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Study Skills for Math and Science

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Learning mathematics and science often presents unique challenges when it comes to studying. The disciplines of mathematics and science communicate content using new language and many symbols, are theory oriented, and often require the mastery of prerequisite concepts as a base for acquiring new knowledge.

A College math class meets less often and covers material at about twice the pace than a high school course does. You are expected to absorb new material much more quickly. Tests are probably spaced farther apart and cover more material. Your instructor may not even check your homework. Science courses can be very challenging for new college students, especially non-science majors.

Math courses include factual information (declarative knowledge) and theorems, formulas for equations, and problem-solving steps (procedural knowledge). You can use elaborative rehearsal techniques to memorize declarative knowledge; procedural knowledge requires repetition of problem-solving steps and application of theorems and formulas. Science courses include subjects such as biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, environmental science, and physics. Science often uses inductive arguments; they present observable experiments, evidence, or proof to arrive at a conclusion. Understanding science often involves hands-on, personal laboratory demonstrations, experiments, or observations. Emphasis is on understanding how parts relate to the whole concept or framework. Similar to mathematics, science contains both declarative and procedural knowledge.

Approaching math and science problems is a two step process. The first step is preparation. The second step is devoted to technique. To the unprepared, a math or science problem may seem scary. With preparation and training, these types of problems can be easy. Use the following techniques to avoid getting stuck:

  • Practice – Work lots of problems. Do assigned problems and then some. Work with a classmate and make up problems for each other to solve.
  • Divide problems by type – Make a list of the different types of problems and note the elements of each. When you divide problems into type or category, you can isolate the kinds of problems you have trouble with. Practice these problems more and get additional help if you need it.
  • Know your terminology – Mathematicians and scientists often borrow English words and give them new meanings. For non-science people, work means a job. For the physicist, work is force multiplied by distance. Use 3×5 cards to study special terms.
  • Understand formulas – You will probably need to memorize some formulas. If you understand the basic concepts behind the formulas, you will be better able to recall them accurately. More importantly, you will be able to re-create the formulas if your recall is poor. Understanding is always preferable to memorization.
  • Stay current – In math and science courses, what you learn in week two depends on what you learned in week one. Goofing off or missing class can have big consequences. If you fall behind in the first few weeks, the whole course may be a struggle. Be dedicated to staying current from day one.
  • Review lecture material and examples immediately after class – Forgetting is greatest within 24 hours. For mathematically based subjects, most info is lost within the first 20 to 60 minutes after learning
  • Know when you are in deep water – It’s tempting to shy away from difficult problems. The more you do this, the more difficult the problems become. If you find yourself in over your head, get help immediately. A good tutor should be a coach, not a crutch. They should encourage you, give you hints as you need them, and sometimes show you how to do problems. They should not, nor be expected to, actually do the work you need to do. They are there to help you figure out how to learn math for yourself. Most schools have tutoring available.
  • When practicing, time yourself – Sometimes speed counts. Notice how fast you can work problems. When you get to the test, you will know how much time to allow for different types of problems.
  • Use creative visualization – Before you begin a problem-solving section, take a minute to relax, breathe deeply, and prepare for the task ahead. Visualize yourself solving the problems successfully.
  • Make sure you know what is being asked – Read the problem at least twice before you begin. Read slowly and thoroughly. Be absolutely certain you know what is being asked.
  • Sort the facts – Survey the problem for all of the givens. Determine the principles and relationships involved. Look for what is to be proven or what is to be discovered. Write these down.
  • Set up the problem – Before you begin computing, determine the strategy you will use to arrive at the solution and plug the data into this framework.
  • Cancel and combine – When you have set up a problem logically you will be able to take shortcuts. For example, if the same term appears in both dividend and divisor, the will cancel each other.
  • Draw a picture – Make a diagram. Pictures help keep the facts straight. They show relationships more effectively than words.
  • Read the problem aloud – Talk yourself through the solution. Read equations out loud.
  • Check your results – Work problem backwards, then forwards. Start at both ends and work towards the middle to check your work. Another way to check your work is to estimate your answer before you compute it.

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