Students who have done well in high school math and science courses are often surprised to find that university professors have different expectations. Here are some strategies to help you meet the challenge.
Make sure you have the proper background for the course.
Take a math placement test, and don't sign up for a science course if you don't have the recommended math background.
Know what to expect.
- Expect to study two to three hours a day per course. This is true in math, chemistry, and physics, as well as other related subjects.
- In college math and science you must do more and do it faster. You may have ten times the homework you had in high school math, because your prof will assign three times as many problems and they're a lot harder. Also there is usually less repetition in college homework problems; you are often required to change gears and solve a new type of problem.
- College lectures repeat very little, and they are cumulative. You must concentrate fully during math and science lectures, because if you miss something, the rest of the lecture may be incomprehensible. If you do miss something, find out what it was right after class, and review your lecture notes the same day.
- You must keep up with the work. Because of the pace, falling behind is fatal in a math or science course. As one mathematician puts it, "Math isn't necessarily more difficult than other subjects; it's just less forgiving."
- College professors expect a higher level of thinking. While high school courses and tests are largely factual in nature, university courses focus more on the thinking process. It isn't enough to know that a formula works; you need to know why it works. It's the interconnections between facts that are important. When you study, therefore, concentrate on the mental processes, the reasoning, rather than on the results. You need understanding more than mere memory.
- In college, you will see things on tests you haven't seen before. Your professors want to see that you can think with the concepts they teach you. You should not see new principles on a final exam, but you will see the material you've learned presented in new ways. When you prepare for a math or science exam, then, it isn't enough to memorize examples. Instead, you must understand the principles at work. As you study, stop after each step and ask, "what principle did I apply here?" If you see something on a test that seems new to you, you haven't properly generalized.
Try these strategies.
- Keep up with your assignments. Try to work through your assigned chapter before the lecture, then use the lecture to fill in what you don't understand. Review in this back-and-forth fashion.
- When taking lecture notes, write down all the professor's examples. Next to each step of a solution, write the professor's explanation of that step. When reviewing your lecture notes at home, fill in any part of the explanation that you missed. One trick is to try looking at the problem backwards.
- Stay calm. Getting wound up while studying keeps you from seeing clearly. Don't grind, and don't be in a hurry.
- Work as many problems as you have time for. You will be tested under timed conditions. When you're first learning a new principle, though, it is better to work fewer problems and think them through carefully. Your first goal is understanding--you can't use what you don't understand. Your second goal is speed.
- When working math problems, don't substitute smaller numbers to work the equation. Stay with the algebraic symbols as long as you can, until you have "x=___ ," and then plug in the numbers.
- If you're stuck, try the buddy system. Find a study partner whose skill level is comparable to your own. If your two good heads together can't solve the problem, talk to your TA or prof, or get help at the Math Study Center.
- Study groups can be very valuable to math and science students. Work your problems separately, then gather as a group and teach each other how you solved them.
Much of this material comes from Active Learning: A Study Skills Worktext by Rory Donnelly (1990).