How to Study Effectively for Science Subjects

Studying for science subjects can sometimes seem daunting, especially if you’re about to cram for your midterm because you forgot to listen in class. In reality, there are very few ways you can go about studying for science classes efficiently, and these can be separated into two types of studying: memorizing and understanding.

The God of Memorization: Anki

Evidence-based science has shown that the best way to memorize information is through spaced repetition. Thus, for subjects like biology and some parts of chemistry, the use of flashcards is without doubt the best approach to studying. Enter Anki, a complex cross-platform flashcard application. You write the question and the answer that you want to remember, and Anki will quiz you over a certain time interval to make sure that piece of information sticks in your memory.

After creating decks (a regroupment of flashcards) and adding flashcards yourself, Anki will show the question of a flashcard, and, following a click of the spacebar button, will show the answer and present a choice of time interval before showing that flashcard again.

As you get a particular flashcard right (Good/Easy), the time interval will gradually increase (up to several months or years), but as soon as you “Again” the flashcard, the time will reset to 1 minute.

In general, short answers are preferable over big lists of answers. If you need to, break down answers into multiple flashcards, and make a flashcard that summarizes and regroups the different answers. The general rule is to do your flashcards as often as you can (everyday, if possible). However, it does become mentally taxing after a while, but trust us, it’s better to spread the pain over a couple of weeks than to try to memorize 600 flashcards in 3 days before your final exam (though that is also possible).

Although creating flashcards yourself helps with the memorization process, it is also possible to share the flashcard creation process with friends by importing/exporting decks in the “File” section. This will create a .apkg file, which can be sent to other people. Anki will also sync your flashcards on their server, so if you install their application on your smartphone, your decks and their scheduling information will sync automatically.

Furthermore, people have created plugins that can be added to Anki. Some worthy of mention are Image Occlusion Enhanced (which comes in handy when diagrams have to be memorized) and Cloze Overlapper (for lists of processes).

With this method, there is little point in writing summaries of the textbook/theory seen in class, and you can actively test yourself instead of reading the same text over and over again hoping you won’t forget it during your exam.

Understanding the Logic

For classes like mathematics, physics and chemistry, the essential goal is to understand the theory and walkthrough behind every question. In order to achieve that, with enough time and motivation, you could simply do all the exercises in the textbook. That would essentially guarantee a near 100% in your exam. However, that time could be better spent on extra-curricular activities. A better way would maintain the same goal (do as many exercises as possible), but would be efficient enough to drastically cut the time needed to study the material.

Writing out calculations by hand takes a long time, and test your arithmetic skills rather than your comprehension of the theory. If possible, for most exercises, don’t actually do the exercise. Either do the steps in your head and compare them with the steps in the answer, or type out a single equation in Desmos’ calculator and compare it with the answer value.

There’s not much point doing similar exercises that test the same course material. If you understand and are comfortable with a specific type of questions (in textbooks, questions that follow each other and often use similar steps), move on to another set of exercises.

Feel free to try the “challenge” problems, but if you can’t think of an answer, just look at the answer and try to understand and remember the steps involved.

You can also use Anki for any theory or derivation if they are too difficult to remember (Image Occlusion Enhanced could be useful). We cannot overstate the variety of subjects to which this technique can be applied. Students tend to assume that flashcards are only useful for straightforward factoids, yet some of our consultants have used this method to memorize hundreds of PowerPoint slides detailing a teacher’s preferred analyses for answering complex and subjective questions — the possibilities are truly limitless.

A Special Example: Organic Chemistry

Organic chemistry is best studied through a combination of memorization and logic. Indeed, not only do you have to memorize course theory and reactions, but you also need to apply those reactions in logical fashion in retrosynthesis questions. However, once you understand this, organic chemistry is easier to deal with:

  1. Memorize the reactions early with Anki, occluding images of reactions from the textbook.
  2. Memorize the reaction mechanisms with Anki as well, making sure to understand why each step occurs based on general principles such as electrophilicity, and using secondary sources like MasterOrganicChemistry summary sheets to understand patterns as needed.
  3. Once reactions are memorized correctly, do all the recommended exercises in the textbook, with special attention given to the ones dealing with retrosynthesis.

CEGEP students are often scared away from organic chemistry, even being encouraged by their peers to take it in their last semester so it won’t affect their R-Score. Our system is very simple: if you treat the class as if it was something special and fail to apply tried-and-true methods, you are bound not to perform as well.

On Your Way to a 40 R-Score

With this newfound approach towards studying, you are easily on your way to a high R-Score. All you need is a bit of effort, a bit of motivation, and, well, actually understanding the factors that determine your R-Score (hint: it doesn’t just depend on the amount of effort/time that you put into it!).

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