Note: Though my new format focuses on publishing in-depth articles twice a month, I still reserve the right to occasionally publish one my classic-style student advice articles.
The Pre-Med’s Lament
I recently received the following e-mail:
“I’ve failed both of my tests in Organic Chemistry 2…I don’t know what I’m doing wrong…no matter how much I review or study my class notes, nothing seems to work.”
This is a familiar lament. I recently reviewed the student e-mails I’ve received so far in 2010, and discovered that I average around one “I failed my Orgo exam!” e-mail per week.
That’s a lot of unhappy pre-meds.
I decided it was time to write a definitive answer to this common issue. This post details my famous three-step plan for turning around a chemistry disaster.
Step #1: Reset Your Mindset
In 2002, the psychologist Carol Dweck, then at Columbia University, working with her graduate student Heidi Grant, received permission to study the students enrolled in the fall semester offering of general chemistry. Earlier research by Dweck found that most students sort into one of two mindsets: fixed versus growth. As she explained in a 2009 speech:
- “Fixed mindset students believe their intelligence is just a fixed trait…they worry about how clever they are…they don’t want to take on challenges and make mistakes.”
- The “growth mindset [students] think ‘no,’ [it’s] something that you can develop.”
In their Columbia study, Dweck and Grant explored how these mindsets affected performance in the chemistry classroom. Their results were striking.
As they concluded in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology paper describing the experiment: students with the growth mindset scored higher grades in the course and, perhaps more crucially, were much more likely to recover from a bad midterm grade to score high on the final. By contrast, once a fixed mindset student scored low, he was unlikely to escape the spiral of self-doubt that followed.
Put another way, Dweck and Grant demonstrated: pre-med courses do weed out students, but they’re not culling the smart from the dumb, instead they’re separating the adaptable from the non-adaptable.
(In the context of medicine, of course, this makes a lot of sense: students who are able to adapt to novel and difficult situations, aggressively trying different strategies until finding one that works, will fare better under the pressures of med school, residency, and eventually full time medical practice.)
This research indicates that a student faced with a bad grade on his first exam must embrace the following ideas…
- This grade is a reflection of your study strategies and previous experience with this style of course.
- It has nothing to do with innate intelligence.
- It has nothing to do with the amount of time you spent studying. (A factor which is often irrelevant to academic performance.)
- Therefore: If you want to improve, you need to improve your study strategies.
TO SUMMARIZE: A bad grade doesn’t mean you’re lacking some mythical chemistry gene, it simply means your approach to the course is sub-par — hardly a catastrophe.
Step #2: Redesign Your Strategies
There’s no magic bullet study strategy that will guarantee you an A on future exams. But there are some high-level guidelines that most successful strategies follow.
Let’s start with an important law of (academic) nature that any smart plan should obey:
The Law of Mental Energy
Every concept presented in your chemistry class will require between 15 – 60 minutes of hard focus, including time spent asking clarifying questions, before you understand it well enough to ace related questions on an exam.
There’s no escaping this law. This is why the standard strategy of taking haphazard notes throughout the semester, and then holing up in the library three days before the exam, is destined to fail — there’s simply way more hard focus required than you can cram into such a small time frame.
Remember: hard focus is hard. You can’t sidestep this hardness in a course such as chemistry. If you don’t build a study plan that respects the need for this difficult work, then you’re unlikely to succeed.
Here’s a simple rule to help keep this respect central to your efforts:
The 48 Hour Rule
Within 48 hours of first being presented a concept, learn it well enough that you could teach it to a classroom of your peers — walking them through related sample problems while giving an insightful running commentary.
If you respect the 48 hour rule, you’ll avoid the hard focus pile ups that scuttle many students’ grades. This rule takes the mental labor necessitated by the law of mental energy, and spreads it throughout the semester — maximizing the chances that it all gets done.
Here are a few tactics to help make the 48 hour rule a reality…
- Insist on active review.
Reading highlighted notes is worthless. Stop doing it. The best way to learn material is to explain the idea out loud, as if lecturing an imaginary class, without peeking at your notes. This is mentally draining, which is why most students skip it, but that discomfort is a good thing; it’s the sensation of your brain stretching to internalize the concepts.
- Take notes in a format that’s ready for active review.
Reformatting notes is a waste of time. Take your notes in a format that’s ready for active review. For example: write the sample problem clearly; put the steps on separate lines, adding little commentary notes wherever possible; conclude with a clearly marked answer. To review this problem later, you can cover over everything below the problem and then try to recreate the steps to the answer out loud. If you falter, everything you need to improve your understanding is right there. The key is to minimize steps between the classroom and active review.
- Ask questions immediately.
You only have 48 hours to learn this concept, so the quicker you tackle confusions, the better. Here are five lines of defense to help make this a reality:
- Concentrate hard in class, trying to understand the concepts as they are presented. (Remember the law of mental energy: you cannot escape hard focus, so it’s better to pay off some of this mental debt while you’re in the classroom.)
- As soon as you’re confused, raise your hand to ask for clarification.
- If you’re still confused, talk to the professor immediately following class.
- If you’re still confused, use your textbook to guide you, and talk to a TA or classmate for additional clarification.
- You’re final line of defense is to bring the question to office hours. Because you’ve already gone through the previous steps, you should be well beyond “I don’t get it,” and instead be able to pinpoint the specific area of confusion.
- Schedule your review time.
Put aside two blocks per week in your autopilot schedule for reviewing the material from the most recent class. (You are using an autopilot schedule, right?). The key is to make this studying a part of your weekly routine.
Notice, this approach requires time. It won’t devour your nights or cripple your social life, but it insists that you expend reasonably-sized blocks of hard focus on a regular basis throughout the entire semester. This truth inspires an important corollary:
The Hard Schedule Corollary
If you combined organic chemistry with multiple other demanding courses, then you’re an idiot.
As I’ve argued before, hard course schedules are giant sources of stress and difficulty that add little to no benefit. Many students labor under the misguided belief that taking a challenging course loads matters. Here’s the secret: no one cares about what specific college courses you took when, or how hard your semester schedules were. They’ll see your major. They’ll see your GPA. And that’s it. So for God’s sake, drop your double major, and stop trying to take three science courses at once, you masochistic fool! There’s no extra credit given for being overloaded.
TO SUMMARIZE: Learning complicated subjects requires the expenditure of lots of uncomfortable and difficult hard focus. Build a system that respects this mental labor.
Step #3: Refactor Again and Again and Again…
My canonical article on the danger of black box studying identifies a crucial question that must be answered to turn around poor performance:
Why did the students who got the top grades on this test score so much higher than me?
Ignore your instinct to brush aside the prompt with an ego-preserving answer of “they’re geniuses” or “they have no social life.” Really try to identify what specifically they’re doing differently. Don’t be afraid to ask them for details.
This simple exercise provides targeted feedback on what you’re not doing that you should be doing. Without this post-mortem, you’ll devolve into trying random study habits that sound sort of right and then tenaciously clinging to them as if they were there the result of divine inspiration. It means nothing that you tried something different. (So many of my e-mails start by the student noting that they tried some new note-taking strategy or review plan, as if failing with that one random approach that popped into their mind disqualifies all possible strategies from potentially helping.) What’s important is that your strategies are motivated by real world observation, and are then exhaustively evaluated and tweaked.
TO SUMMARIZE: Adaptable students constantly question why they’re studying the way they are, and then seek concrete feedback on whether their hypothesis is correct. They’re not afraid to make informed changes, again and again and again.
(Photo by quinn.anya)