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How to Study for Non-Technical Science Courses

November 17th, 2009 · 20 comments

A Sinful OmissionPaper Writing

The red book splits academic subjects into two groups: technical and non-technical. The former covers any course with problems to be solved. The latter describes subjects that have you express your knowledge with essay questions and papers.

This taxonomy, however, has a gaping hole: non-technical science courses. These include biology, psychology, or any other subject that requires you to learn lots of technical information, but tests you predominantly with multiple-choice and short-answer questions.

I thought it was time to put together a short, canonical guide to tackling this type of material…

Process, Polish, Perform

My philosophy for these courses is simple: reviewing for an exam should consist only of reviewing. There should be no time wasted learning material for the first time a few days before an exam, or slaving over reformatting notes into something studyable. If you can inline these tasks throughout the semester, the process of studying will be greatly simplified.

To achieve this goal, remember the three P’s…

Process

Attend every class. Take notes. I don’t care if the professor uses Power Point slides distributed in advance. Notes are not about capturing information. They are, instead, an activity that forces you to process and learn the information as it’s presented.

For non-technical science courses, I recommend using the focused question cluster format for your notes. This strategy has you pull out the important ideas and capture them in clusters of short, related questions.

Warning: Do not take old-fashioned transcription notes in class and then later transform them into focused question clusters. That wastes time. Eventually you will resent its difficulty and stop doing it. Wrangle the information into focused question clusters as the professor spews it.

Polish

Inevitably, some concepts will escape your understanding when first presented. Most students let these question marks slide until exam time, and then attempt, in a frenzied rush, to learn all of this missing material from scratch.

This approach guarantees that your studying experience will suck. It also increases the chance that you’ll bomb an exam due to a question you have no idea how to answer.

I want you to instead observe the 48-hour rule. When the professor describes something you don’t understand, immediately jot down a note and label it with a big question mark. (If you’re taking notes on a computer, use a long string of question marks; i.e., “????????????????????“.)

You then have 48 hours to replace that question mark with a focused question cluster.

As I explained in the red book, in my chapter on academic disaster insurance, there are a variety of strategies — listed below in order of their proximity to the initial confusion — that can help you fill in your missing understanding.

  1. Raise your hand and ask for clarification right there in class.
  2. If that doesn’t work, talk to the professor immediately following class.
  3. If that doesn’t work, review your textbook and ask friends in the same class. (Do this the same day!)
  4. If that fails, talk to the TA or professor at their next office hours. Don’t leave until your understanding is complete.

Inlining this learning into the semester, instead of waiting until the weekend before the test, will save you hours of aggravation.

Perform

If you followed the first two P’s, all the course material will have been processed and polished into a studyable format before you start to review. When it comes time to study, all of your effort can focus on refreshing material you already know.

My article on focused question clusters explains the details of this refreshing stage. The main idea, however, is that you must be active (not passive): answer questions, out loud, without looking at your notes, as if lecturing a class. If you can’t produce and explain the information from scratch, you don’t know it.

We are left now with one final question: How early should you start studying?

My recommendation is to construct a date/action list two weeks in advance. You won’t be studying intensely for two weeks. But this advance planning will allow you to slip the review in open pockets of time and therefore avoid late nights.

And that’s all you need to know to tame non-technical science subjects.

20 thoughts on “How to Study for Non-Technical Science Courses

  1. Tom says:

    Alright, so what if the slides have information that you need to know on it.
    Let’s say that what you need from the slide is exactly what you need to know.
    Do you rephrase the slide on the side as the professor lectures?
    And when this is going at too fast of a pace, do you do this rephrasing into focused question clusters afterwards?

    Or do you just study off the slides. I feel like this would lead to passive studying though..
    At the same time, sometimes it feels that adding a question in front of the slide would sometimes become an instant cluster.
    What do you think? Thanks.

  2. Kyle says:

    I like the idea of writing all the question marks. I am terrible when it comes to actually tracking down a professor and asking a question. More likely I’ll just let that little bit of content slide, although I know it’s a terrible idea.

  3. Sara says:

    Tom,

    I’m not Cal, but here’s what I do: I write the question in the margin of the notes (powerpoint or outline or whatever), and I highlight the answer (in the notes).

    For example, pretend the above post is your slide. In the margin, I might write a question like “What are the 3 P’s to tackling non-technical science courses?” I’d higlight “Process, Polish, Perform.” Farther down, I might write, “Name 4 ways you can answer remaining questions from the class.” and highlight the 4 numbered items Cal listed.

    For me, this is fast. (Now, honestly, I haven’t done this live, in class, in a LONG time – I don’t really take classes anymore. I do still do this for massive outline reviewing for massive tests. It works. Try it.)

    When I review, I start with the questions I wrote. Since the questions are right next to the answers, they’re easy to find. After a little while, you get used to writing questions that aren’t too easy, but that help you get the right answers – for example, I often ask not for the causes of something, but for the 5 causes of something – just knowing how many there are makes it easier for me to come up with the answers without looking – and it makes it much less passive.

    Hope that helps!

    –Sara

  4. CharlieNovember says:

    Good work. I wonder what you think would be useful for non-science technical courses? I’m thinking of law, for example.

    Responses to such questions are (typically) not essays, but case studies.

    Do you feel that these should be treated as any other technical course, or do you see some merit in addressing the hybrid nature of the questions – as you have done so deftly here?

  5. E says:

    I’m taking an organic chemistry class right now. This class counts as a non technical science class, but I don’t see how I would benefit from using the focused question cluster format. First, there are no multiple choice questions on any of our exams. Second, the test questions are not questions that should be answered in sentences (i.e. show the reaction mechanism, draw the products).

    I think that chemistry classes are more like technical classes than non-technical classes, but I’m not sure your tips for technical classes fit chemistry classes either.

  6. R says:

    Hey Cal,

    Great post! I had a few questions about the method though. First, if all the info is already on the slides and if you can’t really keep up with the lecturer while making clusters, wouldn’t this merit some clean-up time afterwards? Though, you are implying that ‘clean-up’ and ‘process’ are 2 different things, right?
    Also, when I’m in an intense bio class where there may be just a picture as a slide and all of the relevant info comes from the lecturer, I always fall behind in making questions and then I switch back to transcribing as much as possible. Afterwards, I have to do the laborious task of listening to the audio again to transcribe any gaps in information. It sucks, but I can’t see another way around it.
    Lastly, some classes are pretty detailed and may require tons of questions…which again puts me in the situation of going back through the audio to fill in gaps (again, it sucks). Any ideas?
    On a side note about the focused questions cluster method. When making the questions on detailed information, do the questions simply function like flash cards? In my mind, they would have to since you would lose details from lecture if you included only major concepts as questions…?

    Thanks so much, Cal. I’ve been a huge fan since I found your site a couple years ago (2 years too late though :(). I’ll definitely be purchasing the red book soon for my brother who’ll soon be heading off to college.

    Thanks!
    R

  7. Study Hacks says:

    Do you rephrase the slide on the side as the professor lectures?

    The best case scenario is to convert this information into focused question clusters as it’s presented. If you have to leave some to later, it’s not the end of the world — just less efficient. Try to do this conversion within 48 hours — don’t leave it until right before the exam.

    I’m not Cal, but here’s what I do: I write the question in the margin of the notes (powerpoint or outline or whatever), and I highlight the answer (in the notes).

    This also sounds like a cool approach. Thanks, Tom.

    Good work. I wonder what you think would be useful for non-science technical courses? I’m thinking of law, for example.

    My understanding is that studying law, like studying medicine, is a unique beast.

    I’m taking an organic chemistry class right now. This class counts as a non technical science class, but I don’t see how I would benefit from using the focused question cluster format.

    I usually consider orgo a technical course, and I would study it as such; i.e,. a practice problem-based approach.

    he relevant info comes from the lecturer, I always fall behind in making questions and then I switch back to transcribing as much as possible.

    With practice you can get quicker at capturing questions on the fly. But if needed, capture answers, leave a blank next to a big Q, and then try to fill in those questions as soon as possible. In other words, take notes in a middle ground between transcription and question clusters.

  8. Ewen says:

    Hi Cal,
    your books are currently on their way from Amazon as I write. For those of us studying medicine, I assume that the above advice still stands? One of my friends Barry has (the equivalent of) a 4.0 average in medicine, and through coincidence, seems to have hit upon methods of studying along similar lines to what you advocate. He is extremely organised, and tests himself aggressively and ruthlessly.
    For the rest of us mere mortals, any nuggets you’d throw out for the ‘unique’ subjects?
    Great blog!
    Ewen

  9. nXqd says:

    I’ve found what I lost is the last P.
    Great blog :) I’ll keep watching :)
    nXqd

  10. Heidi says:

    You know, I decided to try these tips out for my intro to corporate finance lecture today. And you know what, it’s really worked…. it was the “big question mark” thing that motivated me to clarify what I did not understand. And you’re right – lectures are a way to test how well we understand information as it is fed to us (even though you did not write that, that’s how I interpreted it as). Anyway, for the first time, I understand everything on my lecture notes. And it actually makes me want to study because I know it’s all correct information and “professor approved” (in that, all the unclear things were corrected/clarified by the professor).

    I feel fantastic.

  11. Study Hacks says:

    For the rest of us mere mortals, any nuggets you’d throw out for the ‘unique’ subjects?

    The key for medicine seems to be that each course/professor pair has a unique “best way” of studying — including which textbooks to use, what type of material to learn, etc. My advice, therefore, is to seek advice from students who have already taken the class. Do this for every class!

    Anyway, for the first time, I understand everything on my lecture notes. And it actually makes me want to study because I know it’s all correct information and “professor approved”

    Excellent!

  12. Eve says:

    This is great! I’ve been waiting for this kind of post for a while. Do you have any tips for people anticipating PhD comps in a year?

  13. Eve says:

    BTW, if there is one thing I’ve learned from setting exams the last two years, it’s that the people who prepare them (i.e. people like me) tend to fall back on the same question structures over and over again. If there’s a topic I want to test, I’ll usually use one of only two or three types of questions to test it. So I’d recommend looking at previous exams from the course right at the beginning of the year and getting to know the types of questions that the prof likes to use, and emulate that style in your own clusters.

  14. Alex Shalman says:

    This is really good advice. I was just speaking to one of the Deans of my dental school today about study habits. The techniques he describes were very similar to what you wrote here. He was the #1 student, not only in his dental school, but of every dental school of that graduating year. On point.

  15. Andrew says:

    The key for medicine seems to be that each course/professor pair has a unique “best way” of studying — including which textbooks to use, what type of material to learn, etc. My advice, therefore, is to seek advice from students who have already taken the class. Do this for every class!

    What should I ask these students? It seems like a simple enough thing, but when I ask one who has done well in a certain class; I usually get the response, “I just do what I usually do – mug up.”

    What should I be looking for?

  16. Anon says:

    Hi Cal, I have a quick question. The biology exams at my school are not multiple choice or short answer. To give you an idea of what a typical 3 hour final is like – we would have roughly 10-12 questions which require comprehensive understanding of the material, not just regurgitation. Would you recommend studying for these sorts of exams like a technical class, or like a non-technical science class? Thanks.

  17. Study Hacks says:

    Would you recommend studying for these sorts of exams like a technical class, or like a non-technical science class? Thanks.

    Non-technical science.

  18. Camilla says:

    Hi Cal, I know this is a little off topic but I was wondering how to study for literature classes efficiently and what is the best way to take notes on novels.Thanks

  19. Pascal says:

    Hi there,
    Would Quantum Mechanics fall in this category? ie. NON technical science course?
    Thanks.

  20. Phil says:

    After about 10 minutes of applying this strategy in lecture something seriously clicked. Not only did I write down what questions my prof asked as we went along but, I also added my own questions on just about every label/figure and then some. This technique literally made me feel ten times more efficient than every other student in the classroom because I was not expending any energy at all copying but rather listening to my prof. I also know that when I go to study these questions that I am making a foolproof study guide for the exam.

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