Study Methods, Tips from a Tutor

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As pre-medical students, we are often faced with the challenge of understanding various complex concepts, which span from the biological sciences right into the chemical and physical foundations on which they stand. In our efforts to drive this information into our heads, we find that there are many ways to do this, some which work better than others. Some of us use note cards, some do problem after problem, while others resort to memorizing every word in the text. The study methods that we use depend on both our learning style and the material being studied. Unfortunately, we do not stride right into college with effective habits; instead, we have to develop these on our own. As a general biology and organic chemistry tutor, I’ve had the opportunity to witness both the methods that appear to be effective, as well as those that are not. The process of developing your own study methods can be a hard and frustrating one, and my intentions in this short blog are to give new college students, as well as those of you who are a bit more seasoned, grounding on which to start developing and refining your own methods.

Don’t just memorize, conceptualize:

Contrary to what many of us may have heard from our high school teachers and college professors, memorization is more important than we think, especially in the sciences. The reason there is so much angst over the idea of memorization is because the word often elicits an image of students mindlessly memorizing terms, which have no significance to them. This sort of studying is often seen in students who don’t want to spend time understanding the material and are most concerned with “just getting through the exam.” The last thing that you want to do is memorize a bunch of terms without seeing the big picture, so you have to be mindful when using the method of memorization.

Start this method with study cards; memorize all the terms and definitions associated with one specific concept, not perfectly, but sufficiently enough to be comfortable when seeing them. From here, we start the real learning. Now it is time to connect all of these terms that you have been memorizing. Without looking at your cards too much, start to create concept maps on your own. For example, if you are studying the organelles of the cell, you could start by memorizing all of the terms and definitions (nucleus, nuclear pores, ribosomes, rough ER etc.). Then move on to understanding how these work together. You could connect the functions of these organelles by saying that the nucleus is the site of RNA synthesis; this newly synthesized RNA leaves the nucleus through the nuclear pores and enters the rough ER, where ribosomes translate the RNA into proteins, which are sent to the Golgi apparatus to be modified, and so on. At this point you not only have the terms memorized, but you have a solid understanding of how they relate to each other. This method of memorization followed by conceptualization is something I have seen bring much success to the students that I tutor, as well as myself.

Don’t forget to read the textbook!

In many of our classes, we have the horrid textbook. The textbook is long, boring, and can be quite overwhelming. The truth is, this seemingly endless book is actually your best friend. Textbooks provide us with a detailed, step-by-step understanding of the material, which is blown through by our professors, who often fly through the material faster than we can take notes. Our textbook will stand on every word, create detailed concept maps, and repeat itself to us over and over again until we understand the material inside and out. Our textbook is always there to help us get through the concepts; all we have to do is open it.

Once we pry this beast open, we can start solidifying our understanding of the concepts on which our lectures are based. While in the text, there are a few things that can make our time most effective. First, let’s break out a highlighter or a pencil; now we focus on highlighting main points, key words, and details that we did not see in lecture. Don’t get carried away with this, only highlight what you feel is absolutely necessary. Also, whenever we see something in the text that was not discussed by our professor, we should make note of it and ask them about it after class or during office hours. Lastly, we have to be sure to read actively; we can’t simply read the words without interacting with the text. We have to constantly take notes in our books, noting connections, questions, and our reactions to the material. Interacting with the text will insure that we don’t spend hours reading the text, to remember only the last paragraph that we just finished reading 30 seconds ago. With that being said, the textbook is our friend, and it will take its time to make sure we understand all of the material sped through in lecture; we just have to be patient enough to read it.

 Seal the deal with active studying:

Though making study cards and reading the text are essential to understanding the material we are studying, these methods should not be used alone. The purpose of creating study cards and reading the text is to develop a fundamental understanding of the concepts. These passive methods give us a basic grounding in the material so we can begin applying our knowledge, analyzing new and related knowledge, and synthesizing your own ideas. This is where active studying comes to replace our passive methods. When we study actively, we seal the deal; we bring our literal knowledge of the concepts to life.

Methods of active studying vary with the course being taken. Let’s start with courses like chemistry and physics. In these courses, we not only have to understand the basic concepts, but we have to apply what we know to solve new problems as well. In these courses it is essential that we spend a good amount of our post-passive study time doing problems. For this method, it may be worth investing in a white board; I often find myself most capable of organizing my thoughts about a problem when I take it from my notebook paper, and lay it out on the larger whiteboard.

Active studying also has its place in those courses that don’t involve the level of problem solving seen in physics and chemistry. It is in our biology courses that we don’t have to solve long, drawn out problems, but often have to apply our knowledge to answer questions that stem from the same basic concepts presented in lecture. Unlike most biology courses in high school, university-level biology courses no longer call on us to simply memorize the material. We have to know the material enough to be able to apply our understanding to situations that were not discussed in class. In order to be able to handle these types of questions, we have to take our study methods to the next level. We have to begin to create detailed concept maps, which describe not only individual details, but the big picture behind the concept itself. For example, if you were studying glycolysis, after you understand the pathway and what it is responsible for, you want to fit it into a larger context. In doing this, you may explain to yourself how it fits into metabolism as a whole, and what other pathways it is connected to (e.g. synthetic, aerobic and anaerobic pathways). You can even go as far as looking into what happens when this pathway is not working properly, or missing essential reactants and or enzymes. This is just one of many ways which could be used to look at the information we are studying from a broader perspective. As future doctors, active studying can help build those critical thinking skills which are essential to the career we plan to enter.


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6 thoughts on “Study Methods, Tips from a Tutor

  1. Profile photo of Jessica DaigleJessica Daigle

    HI! Great blog. So important to establish good study patterns early. I had a photographic memory in college which I used for classes other than physics and chemistry (more conceptual) and I didn’t have to study too hard to do well. However, in medschool, I realized the people who knew how to best study and knew how they best learned are the ones who did extremely well. You are right in that its important to both memorize and understand concepts and what is most important is knowing how to CORRECTLY combine the two. It is an IMPORTANT skill set as you have to keep studying and learning as a medical professional. It never goes away!!!

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