As I approach my own impending doom (3 three hour exams in Biology, Chemistry, and Calculu) I thought it would be fun to post a guide on how to study for various subject, and include hard-earned advice that I’ve collected over the years by studying, succeeding, and failing. Here is the result of all those hours spent studying, reading, writing, number-crunching, problem-solving, and banging my head agains my desk for hours on end. This guide will tell you how to study for specific subjects individually. I hope it helps.
- Biology, History, etc – Flash cards. These subjects involve straight memorization: pure and simple. Make flash cards, study them (keep a pile of learned, unlearned, and sort of learned but want to review), and you will do well. Even if you only study them once the night before the test, if you get through the whole stack and know most of them, you’ll see a HUGE improvement in your knowledge. And remember, the cards that you haven’t learned entirely will still leave some imprint on your mind, and you can at least get partial credit for it. Obviously questions in the book never hurt, but flash cards are often more helpful, so do these only if you have time. Now this doesn’t necessarily work with applied Biology or applied History, so be warned. What extent the flash cards are helpful will be limited by the material and the type of exam you will be taking. It helps to look over the homework assignments or previous exams to see just how the questions will manifest themselves.
- Chemistry, Math, and Physics – Problems. The only way to study for these types of tests is to do problems, and lots of them. Do them with your notes right beside you, look something up if you don’t understand it, and just do as many as you can. It’s all about quantity here, and assuming that you’re doing homework problems or problems from the book, you won’t have to worry about the quality. In these courses you MUST do the homework. Haven’t done the homework all of last semester? All of last year? Well now’s a great time to start! Start with the first assignment, and do only a few of the problems. Pick a manageable number of problems (every 3rd or so), and make sure that the problems you pick are really good problems (the tricky ones that you hate). Do that for every assignment, and then go back and do more problems. Keep washing over the assignments until you’ve finished them all. Why don’t you do them all at once? Well I’m no psychologist, but I know that if you do a million trig substitution problems and then a million partial fraction problems, you’re going to feel a bit more familliar with the partial fractions than the trig, so it’s best to mix it up a bit. The second, and more important reason, is that if you don’t have time to study EVERYTHING, at least you will have given yourself a survey of what’s going to be on the test. Depending on the teacher, the school, and the level of the class. you’re not going for the answer so much as you are going for the partial credit. Most profs who aren’t pompus assholes will understand that it’s your ability to do a problem that means you understand the material, not whether or not you get the right anwer. Need to memorize proofs? Make sure you UNDERSTAND THEM. Memorization is ok, but you need to know WHY, because if your teacher tells you how to do something one way, you’d better believe that they’re going to tell you to do the same thing on the test, but a little different, and if you just pour out whatever you memorized, you’re not going to get partial credit: you’re going to get no credit. If you sort of understand the proof, and you try something that makes sense, you’ll get some partial credit. Besides: it’s easier to memorize something if it makes sense.
- English – Don’t study. Unless you’re taking some kind of English history course, or your test has a vocabulary section, if you’re studying for English you’re missing the point. Read the material, skim if you have to, and understand what’s going on. Know the plot if there is one, and glance over your notes. Talk to the teacher if you need to, and whatever you do: DON’T MEMORIZE! Most English teachers HATE it when you just vomit up what they told you in class. If you’re analyzing something and you don’t know what it means, say so, and then discuss possibilities. One of the most important things to do in an English class is pay attention, and do what the teacher tells you. It is the case with many English teachers that if you do what they tell you, you will do well. Look like a good student, look like you’re paying attention, and the teacher will like you. Do what they tell you how they tell you, and they will like you more, and be more willing to help you understand the material. Is your exam an essay? Ask if you can run it by your teacher in advance. The worst that will happen is he/she will say no and you’ll be back where you started.
- Humanities – mixed. Humanities courses are kind of hit and miss as far as studying methods. For example, I have a class right now which really interests me, and I can get 100% on the quizes without studying at all. However, I had a humanities class last semester which also really interested me, but I had to study like crazy to get above 80% on the tests. The best general advice is to take notes, listen to what the teacher tells you to do, and no matter how boring the class is, try to stay up to date with the material. If you can, try to get interested in the class. For projects, work on a specific vein of the course that particularly interests you. And if you have a choice of a research paper or a creative project ALWAYS do the creative project. At least for my classes, people to who do creative projects 1) have to write less, 2) don’t have to cite sources, and 3) can do basically anything they want. Look at it this way: you can take something that you do in your free time, relate it to the course in a creative manner, do less work, have more fun, and get higher grades because you did something interesting. If you were a teacher, to which project would you be more likely to give a good grade: a paper that some kid rattled off in an hour, hardly researched, with a bunch of cited sources the kid used because you told him to cite sources, or a creative project that links the course material to something outside of the course, which makes you feel like for the past semester this kid has been GETTING IT, and you haven’t been wasting your time lecturing to a brick wall? You tell me.
Just a few general tips:
- News flash, ladies and gentlemen, if you think school is anything like the real word, you’re wrong. School is a highly artificial set of circumstances, which is designed to make you cram thousands of years of collected human knowledge into 20 years of education. Not only is this system BROKEN, but it is highly subjective, and your experience will be completely different from that of someone sitting in class next to you. If you’re lucky enough to get good teachers, learn everything from them that you can. Go to see them during their office hours, talk to them even after your out of their class, and keep in touch. Their interest in the subject matter will keep yours alive. However, my point in saying all this is that you should always monitor who YOU are. Many people don’t think about this. They just think that school is a boring burden that is placed upon them, and makes it so the the only time they can get wasted is at night. No matter what you do, you will always have to live with yourself; with your soul, so take as much from school as you can, and leave the rest, but make sure that what you take with you makes you HAPPY. Make sure that the path you choose won’t leave you somewhere you don’t want to be, wishing you had taken another path that you wanted to take earlier. Let your passions guide you.
- You go to school because you choose to. This post is targetted more toward CEGEP and University students, and we really have a choice to go to school or not. Once you turn 18, you can go off and become a beggar if you want. You can also leave school, spend the next 3 years of your life working a full-time job in a fast food joint, study in your free time, take your bar exam and become a brilliant lawyer, or a brilliant mathematician or physicist or artist or writer. If you wanted, you could leave school tomorrow. So when you’re bored in class, think about that, and be proud of yourself that you’re one of the ones who is willing to put yourself through the gauntlet that is our broken educational system so that you can come out on the otherside with a lot more knowledge. It is a broken system, but if you manipulate it properly you can get a lot from it.
- You don’t really learn anything from your subjects before University/CEGEP. You’re not learning English or History or Science, you’re learning how to learn. Most of the material you cover will probably be covered again in a University or CEGEP course anyway, but you’re learning how you study and how you learn. Another purpose of this is that when you get to University or CEGEP you’ll already know something about the information so that when your caught totally off guard by the slap in the face that is the transition into a more real world than highschool, you won’t get left behind.
Obviously I’m just a student myself, and I’m only just reaching the end of my first year of CEGEP, but from talking to people and from my own experience, I believe all of this to be true. Please keep in mind that I could be totally wrong about all of this, and I might look back on this in a few years and decide that it’s absolute crap, but at least it might help someone (assuming that anyone reads my blog).