November 20, 2009

Response by poster: Titanium_geek: Haven't been skipping homework. I missed handing one in because I was out sick, but otherwise I do as much of it as I can. (I'm firmly convinced that if I hadn't skipped so much class and not handed in any homework the first time around I would've gotten that extra 2% to pass, so I'm not making that mistake again.)

Beepbeepboopboop: It was actually due Monday at 2pm; I had been working on the damn thing for 3 days already and I just wanted to get as much of it done as possible. That particular Saturday I was taking some time off from schoolwork (lest my brain rebels from the continuum of lecture-school-lab-directed-studies-home-homework that it runs on 7 days a week), so I wanted to get some solid progress before I go have fun. Otherwise, I'd feel guilty.

And thanks, everyone. I'm usually of the opinion I can survive on either shitty sleep or shitty food, but not both at once; I think I've been veering towards the shitty sleep/good food combo a bit too much as of late. (Slept through my 5:30 am alarm this morning to do--yet another--lab report, so nothing got done as I got home late from lab last night, but man, that felt good...) I'll work on the more practicing/more sleep angle. Thankfully, my chemical research seems to be turning out better, so maybe I can stop practically (and/or literally) sleeping at school soonish...

If anyone has any more tips on time-management, it'd be much appreciated too.
posted by Hakaisha at 1:04 PM on November 20, 2009

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