Studying applied science—like Biology, Chemistry or Physics—can be daunting. It all seems pretty theoretical, you’re trying to make sense of seemingly different ideas with each new topic, and it likely feels like an insane amount of information to memorize.
But! There’s hope: if you have a strategy for how you study, it can make the whole process much simpler.
Here are some tips to maximize your science-learning: Any of these by itself can be useful, but trying a bit of each and slowly introducing them into your study habits can make all the difference.
Step 1: What kind of learner are you?
Knowing what type of learner you are (visual, auditory or kinesthetic) can really boost your productivity. Taking a test like this one is a good start. It also includes some useful study tips at the end. Once you’re armed with this knowledge, you can adjust your approach to focus on the techniques that work best for you.
Step 2: Before memorizing, understanding
Sometimes, it can be hard to grasp explanations in class. If something ends up being unclear, don’t get discouraged! You can make sense of it by yourself, working with your classmates, or having a session with a mentor after the lesson.
When you start studying, don’t jump into “learning mode” until you have really understood a concept or topic. As tempting as it may be, if you simply force yourself to memorize most things, in time it will become more and more difficult (and frustrating!) to hold all of those disparate bits of information in your head. “But Science is sooo much memorization!” Not necessarily true! If you use logic to understand what happens in a given scenario, you only need to memorize about 10-20% on a topic. The rest can be figured out by using common sense and combining the principles you’ve put in the time to truly understand.
How can I do this?
Science knowledge is normally divided into two categories:
Factual － very specific things we must remember by heart, like the values of constants in Chemistry and Physics
Conceptual － things we need to understand and be able to explain. These are more complex learning points, often presented as answers to “Why?” or “How?” questions. For example: why an enzyme denatures; how a plant can survive winter without leaves.
While factual knowledge needs to be learned by heart, conceptual knowledge actually needs to be understood, not just memorized. As you go through notes, try asking yourself: “Do I really understand how this happens? Would I be able to explain this to my classmate?” If the answer is “no”, try this:
- Extract the most relevant details from each paragraph in your book chapter
- Can you find the explanation online quickly? Chances are, somebody else out there had the same question as you at some point. Websites like Quora, Reddit or Researchgate can come in handy.
- Ask more questions to test your understanding. For instance, why don’t enzymes work in cold water? What is the mechanism? How does it work? Once you start thinking about possible explanations, you will become more invested in the topic and bring concepts together seamlessly.
Step 3: Take relevant notes
Diligently making and reading lots of flash cards doesn’t always pay off come exam time. How is that possible?
Compartmentalized learning keeps you from making connections between concepts and topics. You can avoid this by combining flashcards for factual knowledge, and more wordy notes that clearly explain how different concepts connect and why. This way, when you find yourself revising six months later, you will be able to grasp exactly how things are linked.
Step 4: Learn in layers
Don’t try to learn all the content from a lesson at once! It can be overwhelming and distracting.
First, try to understand the main takeaways from the learning outcomes at the start of the chapter. Then, gradually add more knowledge. Very often, the extra bits you need to know are summarized towards the bottom of the learning outcomes or in small text boxes in the chapter.
Step 5: Make use of tech & online resources
There are so many learning resources out there, that it can be paralyzing to decide which to use. Here are a few that may help!
For clear, in-depth explanations of concepts: YouTube science vlogs or Khan Academy.
Simply search for the concept you are trying to learn.
If you’re an auditory learner: why not record some of your classes (if your teachers allow it), or even use your phone to record yourself discussing the topic? As strange as you might sound while reciting formulas, it can work wonders!
For memorizing difficult names and concepts: lots of small problems! Online quizzes are ideal for this (just search by subject, e.g. “AP Biology”).
When some things seem impossible to remember: mnemonics! This technique uses abbreviations to help us memorize. A classic example that you may have heard of is OIL RIG, which we use in Chemistry to remember that oxidation is loss of electrons, while reduction is gain. Make your own or search for a mnemonic online. It can be a life saver!
To apply theory to day-to-day situations and exam questions: solve some complex problems. It’s OK if they’re not questions for your particular exam; these can really help anyone learn in a more applied manner, and hopefully show how useful science can be in real life.
Step 6: Repeat!
Learning does not happen all at once, so don’t worry if you’re taking your time. Coming back to your notes and studying for just a few minutes every week can really pay off!