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Science series

Studying science

Studying science has as its foundation the scientific method.

If you find the many techniques to be so intimidating that you want to avoid adopting even one of them, please relax. First, you can pick and choose which ones to use. They are all meant to help you make strong impressions of new information, make good associations and to use associations to recall information when you need it. Almost any of them will work. Second, it is natural to find them harder to use at first and then easier and easier, because these techniques are skills that you can improve with practice.

When you find science difficult,
know and tell yourself that the source of the difficulty lies in the nature of science.

Purpose: To keep you from feeling like a personal permanent failure and giving up on a class. Although any science courses contain a large quantity of new complex material and require learning new skills in problem-solving, these difficulties are the kind that can be conquered by studying in several effective ways. Exception: If you are having trouble in a course that is part of a sequence and if you lack the prerequisites, it may be wise to take a prerequisite class.

Work to understand the facts and principles before you try to memorize them.
Purpose: Your understanding will build a lot of memory without special effort and will leave you with fewer things to deliberately memorize.

Work to associate new information to things you already know.
Do not limit yourself to associating the chunks of new information just to each other. Purpose: Associations are fundamental to memory, and associations to already known information are much easier to make and will last longer than associations to other new information.

Keep asking and answering the question “Why does this make sense?”
By doing so you will associate new information to things you know already.

  • Use the goals of science as a way to classify the contents of texts and lectures.
    • Science’s goals are to discover natural phenomena, to describe and explain and predict and use it. Science also wants to support its claims with sound reasoning and evidence.
    • Therefore, you will constantly be reading statements that describe natural phenomena and cause-and-effect statements that explain or predict or tell how to use natural phenomena. You will also read about concepts and definitions and about arguments supporting the claims that descriptions, explanations, predictions and so on are valid.
    • At some point in your studying classify a chapter’s information into descriptions, cause-and-effect statements, definitions of concepts, and reasoning.

Purpose: To find what is important, to organize the new information into the patterns that scientists use, and to build associations to material that can be otherwise difficult to find associations to.

  • When you see text and graphics that are about the same topic,
    link them together by translating them into one another. Look at the words and then see how the picture or diagram or graph or chart displays what the words said. Then pick out a part of the graphic and read how the text expresses that part in words.

Purpose: To build associations for your memory that link verbal and visual memories.

  • When you see not-too-meaningful material that lacks associations to you,
    explicitly memorize it using ordinary memory techniques. Psychologists have found that the following things are harder than average to learn: proper names, technical terms, foreign words, dates, numbers, formulas, and arbitrary facts. Lists are also sometimes difficult to recall. Use such techniques as self-tests with question and answers, frequent review, mnemonics.

    Purpose: To build memory for hard-to-memorize things.

  • When you have to learn skills—solving problems, reasoning scientifically, and doing other procedures—

Study worked-out solved problems and practice, practice, practice over a period of several days. Do not passively learn only the knowledge and principles because that kind of learning does not build skills.

Purpose: To adapt your study methods to the different learning needed for skills.

  • Use ordinary good study methods and use them more faithfully in science classes.

Purpose: To make sure you create accurate, strong learning and do so within a reasonable amount to time.

2. Page on Prereading Science Assignments

  • Do survey the material.
    The purpose for doing a survey of a chapter or section before you read it is to increase the amount you will understand and remember. The reason that a survey gives this benefit is that the information and the patterns you learn become a structure in your mind for making associations, and associations build memory. Moreover, it is known that the more contacts one makes with material the better one’s memory is, and a survey becomes another contact. If you do not do a survey and plunge right into reading a chapter, you will not be able to make as many useful associations. You will feel there is so unconnected material that all you can understand is a mass of isolated bits.
  • How do you do a survey?
    You take five to ten minutes and figure out what is going to be in the chapter or section. You look at the introduction, summary, vocabulary list, some of the self-test questions, the headings, boldfaced material, major graphics, and other emphasized material in the chapter.
  • What do you look for in a survey?
    You look for the information that expresses scientists’ goals: the natural phenomena being talked about, descriptions of it, statements telling the causes and effects of it, and definitions and concepts. You also look to see if there are scientific arguments relating theories to evidence and if there are sections that teach you how to solve certain types of problems.
  • How fully can you understand what you read in a survey?
    You may not be able to fully understand the chapter summary and vocabulary lists, nor will you always make sense of the headings of sections. The reason is that any summary is short, abstract, general, and lacking examples. When you read it, you will get a sense there is something there but not yet fully understand it. That’s okay. You will be able to learn that there are certain major descriptive facts about natural phenomena and cause-and-effect links. By noticing those patterns while surveying and then reading the text you will find it easier to put the detailed new information in its place. You won’t be like the person “who cannot see the woods (the pattern) for the trees (all the mass of specific information)”
  • When you read a chapter or section in two or more study sessions and are returning to it after a time gap makes you forget some of the material, review of what you have read and survey it again.
    Purpose: To reactivate in your mind the central information and the topics to associate new information to. To prevent you from reading without making associations.

Page 3. The first reading of a science assignment.

  • Make the main purpose of your first reading simply to read and understand.
  • On your first reading do not try to use study systems like SQ3R or to memorize material at the same time as reading it.

The reason: When a science book is presenting a large mass of new and complex material, your mind will normally have all it can do to merely understand sentences and ideas at a simple level. Later, after you have reread the chapter, studied it, and gone to class, you will understand the larger relationships among the various parts of the material. If you try to use SQ3R on the first reading, it will simply make you put more chunks of information into your working memory than it can hold and thus you will lose both understanding and memory.

  • Monitor your understanding of what you read.

Pay attention to the meanings so that you will notice whether you understand or not. When statements do not make sense, use techniques to help you understand. [See below.]

  • Read with 1-second pauses after natural units

in the writing like sentences, paragraphs and short passages. Read and pause, read and pause. Purpose: To let your mind assemble the parts you just read to give you the meaning of the whole unit. This assembly of meaning happens fairly automatically as long as you are intentionally looking for meaning and paying attention to the meanings.

  • Do not feel the need to mark or highlight what seems important on your first reading.

Reason: When you read a second time, you will be wiser in selecting what to mark.

    • If, however, you do notice definitions, descriptions, and cause-and-effect statements, do mark them in a simple way. For example, mark in the margin a D for a definition, an F for a descriptive fact, a C for a cause-and-effect statement, A for a scientific argument and other codes you invent for yourself.
    • If you do not understand a passage, mark it with a question mark [?] in the margin. Purpose: To guide you to find it again when you study so that you can be sure to clear up lack of understanding. A question mark protects you from forgetting that you did not understand a certain passage.
  • When you do not understand certain statements or passages, try one or more of these techniques to build understanding.
    • When your lack of understanding is caused by forgetting a new technical term, jot it down along with a brief cue to its meaning and keep it by you. If helpful, make a quick list of relevant terms each with a cue.
    • When your lack of understanding is due to mental fatigue from reading for a long time, then rest. If a real rest is impractical, then switch to a different kind of study activity for awhile.
    • When you do not understand things because you have resumed reading a day or two after reading the first part of a chapter and have forgotten key concepts and principles, then review this earlier material.
    • Make mental imagery of concrete things and events--visual pictures or imagined feelings of the touch or movement of things and events. When a scientific discussion is abstract, make mental images of a specific example or two.
    • Read a passage aloud to yourself with normal conversational intonation. If your social situation does not permit you to read aloud, imagine reading aloud and hearing your own voice. Your translation of printed text into spoken words will often activate meanings.
    • Look back and forth between words and related graphics until you can see/tell yourself how they are showing/saying similar things. A set of text passages that is related to graphics is very useful to understanding. There are many kinds of graphics: pictures, diagrams, maps, charts, tables, graphs.
    • When you notice that the author has used an analogy, link it to the relevant technical concepts, descriptions and explanations. Analogies are precious. Translate from the analogy, part by part, to the parallel parts of the technical material.
    • Make self-explanations: Go in short units (a few words at a time), translate their meaning, think of associations, relate them to other parts of the passage, make inferences and try to make your mental model of the meaning match the writer’s mental model.
    • Mark passages with a question mark that you still do not understand after you tried. Return to them later when your mind is fresh.

Page 4. Second Reading of a science chapter or section.

  • Do a second reading by searching for statements that fit into the goals of science.

Purpose: To do a deep processing of the material in order to create associations that build memory naturally. Approach the phrases, sentences and passages with a question: What kind of statement is it? [See below for some possibilities.]

  • Do not merely reread the material again unless you need reread it to gain a basic understanding of it.

Purpose: You want to avoid a dull repetition of reading it again because you won’t think about it deeply and thus won’t go further in building memory. You want to do a quite different mental task that you will pay attention to and make associations to.

  • You have a choice of which of these you do.

Most any mental processing you do will help your memory. But the more of the suggested topics you find and mark, the deeper your mental processing will be and the better your understanding and memory are likely to be.

  • First, look for definitions, descriptions and cause-and-effect statements.

These statements are fundamental to the goals of science.

When you find them, mark them. I suggest you mark in the adjacent margin a D for definition, an F for a descriptive fact, and a C for a cause-and-effect statement.

  • Second, look for the related parts of definitions of concepts.

They are the concept itself, the word that names the concept, the verbal definition of it, visual images of it, procedures to use the concept to solve problems and ways to measure it. (Measurement is important because scientists use measurement to make their descriptions and to make their explanations precise and susceptible to gathering evidence).

Purpose: To gather all the related parts of a concept together. To prepare you to handle test questions that link definitions and examples and related procedures together.

When the parts of a concept are spread out in a chapter over several pages, you may find it useful to mark the page numbers of additional related references near the original definition.

  • Third, look for linked theories and evidence.

Many science books present a theory and then describe some of the research studies and evidence that bear on the theory positively and negatively. Note these links. For example, suppose a theory is presented on page 111 and studies are described on pages 113, 117, and 121, then make a note in the margin by the theory “See pp. 113, 117, 121”. Such notes will greatly ease your reviewing later. It will also prepare for a test question that asks you to evaluate the evidence for and against that theory.

  • Fourth, as relevant to your course;s goals, look for:

History of science on the topics;

Descriptions of the tools, gadgets, machines, and instruments that gather data;

Worked-out sample problems that demonstrate how to solve problems;

Any kind of information that will be hard to learn because it is not intrinsically meaningful: proper names, technical terms, foreign words, dates, numbers, formulas, and arbitrary facts.

  • At the end of doing this process

of finding and classifying and marking different statements about the scientific topics, you will both have built a lot of understanding of the big picture and have created a lot of memory very naturally by making many associations. You will be prepared for your final review sessions before your test.

Page 5. Final study sessions.

  • Your large purposes are to build memory for specific chunks of information,

especially the hard-to-learn ones, by making strong impressions and creating associations, and making still more contacts with the material.

  • Also do a test review immediately before a test.

Although you will do most of your studying in the days before a test, also do a special review of the most difficult material a few minutes or an hour or so before a test. Purpose: To get the benefits of recency, the mind’s ability to better remember things that have been recently used. This is a powerful benefit to memory.

    • Of the two choices you have—rereading information or practicing recalling it—the more effective choice is to practice recalling it.

  • Use the scientific topics that you collected in your second reading as the basis to set your study goals.

Study until you know them to your satisfaction.

  • Study and test yourself.

Do not merely reread the material any longer, except when necessary to rebuild your understanding. The purpose for self-tests is to reveal what you know and do not yet know in order to plan what to study. Moreover, any self-test question that you ask and answer constitutes practice, and practice builds memory.

  • Pick somewhat short units to try to understand and memorize.

Purpose: To stay within the capacity limits of your working memory. If you study sentences that are too large, your mind cannot wrap itself around them, and the time it takes you to process them will lead them to fade and you’ll just have to reread them.

    • Break material down into small comfortable bits.
    • When you know very little about the material, it is wise to break it into small bits. When you know a fair amount about, it becomes safe to study it in larger chunks. (The purpose of the prior advice to do previews, read for meaning, and classify science statements in terms of the goals of science is to give you a lot of knowledge before you formally study a chapter so that you can study in large chunks and learn faster.)
    • Don’t worry about forgetting the many chunks because you can always associate well-learned chunks with other chunks and build super-chunks.
  • For your self-tests ask yourself verbal questions and give verbal answers.

Purpose: To make yourself as conscious as possible to the precise information. Questions and answers are very powerful because the mind associates to goals as well as to ordinary stimuli, and a question sets a goal.

Exception to using words: When testing yourself on visual material, ask and answer visually or by drawing answers. When testing yourself on skills, then pose a problem and solve it.

  • Ask the question about information,“Why does this make sense?” and think of answers as a way to build memory.

You may have already used this question in your first reading of the chapter as you tried to understand it. Now you use it as a way to create more associations that build memory. Asking this question is not the same as a self-test, because the answer to a self-test question will be more specific information from the text than will your reasons why a fact or cause-effect link makes sense to you.

  • Study and ask your self-test questions by rearranging two or more related chunks

of information in the same order that you expect will match the order of questions and answers on tests or in real-life situations. Purpose: Memories of cue and target information are sensitive to the sequence that they are learned in. If you learn Fact 1 and use it to trigger Fact 2, but get asked on a test to recall Fact 1, your learning sequence may not permit you to start by thinking of Fact 2 as a trigger for Fact 1.

  • Use look-away techniques to review and to do self-tests.

Look at information, look away, ask a question, give an answer, look back and check what the real answer is, correct yorself and try again.

  • Adjust the time gap between looking at the information and looking away and reciting it to match your current degree of learning.
    • When you are starting to learn a new chunk of information, you should look away and ask and answer your question immediately.
    • As you know it better, increase the length of the delay you insert before you test yourself.
    • Eventually, you should be able to wait a day between seeing some information and correctly answering a question about it.
    • However, research shows that if you can wait even 30 seconds after seeing information and think of something completely different during that time and then ask and answer the question correctly, you are likely to have learned it. But a day’s delay is an even better test.
  • Use cumulative-addition-to-a-set.

Study one item. Study a second, then study both until perfect. Study a third, then study all three until perfect. And so on—up to fifteen or twenty items. Then start a new set.

    • Study arbitrary, not-very-meaningful material by using look-away and cumulative-addition-to-a-set methods and by creating artificial meanings.
  • Study the textbook’s verbal and visual representations of ideas by using methods that

link them.

  • When an author has used an analogy to help interpret ideas, use it and map it to the new ideas.
  • Study meaningful material by using methods that let you associate it to things you already know. Use the “make sense” question.
  • Study lists and sets by using mnemonic methods.
  • Use the fundamental units, theories, and scientific reasoning passages as the basis for making up questions to test yourself.

Page 6. Studying problem-solving and other procedures.

  • Start studying a procedure by studying both the directions and the worked-out example problems.

Purpose: To link the general directions to specific example problems so that you can better generalize what to do when you solve real homework or test problems. Research shows that studying worked-out example problems is a powerful method.

  • When studying worked-out examples, cover up the last step

and see if you can read the first few steps and recall the last step by yourself. Then cover up the last two steps and see if you can read the first few steps and recall both last steps by yourself. And so on. This procedure will strengthen your skill in handling homework and test problems.

  • Do some homework problems on a topic in the same study session

that you read the text about the topic. Purpose: To do the homework while the text information is still fresh in your mind. To prevent a long delay from making your memory fade.

  • When you finish a problem successfully, pause and review the steps you took.

Purpose: To consolidate your memory for the general pattern of steps to take. To build an association between your memory for what you did and the pattern of steps.

  • When you finish a problem successfully, pause and praise yourself

for using the techniques successfully. Purpose: To give yourself a positive reinforcement. To reinforce your use of the techniques in addition to the nice feel of success because it is the techniques you want to recall, not just a glow from a success.

  • Associate homework problems

to the scientific concepts, descriptions, explanations, and predictions. Purpose: To link the procedural skills with the general textbook knowledge.

  • Practice several times over a few days to build your skill in using procedures.

You can practice by doing several new problems in a certain category. Trying new problems is preferential. But you can also benefit by simply redoing a problem you have done before—as long as you think it through from the beginning without jumping to the answer and skipping the intermediate steps.

Purpose: To strengthen the new skill. Skills have to be learned by multiple practices, unlike learning of ordinary information which can sometimes be learned in one contact.

Page 7. Recalling science knowledge

  • This topic is about what to do when you have asked or been asked a question about a chunk of knowledge and you are trying to remember it.
  • Put yourself into a retrieval mode.

A “retrieval mode” is a frame of mind in which you awaken a goal of recalling some target knowledge and use certain methods. Purpose: To protect you from giving up efforts to recall information if it doesn’t come in 2 seconds.

    • Think of yourself as being patient. Patient people try one method and if it does not work, they try another.
    • Think of yourself as willing to relax and to let go of strong emotions, especially stress-related feelings, that would fill your working memory and interfere with retrieval.
    • Be ready to focus your attention on your mind; withdraw attention from the outside world. Go inwards.
    • Be ready to stimulate your mind.
  • Trigger your association process

by thinking of information and images that were linked to the target information. If you sense a hole where the knowledge ought to be, do not just focus on that blank feeling. Instead, think of other things that you expect are related to the target because as you feed your mind those cues they will awaken associations to the target. When successful, the answer will appear suddenly in your mind.

    • What were the other facts that you studied at the same time?
    • Can you visualize the page where the information was located?
    • Can you recall the lecture when your professor talked about the information and recall related ideas?
    • Can you recall visual images you made while studying the idea? Can you use other sensory mental representations as triggers? Can you use stories, lists, feelings as triggers?
    • Can you recall lab demonstrations of the phenomena or personal experiences related to the idea? This awakens episodic memory which is very powerful.
    • Can you recall the room you sat in, your mood, your other stray ideas while you studied the idea?
    • Can you recall a time you used the target information as part of a cognitive skill, in solving problems and reasoning scientifically? Think of it as a trigger.

Any of these thoughts and several may start your association process going. Even if one does not seem to work immediately, your thinking of several cues will cumulatively warm up the buried information until it surfaces.

  • Notice your thoughts and images because they will be the clues that lead to the target.

Often thoughts and images will contain elements that in themselves are associated to the target, and as you think of them, they will trigger more associations. Do not dismiss thoughts and images just because they are not the perfect answer.

  • Allow enough time for association to work.

If conditions permit you to wait a bit, allow 30 to 60 seconds for your mind to retrieve the target. If you have tight time limits in a test, then after you start thinking of cues to trigger associations, then shake your head and blink your eyes, go on to other questions, and return later. Often the desired information will arise spontaneously.

  • Knowing that you need to have associative cues in order to trigger memory, plan to study in such a way that you notice and learn associative cues along with the target answers.

Page 8. Getting more out science lectures and demonstrations.

  • Realize that getting a lot from a science lecture is useful

because it will save study time. You will be able to prepare for tests and other performance demands faster when you get more from a lecture. Do not downgrade the usefulness of class lectures.

  • Do the things for a lecture that were described in the page about methods for your first reading of a textbook.

Do a preview or overview from written material--if it is possible--so that your mind is warmed up. Pay attention to meaning. Think over the meaning of units like sentences and passages. When you do not understand, ask questions. Mark things in your notes that you do not understand. Make mental imagery of what the instructor says. When the lecturer talks about a diagram or other graphic, go back and forth in your mind between the words and the graphic.

  • Pay close attention to the meaning of what is said.

Purpose: To activate associations to what is said, trigger deep processing and build understanding and some memory.

Watch the professor’s hand gestures and be aware of voice tone and volume because good speakers use their gestures and voice to communicate the size, speed, and importance of phenomena being talked about; they change their voice as they talk about changes in the phenomena. Your mind can use this extra information to build associations for your memory.

  • Pay close attention to demonstrations and to experiences your instructor gives you.

Purpose: To build the kind of understanding and memory that come from personal experiences that are deeper than the level of words. We often understand something by feel, so treasure the demonstrations and experiences you have with the science.

    • Take notes on demonstrations.
    • When trying to retrieve memories for principles on tests, search your memory for the demonstrations and experiences as triggers for the target information.
  • Time your reading of the textbook

so that it occurs just before the matching lecture (preferable) or just after it. A few hours or a day before or after will give you enough memory for the first one to influence your intake of the second one and they will associate it. Long delays between lecture and text will lead to fading of memories so that they will not associate and thus you will not build as strong understanding or memories.

  • Take notes.

Purpose: To prevent the massive forgetting that will occur without notes. People who take good notes and use them can reconstruct a large amount of a lecture, even if they delay reviewing the notes for several days or weeks.

    • Take notes on the kinds of things that are hard to recall: personal names, technical terms, arbitrary facts, numbers, dates, formulas, and details of procedures or steps in reasoning.
    • Take notes on information that helps in retrieving information later: analogies, stories that illustrate a principle, charts and other graphics.
    • Review your notes before the fading of your memory for the lecture in order to rehearse and build memory for the other information associated to the words and phrases in your notes.
Edited from a contribution by Daniel Hodges
See also:

Effective study habits | A.S.P.I.R.E. - a study system | Index - a study system | Studying with flashcards | Studying with multiple sources |
Finding the right study space | Studying science | Studying text books in science