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How to Study Effectively for College Science Courses

Updated on November 20, 2012

You may be entering a degree program in the sciences, taking a science course for breadth requirements, or you are looking for ways on how to brush up on your study skills in the sciences. Doing well in science courses requires picking up certain study habits and weeding out some non-productive ones in order to be efficient and effective with your study time.

Course Classifications

There are mainly two types of courses in the sciences: memory or detail-based courses like Biology and skills-based and applied courses like Physics. Some features of one type of course can overlap with the other and vice versa, but generally, science courses can be divided into these two classifications.

Usually, for detail-based courses that require a lot of memorization, going over course material many times is enough to get a passing grade. This may entail reading the course material five to ten times before taking a test. However, it is sometimes not enough to just passively read over your notes over and over. It is important also to write out the notes in your own words so that it makes sense to you and to understand how different concepts relate to one another. You can draw and label one concept and draw out another concept on paper and then draw lines connecting them, indicating how they relate to another. You will need to go over the material many times in order to memorize certain details that you will be tested on.

For skills-based courses, this may involve understanding reactions and solving reactions, or being able to use equations and formulae in various forms and in different contexts. You must have a strong grasp of the basics before going forth and using equations in unfamiliar territory. To do so, it would be a good idea in much the same way as detail-based courses to go over your material repeatedly and really memorize the equations and concepts given in the course material. You may wish to handwrite equations over and over again to let them sink into your long-term memory. The next step is to take practice questions and to do as many of those as possible. As well, obtaining past tests from upper year students or student associations would be very useful as well. You would then practice applying the concepts and formulae by completing past tests under strict time constraints in order to emulate testing conditions.

Something that may be useful for both types of courses is to create your own questions throughout the course starting from the beginning of the course. That way, when the final exams come about, you will have a question bank to draw from. You can also work with friends and share questions to have a larger question bank to draw from and more questions to work on.

When studying for midterms and exams, you will need to review your material many times. The first few times that you go to review your notes for both detail-based and skills-based courses, you will need to go through your material fairly quickly, so that you focus on the main idea or the larger themes that are being conveyed. Doing so will help you to focus on the concepts and not be overwhelmed by the details so that you can see how concepts are related to each other. Only then can you go back and learn the details and see where they come together to form the larger themes. It becomes easier to recall information when you have it organized in your mind in this way.

Study Environment

Some students claim that they study best in environments such as a student center, lounges, or coffee shops. This is not always true. Students may think that they are studying well, but they are constantly having small interruptions and small distractions followed by moments of clarity and focus. They are not giving the full amount of focus and attention that their notes and course material deserve. The best places to study are usually at home in a quiet room with little distractions or in a library at a study carrel. There, a student can focus entirely on studying and not be distracted by other people chatting. If absolute quiet is not achievable, it is be best to invest in a pair of high-quality earplugs or hearing protection headphones. Most libraries on campus have quiet study areas and sometimes entire floors devoted to quiet study. It would be good to make use of such spaces.

On Note-taking

What should you write down and what should you leave out? Some advisors are divided on this. I feel the best thing to do while in lecture is to really focus on what the professor is saying and to try to write down everything the professor is saying. This does not mean a word-for-word verbatim transcript of the lecture. You will need to summarize ideas and use shorthand as much as possible. If you miss out on details, you can cross-reference notes with a friend or compare with the textbook. The reason being you may not understand concepts fully in lecture and if you try and slow down to understand concepts, you may miss details of other concepts that the professor is covering. If you end up missing points, try to write down the idea or concept that the professor is covering and look it up later. As well, when you are at home or at the library, you can try to piece together notes and missing concepts then. If there is still anything you don't understand, try to fill in gaps with the course textbook or visit the TA or professor during office hours.

Take Breaks

Be sure to take breaks. Breaks will keep you from burning out and will keep you energized and alert for more reading. When burnouts happen, you will be forced to take breaks in order to get back to studying. It can take a long time to recover from a burnout. Burnouts can be recognized by lack of focus, lack of motivation to study, and having trouble concentrating and absorbing new information. Regular planned breaks will be useful, so plan to take a small break every 30 minutes, and a slightly larger break every hour. This may be a 5-minute break at the 30-minute mark and a 10-minute break at the one hour mark. As well, if you are doing a lot of studying, you will want to take breaks after a week of studying. You can take a day off after studying for six days. And when you do take this day off, it must be a day off where you are giving yourself time to relax and unwind away from any academic work.


Procrastination is when you decide to put off doing something important so that you can do something fun instead. In a way, you are giving yourself a reward before you perform, when it should be the other way around. In our society, we are brought up to seek instant gratification, but rationally, we realize that it only hinders progress and long-term success. Procrastination can pay off now, because it allows you to put off starting that all-important paper, or studying for that important midterm on thermodynamics, but there are heavy fines in the end. This may be a low mark or even failing a course altogether. It is important to realize where this procrastination comes from and how to address it.

Doing something you need to do and prioritizing it over spending time with friends, hanging out in the common room or bar can seem uncomfortable, tedious and boring. However, you must come to realize the importance of doing so and the benefits and rewards that come about long-term. You will need to combat such feelings with positive self-talk and lots of scheduled and predictable rewards. This will involve telling yourself that you are a good person and that you want to put forth an honest effort into studying, regardless of how hard it may seem. You will want to tell yourself also that you will be rewarded for your hard work by being allowed to watch television afterwards, or hang out with friends for an hour. The key here is that you can control when you are studying and when you are enjoying a reward.

So, this is a basic guide on success in college science courses. It is not a complete guide, but it outlines the foundation for building skills for success. It may seem uncomfortable at first, but in using these methods and with regular practice, they will become a habit. Success will come, but you have to work hard at it and not give up before you succeed. For more specialized discussion, visit the biology forum. After completion of studies, you will need to repay your student loans, check out the NSLSC for information about student loan repayment.


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