How do I excel in science classes?
March 11, 2008 8:41 PM   Subscribe

How Do I Excel in Science Classes?

Background: I'm doing a career change to a profession that requires a lot of science pre-reqs. I've always done great academically, though nearly every class I took in undergrad was liberal arts (history, etc) and I majored in business/IT. To me, the study skills I learned there (i.e. big picture, making connections between topics) aren't really working for me so far.

I know part of it is being out school for 3.5 years, the different learning material and setting, but I feel frustrated that I'm working as hard as I did before and am getting mediocre grades.

For those who made this sort of academic switch, what (if any) suggestions do you have?
posted by sandmanwv to Education (20 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I think that systematic analysis and effort solves every problem facing humanity. I'd start with an evaluation of what it is you are missing. This means going to the professor. Once you find out what it is that you are missing, then make a plan to get that thing.

Science is about systematic rational effort towards the goal of understanding things. Keep that foremost in your mind when you are trying to find your way around.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:47 PM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

I know what you mean; I went from a (tech-type) job where once upon a time my speciality was making those big-picture connections and relating them to the task at hand, to full-time study. The only difference with me was there was ~20 years since I last did any formal study.

Most important thing I re-learned in my first semester ~ year : you will start seeing the big picture again. You just don't see it at first because you're covering a wide bit of ground in order to get hold of all the basics. Once you've got the building blocks down pat you tend to start automatically putting them together into bigger pictures.

(Of course, if this is your 3rd or 4th year in your new course and you're still not seeing the big picture, you might be screwed ;-)
posted by Pinback at 8:56 PM on March 11, 2008

I'd like to know exactly what type of science you're learning, as more math based studies(physics, some of chemistry) and more fact based studies(biology, the rest of chemistry) require different approaches. In general, however; here's how I structure my learning in my physics classes.

First, read the textbook before, after, and if the lecturer gives notes at a slow pace, during class. There's a good lot of facts you have to internalize before you can start doing problem sets, so repetition breeds the familiarity necessary.

Second, start problem sets as soon as possible. Often a step in a problem can be utterly perplexing the first time I pick up the page, and after sleeping on it and thinking about it for a day, it becomes obvious. Along with this, find some friends in the classes, and ask them questions about the work you're doing. I've gotten more insights from off the cuff conversations about the exam we just did or the homework we just turned in than from the lectures and books.

Third, go to office hours with your half-worked problems. The professors will often relish the chance to make sure that your understanding is well set up, and oftentimes all I need to finish something is a check on a tricky integral, or a bit of insight into the best way to approach a problem.

Also, just realize that sometimes, the homeworks will take an inordinately long time to do. Professors estimate your time to complete the work based on how long they take to do it, and sometimes forget that you've been doing this for a few months or years, and not for the last twenty years. Like the guy above me said, the big picture comes with time, but most of the work that gets done by students is on the fine details, so it can be perplexing at time. Good Luck.
posted by apathy0o0 at 9:07 PM on March 11, 2008

In my experience at a large well regarded public research university, science classes are simply harder than liberal arts classes. I am in an interdisciplinary major and as such I take quite a bit of both hard and soft classes. The EECS/Physics/Chem guys that happen to be in liberal arts classes I have taken tend to regard them as a joke, and I tend to agree with them. I will write a paper for Philosophy or History the night before without having gone to a majority of the classes simply from quick reading of the text, and do well. If I have a science midterm coming up though you can bet that I am attending lecture like a hawk and studying every spare minute I get.

If you are skimming through the textbook and thinking, "Yeah, yeah, ok I know this" then you are not studying correctly. You need to take detailed notes from the textbook, and correlate them with slides, etc, and then go over those notes day in day out till you have the details cold. Memorization is part of it, which means getting enough sleep, spacing out studying time, using mneumonics for list material you will need to regurgitate, but also things like connecting various concepts to each other as much as possible, talking about/explaining the material to another person, and doing lots and lots of example problems for classes that require this type of work. Learn how to take tests effectively, simple things like carrying a watch, budgeting your time, looking at point totals for different sections of the test, giving the material they want and nothing more.

Good luck!
posted by sophist at 9:25 PM on March 11, 2008

The one trick to science courses is that the professor will teach a concept in one direction and test for understanding in the opposite direction. For instance an equation will be taught X/Y=C but will be tested Y*C=X. Generalize as needed.
posted by 517 at 9:49 PM on March 11, 2008

It's not clear which area specifically you're in, so I'll give you the best I can: math and logic

Seconding going to office hours with problems you've started but haven't been able to finish. Although I'm in the humanities (Philosophy), I've TA'd a few logic courses, and the reasoning in those classes is more like that of math/science than it is of the other humanities. I loved when students would come to my office hours with half-done problems.

The first thing I usually do is have them explain to me what they've done so far and why. Sometimes this careful examination is enough for them to either realize a mistake or make a missing connection. As a bonus, this is something you can try out at home before you go to office hours. (I (and others) have this problem with proofreading my own essays because I tend to skim them. Reading them out loud and possibly explaining why I said things I said helps with this - same idea here)

If doing that doesn't shake anything loose for the student, I try to ask questions that will lead them to the right answer. Hopefully your professor will do something similar. If so, take note of these questions. Ideally, they will be general enough that if you get stuck on another problem you can ask yourself those questions and see if they get you anywhere.

I said half-answered questions are preferable. That's because it gives me some more options and it does show you've at least given it a little thought before coming to office hours. However, if you really can't even get started on a problem, the professor will hopefully have some general hints for you.

For example, in my introductory logic classes, if you can't see what to do with the premises, you can often start working backwards from the conclusion and see if the picture becomes clearer.

Another trick (particularly for math like classes) is to start writing down definitions. Here's a homework problem I had once "Give examples of theories that are deducible though not complete." It's pretty obvious that the definitions of "theories" "deducible" and "complete" are important here.

Now consider the question: "Let G be a set of sentence, and T a set of sentences in the language of G that are deducible from G. Show that T is a theory" The definitions of "theory" and "deducible" are just as important here as in the prior problem, but that might not be as obvious. The first thing I did for this problem was write out those definitions.

Look again at that last sample problem. The "let" lets you just assume that first part (mostly that T is deducible from G). Similarly, problems of the form "Show that if x, then y" or "Given x, show y" let you assume 'x'. In fact, unless the problem is poorly written, you're probably going to have to assume 'x' in order to get to 'y,' so make sure you do that.

Sorry if this isn't exactly what you're looking for. Math and logic proofs are the closest things to science I've done in several years. Given the science classes I took, however, I think at least some of this advice should be applicable.
posted by chndrcks at 9:53 PM on March 11, 2008

The big difference between liberal arts study and science/math/engineering is rigor. Learning to be rigorous is extremely hard, but you can't do well in science without it.

That's why studying calculus will help you with chemistry and biology, even though you won't use calculus in those courses. Math is rigor; that's what math is really about. All the rest is just details (ahem). If you can pass a calculus course, you will have learned to think rigorously, and all your other science courses will become easier.

I am a "big picture" thinker, too -- but science ultimately isn't about big pictures. It's really a lot of small pictures stacked one on top of another, and those all must be exact. A big picture will emerge for you eventually, but in the interim the study of science is really about mastering many small things, not one big thing.

For me the "big picture" finally emerged about 10 years after I left college. I think that if I had tried to seek it while I was still in school, I probably would have flunked out.

The science big picture is strongly hierarchized, many many layers deep. In the beginning there is math: geometry, algebra, trig, and calculus. Then you learn Newtonian mechanics, thermodynamics, and then relativity, and quantum mechanics. (Quantum mechanics can't really be understood without at least a passing knowledge of probability, so don't forget to visit the math department again.)

After that you study chemistry, using your knowledge of thermodynamics from physics, and electron bonding from your knowledge of quantum theory. Once you understand inorganic chemistry, you're ready to take on organic chemistry, and from there move up to biology, at which point you have to visit the math department yet again to study statistics.

Each step builds on your knowledge from the previous step. For instance, you cannot really fully understand chemistry without quantum theory. (Historically chemistry really took off after the development of quantum mechanics, because chemists finally had the tools to understand what they were doing.) You can study chemistry without understanding quantum mechanics first, but what you'll take away is a lot of small pieces that won't stick together. Conceptually, quantum theory is the glue that fits chemistry into the big picture.

Without the proper grounding, trying to jump into any of the later studies ends up being rote learning, a lot of pieces that don't seem to fit together. The big picture is like an ice cream cone, small at the bottom and big at the top, and holding it all together is mathematics.
posted by Class Goat at 10:34 PM on March 11, 2008

For more math-based sciences:

1) Work with your fellow students. In most sciences classes at most places this is explicitly encouraged, and believe me - it'll probably end up helping you more than any other sort of studying. You'll have people who understand the things you don't and can explain it to you, and you'll get a lot out of explaining the things you understand to others. In sciencey grad school they actually structure it so you can't do the homework alone (and often there aren't significant office hours), and at my undergrad we were actually assigned partner problems in the lower-level classes to get us used to the idea.

2) Do problems. Do as many as you can, time permitting. Often the hardest thing is knowing how to start, and that only gets easier when you've started a lot of problems.

3) Be patient with yourself. I'm currently TAing an intro class, and I'm amazed how simple things seem now that initially were just baffling. Partially that's because I've seen it many times, and partially it's because we tend to get better at solving problems and thinking logically as we practice. Classes often get correspondingly harder, of course, but one reason teaching is nice is that you get to see that you've actually made progress!
posted by you're a kitty! at 12:06 AM on March 12, 2008

Undergraduate science courses are not usually about understanding a "big picture." At least, that is not what you will be tested on. You need to understand many little pictures. The best way to do this is problem sets, either from your textbook or from old exams.

Set up study groups and have them meet at a regular time every week.

Rewrite your notes, the day of class if possible.

Read the textbook.
posted by grouse at 12:43 AM on March 12, 2008

I've just started my 3rd Year of a Science degree (with no real direction other tahn studying things that I am remotely interested in) and I've got to back up what evrybody has said above. You need to work on things on a regular basis - don't just leave it to the week before your final exams, or you will find that you don't understand the fundamental concepts and do OK, but not brilliantly (I happen to have made this mistake in four consecutive semesters).

I found that the big picture just doesn't exist in most entry level courses, and it's only now in 3rd year that I'm starting to see the relevance of a lot of the Chemistry I've been doing, because they are much more focused subjects. I took a History of Science course last year and that began to put things into perspective, but I think I didn't get a real idea of things until I went out into the field (although it was for Geography, not Chemistry) - but seeing another part of the world and the problems they face made me see much more clearly how everything seems to fit together, even in Chemistry.

But in a nutshell: work, work, work. It will pay off.
posted by cholly at 1:00 AM on March 12, 2008

I was more or less a liberal arts student until late in my undergrad career when I shifted to a physical science for the degree. My thinking had to change a bit to the more disciplined, but I must say the reward was anything but prosaic. Doing *all* the problems at the end of the textbook chapter (not just the ones your professor assigns) is a good start. But you gotta love the sci perspective at the outset to make it through that kind of slog. Wish you the best.
posted by telstar at 2:13 AM on March 12, 2008

Let me add this about the big picture. It's not that it doesn't exist, but that you learn it in a way that might be backwards from your previous studies. You learn lots of small pictures and eventually you will come to an intuitive understanding of something bigger. You don't seek out to understand the big picture and thereby save yourself the work of understanding the small pictures. That's not happening, and you'll have trouble understanding the grand concepts really well until you understand some of the smaller concepts.

So bottom-up rather than top-down. I hope this makes sense.
posted by grouse at 2:26 AM on March 12, 2008

It looks like you're getting the same answer from everyone: the way to excel in science is to work real hard. There is no shortcut.
posted by Class Goat at 3:03 AM on March 12, 2008

In my experience at a large well regarded public research university, science classes are simply harder than liberal arts classes.

I've had exactly the same experience. My major was Computer Science at a large public university, but I tested out of a lot of the required courses, so I ended up taking a lot of liberal arts courses too. Even though I'm more of a "science person", every science course that I took was significantly more difficult than any of the liberal arts courses that I took.

One of the big factors is competition. There were enough "weed-out" courses in the Computer Science curriculum that by the time I reached the higher-level courses, they were filled with students who were more intelligent and motivated than the general student population. Add in the fact that nearly all of the science courses were graded on a curve, and it meant that to get an A in a high-level CS you had to beat out the best of the best. The bar was set a lot lower for most of the liberal arts classes. In some of them, I seemed to be literally the only one who read any of the reading assignments. In others, the bulk of the grade came from multiple choice tests that if I spent a little time going through the lecture notes and study guides I could ace without hardly having to think.

The best way to do well in a science class is to do better than everyone else on the homework, exams, and labs (if applicable). Unless you're some kind of science genius, that usually means working hard and practicing until you become very good at all of the things you need to do in the class. Do all of the practice problems you can find, and if you can't find any then ask the TA or professor if they can give you some to work on. Read the textbook and lecture notes. Go to study groups. If you get indications that you are not doing well (such as bad grades), then work harder. This can be frustrating, because it means that some of the classes that you work the hardest at are the ones where you get the lowest grades.
posted by burnmp3s at 4:32 AM on March 12, 2008

I was once a liberal arts major who then went back to learn more science and I'm now a science grad student. I agree with everything that's been said so far. Here are some more specifics that might help:

--Organic chemistry was the first class I took when I went back to school. For that, the way I did really well was to work all of the assigned problems, and then work all of the similar, unassigned problems, and then work the "think" problems at the end of the chapter. It takes a lot of time, but if you're not used to working problems you do need to "work real hard" until the process of problem solving becomes natural.

--When I started taking upper level/grad level biology classes, I discovered my real gap was in vocabulary. Get a dictionary specific to your area of study and use it. I still copy out definitions into the margins of my readings. The writing helps me internalize the definition. The internet can of course be helpful here, too, but I find carrying around my ecology dictionary a lot less distracting.

--Your professors and TAs want to help you. The suggestion of taking half-worked problems to them is great. If you're really struggling, they probably know. Take your notes, tests, homework, etc to them and ask their advice. Maybe you're not taking the right kind of notes for the subject. Maybe you're making the same kind of mistake repeatedly that you just haven't spotted yet. Maybe you need to do some extra reading to fill in concepts you've missed. These folks are not just experts in the subject area, they know a lot about how to learn that subject area. If you need a lot of help, they may know somebody you can hire to tutor you.

--The big picture does come. If you're not already reading journal articles in your area of interest, it's time to start. Science and Nature articles tend to be written impenetrably to save space, so don't start with those. Find the central journal in your field and try to read all of the articles in it every month. Even if you don't understand them completely, it will help you see the big picture and start to understand the process of science, not just learning problem solving and vocabulary.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:46 AM on March 12, 2008

It's interesting to me how everyone might read "the sciences" in a somewhat different way. As for me, when I read science, I immediately thought of biological sciences.

Here the trick as others have said, is to work hard. Read everything assigned, and seek out additional papers from PubMed. Review papers are excellent overviews for specific subjects and lead you to more detailed papers that fill gaps in your knowledge of any subject matter.

The big picture in biology or microbiology or any of the life sciences comes once you read a great deal and can incorporate all of the biological systems into pathways and networks. Then it begins to click.
posted by genefinder at 5:09 AM on March 12, 2008

Best answer: I have a PhD in the biological sciences and have spent quite a deal of time teaching undergraduate courses at a Big 10 university. A couple of things that I have noticed, both as a professor and as a student:

-There is most definitely a big picture. If I spent three weeks lecturing on a subject, and you can't demonstrate that you can assemble these topics together to show that you understand the big picture, I am not going to be happy. Yes, if you're learning about respiration and photosynthesis you will need to know some of the nitty-gritty details about the citric acid cycle and redox reactions and some of the major enzymes involved. However, at the end, if you can't understand the purpose of the reactions, and how photosynthesis and cellular respiration are essentially opposite reactions, and realize that organisms performing photosynthesis will also metabolize the sugars they produce, well, there are a lot of basic questions you're going to miss on my exams. Do spend the time to learn the bits and pieces, but most definitely work out how these disconnected bits fit into the larger framework of a process or theory, or they will forever remain disconnected bits.

-You will learn everything several times over. Get used to it. Realize that when this happens, you will be expected to add a greater understanding of the details with every repetition. My favorite example here is cellular division; you get grilled on meiosis/mitosis in high school, in intro biology, in advanced biology, in genetics, in developmental bio, and probably even more classes. There are an amazing number of students who see a subject that they "already learned" and don't bother to study again. This is a huge mistake, especially if you barely understood the process the first time through. Course 1 might tell you what happens, but course 2 expects you to know what and why, course 3 adds in how, course 4 requires you to understand the control points, consequences of breakdown in the process, transcription factors involved, relation to other processes, and so forth. Do not ignore things. Do not assume you already understand it, because there is always another level you haven't quite gotten to.

-The number of lectures spent on a subject is a major indication of (a) the importance of the subject; (b) the difficulty/complexity of the subject; and (c) the proportion of exam questions that will relate to that subject. Look at the syllabus when you first get it, and plan well ahead. Do the readings far enough ahead of time that you will come to class prepared - do NOT read after the fact only, you really will get more out of the course by reading material beforehand - and ask as many questions as you can get away with if you truly don't understand something. If the prof lectures on it for a week straight, you damn well better understand the material, because it must be important. If you're going to spend half a month on one topic, it's going to be a difficult thing to learn, so you'd better start yesterday.

-Everything builds upon everything else, and many subjects are complimentary. You will have to work with an adviser to determine what the best order of coursework is for you. For example, a comparative anatomy course complements your understanding of a developmental bio course (and vice versa) - what makes organisms similar or different is directly related to developmental patterns. Genetics helps your understanding of cellular biology. Chemistry and biochem help you understand both genetics and cell bio. Solid grounding in math and statistics helps pretty much everywhere. If you don't have a solid foundation to build on, work on the basics before you tackle the advanced stuff. Do not be afraid to drop a course in which you are totally lost, or re-take an intro course if you're fuzzy on the details. A little groundwork in the beginning will pay off in the end.

-Take advantage of every opportunity you have to get help. If homework is assigned, do it: It isn't just busywork, it's to help you understand what you do and do not know so far, which helps you decide what to study more. (Trust me. Your prof and TA do not like the idea of grading piles upon piles of quizzes and homework and the like; they have their own work to do and would like to be able to do things with their families in the evening, not spend it grading papers. Especially in intro classes with hundreds of students.) If your prof or TA have office hours, go. As often as you can. Come prepared with specific questions. Do not say "I don't get this at all". Instead, say "I understand X and Y, but when it comes to Z I do not see how it fits. Can you show me again?" Questions like "On homework, I missed problem 4 but I do not understand why; here is my work, where did I slip up?" are highly appreciated by your instructor, because it gives him/her a good place to start, and an indication of how well you really understand things. (We aren't mind readers, and we don't have that much time: Don't waste what little contact time you have by fumbling around rather than asking direct questions. You'll get a lot more out of it. The typical "I don't get it" question is answered by "Go back over the readings, do the homework, and come see me again, OK next person." That doesn't help you much, does it?) Lastly, the absolute best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else. I say this in all honesty, there are quite a few subjects that I did not truly fully grasp until presenting them for students in class. If you know it well enough to explain it to someone else, then you know it. That's the point of learning. It isn't to gather facts for the sake of doing so, it's to internalize them and understand them so that you can use them to solve a problem (like how to help someone else understand the same set of facts).

-Last but not least, fight for every point you can get. Go over exams and see if the wrong answers are really wrong. Check your instructors work. Professors are not infallible. Ask in advance about make-up work for assignments you know you will miss. Follow to the letter all instructions regarding excused absences, course expectations, group projects and deadlines. Document everything just in case an assignment is lost in the shuffle. Bring exams in to office hours to help you understand what you missed so that you won't get it wrong again on the final (so many final exam questions are re-worked midterm questions... it amazes me that so few students actually go over the previous exams!) If it's a fill-in or essay question, don't leave it blank. Ever. Blanks are always wrong, but once in a blue moon a guess is good enough for some points. Do make sure you are credited where you ought to be, but do not be so pushy in your quest for points that you piss off your instructor. If you can give me a good, sound reason why you deserve an extra point, I'll give it to you. I'm not out to fail anyone. If you just whine that you need one more to pass, without giving me a reason why, you'll get nothing. Seriously. I won't give you a free point at the end of the semester for any reason (it's unfair to everyone else to do so) but if you can demonstrate that you understand the material well enough to point out an exception or situation in which your answer to a specific exam question is actually at least somewhat reasonable, I'm willing to concede a point. There is a fine line though, and it is easy to be too demanding (and no prof likes students that just expect things to be handed to them). If your prof takes a hard line, suck it up, admit that you were wrong, and thank them for their time. They'll end up respecting you more than if you just keep pressuring them for assistance.

There's a lot there, hopefully it will be helpful to you.
posted by caution live frogs at 7:08 AM on March 12, 2008 [4 favorites]

To me, the study skills I learned there (i.e. big picture, making connections between topics) aren't really working for me so far.

To be more specific than the comments above, in the NA system for science instruction, this doesn't happen until third-year at the earliest. There's a lot of basic groundwork that has to be done to give you the context and the mental tools (discussed above) to see the big picture. That's what first and second year are for. Third year is an integrating year, bringing and bridging the diverse, seemingly unconnected courses you've been taking up to then. Fourth year (in an honours stream) is about taking your first few steps into research.
posted by bonehead at 7:28 AM on March 12, 2008

I'm a science grad student (in computational biology specifically). The strategies you use will depend a lot on what sciences you're talking about but I'll give you some general ones to start with
-Be completely *there* in class. Try to sit close to the front of the class and focus all your attention on what the professor is saying. If you don't understand something don't be afraid to put your hand up and ask. Sometimes this may not be appropriate in really big classes and you may want to ask the professor after the class, or in office hours. If something doesn't make logical sense to you it should grate on you and motivate you to try to find out more.
-This isn't advice I take myself often enough, but go to office hours! Sometimes you could be missing some crucial piece of the picture which the professor will be able to supply you with very quickly. As caution live frogs mentions above, make sure you go with very specific questions so you can make the most of your time.
-If you can get some sort of tutoring help and feel that you're falling behind in a class make appointments with a tutor and get his/her help to get a deeper understanding of your class material. Especially for subjects with a lot of math involved there is no substitute for a person to hold your hand and explain exactly where your logic is wrong.
-Take each and every class very seriously. This means, go to every class (save for illness or other major reason), take good notes, start homework early, study for tests about a week in advance.
-This cannot be emphasized enough: TALK to people in your class. Don't be afraid of looking stupid. Chances are a lot of other people in the class feel the same way. I can't remember the number of science classes I've had with someone who asked a "stupid" question every class and made everyone laugh -- but he was the one who laughed last when the exam results came in. The best science students I've seen have a profound disregard for what other people think of them or of looking stupid -- they just really want to know the answer to that question. Try to cultivate that attitude.
-Practice, practice, practice: I'm lucky enough to have been drilled so thoroughly in high school with calculus and trigonometry that I'm still reaping the benefits today. For every class try to think about what knowledge is expected to be background knowledge. For example a class in differential equations might expect you to be completely familiar with all the trigonometrical identities. This means that you need to be able to whip out one of these identities in the middle of a math problem about something else entirely. This doesn't come easy, only with lots and lots of practice!
-Biology classes require a set of skills that combine some mathematical ability with some of the same skills you use in liberal arts classes. You might have some difficult to begin with because of unfamiliar vocabulary but just make a point of Googling every word you don't understand and you should be up to speed pretty quickly. Wikipedia is an invaluable resource for biology classes (not so much for math -- I find the math articles pretty bare).
In general, science classes are harder than liberal arts classes. You have to be following along every step of the way. The most important thing is to not lose confidence in your abilities. You're not stupid, the problem is hard. And you keep working at it, you'll eventually kick its ass.
posted by peacheater at 7:54 AM on March 12, 2008

I just have to come back quickly to say that not all science classes are harder than all "liberal arts" classes. I'm in my 6th year of graduate education and through both my master's and PhD not a single class I've taken has been even slightly as hard as most of the liberal arts classes I took as an undergrad.

I think that fallacy is perpetuated by undergrads at large universities who take one or two introductory history or English classes and then compare them to some killer science class like Organic Chemistry or Developmental Biology and say that humanities must be easy. If they are done well, all classes are hard. If they are done poorly, classes range from easy to impossible.
posted by hydropsyche at 9:44 AM on March 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

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