Love it or hate it, studying for your prerequisite science classes is an important part of your premed years. Yet as soon as I utter the words organic chemistry or physics, your blood pressure probably spiked. But what if I told you it’s not the subject matter or even your professor and it’s the way you’re studying that’s the problem?
Why Students Hate Science
Students often hate studying for college science classes because they find them incredibly challenging. Most students fall into one of two categories. First, there are the students who put in considerable amounts of effort but still struggle to understand the material. These students will study for hours a day and still fail to achieve the grades that they desire.
On the other side of the spectrum, there are the students who can’t get themselves to put in enough effort in the first place. For these students, studying feels like pulling teeth. In both situations, however, students are making things much harder than they need to be.
How well you do in your college science classes has less to do with the subject matter or “how mean your professor is,” and more to do with how you’re approaching the content. There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to studying that will work for every single class.
The way that you approach science classes like biology, organic chemistry, physics, and general chemistry is totally different from how you approach classes like history or English.
Whereas subjects like history are primarily rote memorization and less focused on critical thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving and subjects like English are more focused on dissecting literature and writing your own conclusions in a meaningful and effective way, science classes are a different animal and require a completely different approach.
Approaching Science vs Non-Science Courses
Studying for courses such as physics, chemistry, and genetics requires a similar approach to studying mathematics. Rather than rote memorization, these subjects are more reliant on critical thinking and problem-solving ability.
As such, this difference in approach needs to be reflected in your study strategies. Whereas with history you may focus on flashcards to memorize facts and dates, your approach to physics and chemistry should focus primarily on practice problems.
That being said, how you approach practice questions also matters. Most students will proudly proclaim how many practice questions they got through in their last study session, but that’s missing the point. It’s not the quantity, but rather the quality that counts.
To get the most out of each practice session, you need to approach each question as if it were the real thing. If you don’t know how to solve it, don’t just read the correct answer and explanation. Give it considerable effort before you review an equation or other helpful piece of information.
And if that’s still not enough to answer the question confidently, go back through your notes and create a perfect answer. Only then should you check the correct answer and see how yours compares. If you still get the question wrong even after all of that, then you know that there’s a major gap in your understanding that needs to be addressed.
Although this method of going through practice questions takes longer than the normal technique of viewing the correct answer, reading the explanation, and moving on, it leaves you with a much better understanding of the material. Shortcutting by viewing the correct answer and explanation when you’re stuck severely limits your rate of progress and prevents you from deeply understanding the material.
Approaching practice questions in this slower, more intentional way will likely feel frustrating at first. You’ll probably have to go back through your notes many times – and even then you might still get questions wrong. However, making mistakes and learning from them is the whole point of practice problems. Your rate of going through problems decreases, but your rate of learning accelerates.
Approaching practice problems in this way also gives you the opportunity to create systems that avoid small, mindless mistakes. A common example is forgetting to write the units in physics problems, which will earn you an incorrect answer on test day. For this particular example, I recommend drawing a rectangle around your final answer and making it extend farther out to the right, thereby giving some blank space after the number. This will be your cue to remind you to always write the units down.
In contrast to physics, chemistry, and genetics, however, biology classes tend to be a blend of both memorization and critical thinking. As such, you should focus both on practice problems and flashcards for memorization. Sometimes your ability to answer a practice question will be less dependent on your ability to reason your way through and more on whether or not you know a particular fact or set of facts.
That being said, for many subjects within biology, memorization alone is not enough – you’ll also need to have a good understanding of how the information fits together. For instance, knowing the names of all the enzymes and intermediates involved in glycolysis and the citric acid cycle isn’t too helpful unless you also understand how they fit into the bigger picture.
If you were tested on what would happen if you introduced a competitive inhibitor of phosphofructokinase, for instance, you should be able to say how this would affect the rest of the process, which substrates and products would increase, and which ones would decrease.
Although flashcards are helpful for memorizing facts and labels, they aren’t ideal for learning how things are organized or how they relate to each other – which is just as, if not even more, important.
Think about it this way, you can have all the ingredients necessary to bake a cake, but if you don’t know how much of each to use, how to mix them together, what temperature to bake them at, and for how long, you’re probably not going to end up with a very good cake.
When learning step-wise biological processes, techniques such as summary sheets, drawing mind maps and diagrams, and the Feynman technique are much more effective. Whereas flashcards are good for dialing in the small details, these techniques force you to organize those details, make connections, and understand how they fit into the bigger picture.
Once you’ve built a foundation of memorization and organized the information, however, you should start going through practice questions using the same approach we discussed previously. Create an answer you are confident in and then check it with the correct answer. Remember, the goal of practice questions isn’t to do as many as you can, but rather to learn from your experiences and your mistakes.
Your study strategies are only one piece of the puzzle. If you truly want to optimize your studying, there are other factors you need to consider.
First is your study schedule. Understand how your energy and focus waxes and wanes throughout the day and organize your schedule accordingly. You want to study during the times of the day where you are most sharp and focused and use any slump in energy for less cognitively demanding tasks.
For me, I know that my focus is sharpest in the morning but dips in the afternoon before peaking again later in the evening. As such, during college and medical school, I would schedule my study time in the morning and in the evening. During the hours in between, I would strategically schedule chores, exercise, and other daily tasks and use them as a break between study blocks.
Next is your study environment. You may not realize it, but the location in which you study heavily influences your energy levels, ability to focus, emotions, and much more. It’s all about finding what works best for you.
For some students, studying at home in a quiet environment is the best way to focus on the work at hand. For others, studying at the coffee shop or library and being surrounded by other people who are also working helps motivate them to be productive. Whatever the case, find what works for you and stick to it. Be mindful that how fun or enjoyable a space is doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s more conducive to focused studying.
Group vs. Solo Study
Next, should you study in a group or study alone? The answer is that you should do both. Studying alone has its benefits as does studying in a group. Which one you choose at any given time comes down to what you are trying to accomplish during that particular study session.
Studying alone helps minimize distractions which often allows you to study more intensely and for longer periods of time. This is ideal when you are first learning information and are trying to go through the material at a faster pace. Studying in a group, on the other hand, often allows you to work through and reinforce difficult concepts while keeping you motivated and sane.
That being said, groups should be small. Study with only 1 or 2 other people. Larger groups have rapidly diminishing returns in that you will more than likely get distracted and your productivity will plummet.
One of the biggest advantages of group study sessions, however, is the ability to teach what you’ve learned. This teaching reinforces the material for yourself and helps out your fellow classmates. This is called the Feynman Technique and it is incredibly powerful. If you aren’t using this technique already, I suggest you start.
Optimizing Your Physical Health
Last is to optimize your physical health. Although this isn’t necessarily a study technique or strategy, it’s just as, if not even more, important for your performance during college. Improvements in your physical health have been shown to be beneficial for cognition and memory. As such, neglecting your physical health leaves a lot of performance on the table.
The three pillars that you should focus on are sleep, nutrition, and exercise. When any one of these is lacking, you won’t be able to perform at the top of your game. Although it sounds obvious, the reason that most students neglect these is time.
While in college, it can feel like there is too much to do and not enough time to do it; however, when you better optimize your time, you’ll often find that there’s much more of it than you realized.
Although doing well in your prerequisite science courses during college is challenging, I believe that with the right strategies and the right approach, any student can be a top performer. But if your goal is to get into medical school and become a physician, doing well in your college courses is only one piece of the puzzle.
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If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out my pieces on 7 Evidence-Based Study Strategies (And How to Use Each) and the Feynman Technique.