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“Was That Actually English…?” How to Get the Most Out Of Class

It is a perennial lamentation of many people that have stepped foot into a chemistry, physics, or math classroom.   It doesn’t matter if it is an adult many years out of school, who’s first response to hearing about science or math is how much they did not get much of what was going on, or a current student who echoes that same sentiment.  They all say similar things, that they sit in class, and the teacher might as well speak an actual foreign language, because they just barely have a clue as to what is going on.  Unfortunately, this has the side effect of people abhorring science or math, incorrectly identifying a poor classroom experience with an authentic dislike for the subject or, worse, an actual belief that they are not, “Any good at it.”  I combat this logical fallacy on a daily basis.

There are several contributors to a student’s lack of understanding.  Some of it we cannot control directly, such as when teacher’s teaching style does not align well to our learning style.

However, we can control what we do, and not just during class, but before and after.

Here are five suggestions, in chronological order, that I think, if followed for each class, is going to make your classroom experience much more enjoyable, a better chance to appreciate the topics, and get your scores to increase, even significantly!

  1. Read the textbook.  The goal here is three-fold.  We want to get as much useful exposure to the subject matter before class, so that we have more opportunities to benefit from the class.  Our second goal is to have developed a succinct set of notes that can be reviewed prior to, and used during, the class.  Finally, by working with the material ahead of time, we can have a set of questions prepared that either we can listen for the answers to, or ask if they remain unresolved.
  2. Take good notes.  I emphasize the word good here.   A usual scenario for my students is that they will try to understand what is going on in their class, give up, and then write down everything that is said, written on a board, or shown as a slide.  It really turns into an unorganized jumble of words and equations that when they review at their notes, they neither can tell me what actually happened in class, nor can they study from them.  You don’t need to write everything down.   You should be an active listener and participant in class, and scribing everything removes that possibility.  Here is an example of notes from my notebook of an advanced chemistry class, Statistical Mechanics:
    These are actual notes that I took during an advanced chemistry class

    These are actual notes that I took during an advanced chemistry class

    I made sure to write down the equations we were discussing, label any variables that I wouldn’t necessarily remember, show any math steps that would not be obvious when re-reading my notes, and made brief, succinct notations of important facts and descriptions.  Many more words were said in class.  If you are a diehard and must have those words, I’d recommend a device like a Livescribe Pen, so that your notes are clear and good, and you have recorded everything that was said at the time you took a particular note.

  3. Be an active participant.  Please don’t check out.  Try to solve problems alongside your teacher.  Answer a question or two in class, or even volunteer to go to the board, whatever you are comfortable with.  Push yourself to be an active participant, as it helps expose and clear up any misconceptions, reinforces good skills and knowledge that you have, and shows your teacher that you are engaged and working hard!
  4. Reread and RewriteSTEM courses are cumulative.  What was said yesterday will be used tomorrow.  You will be expected to recall, understand, and apply that which has already been taught.  Since you already have good notes from class, and notes from your previous reading, both succinct, read them over!  I even make a second copy that I later use for exam prep, and simulate teaching myself of the material to see any gaps in my understanding.  Here is an example of those same notes from class, rewritten (starting half way down the page):
    After my lecture, I went through my notes and rewrote them, teaching myself along the way.  The part that links up with the handwritten notes starts halfway down.

    After my lecture, I went through my notes and rewrote them, teaching myself along the way. The part that links up with the handwritten notes starts halfway down.

    Much neater, and it forced me to write alongside teaching myself (remember the advantage of doing problems alongside a problem in a textbook, rather than just readingOr useful study habits, supported by the literature?).  If I found I had more questions, I would shoot a quick e-mail to my professor and ask, and I can be very specific to what I need to know!  Of course, if I just did not understand something, after reading, and class, and going through my notes, I sought extra help.

  5. Ask questions.  Of course, ask questions!  Don’t ever walk away from something, thinking you’ll get it next class; you may be expected to know it!  You’ll have homework for sure, so ask early and often, until you understand everything that is being asked of and presented to you!

This actually appears to be more work than it is.  It isn’t.  It’s part of good study habits that we ought to do nearly every day.  When I was a student, I think I would spend maybe fifteen to thirty minutes three or four times a week per STEM class doing this (usually less as a topic progressed because I needed to review less because of the repetition).  I can tell you that I never crammed for an exam when I followed this system; I already knew nearly everything that I needed!

Solomon Berman is the Founder and Lead Teacher of Quantum Prep LLC.  He actively teaches chemistry, physics, and mathematics at the high school, college, and post baccalaureate levels, having taught both in public education and at a top tier university.  His focus lies in developing the most innovative and effective catalogue of pedagogical techniques for STEM disciplines, and helping students become powerful STEM learners in their classes, competitive in assessments, and successful with projects.  He has studied at Bates College, Harvard University, Boston College, and Boston University, and is a native of Boston, Massachusetts.

 
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Posted by on March 18, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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“I Don’t Read the Book! I Just Do The Homework Problems In It!” – Re-looking at the Textbook, and How to Read a STEM Textbook

I always look for feedback as a teacher.  Its importance cannot be underestimated.  I want to hear back from my students, from parents, from other teachers, from anyone in the room!  At one point, I’d even taken to videotaping myself, a harrowing task, and reviewed it as I would tape before an important game, critiquing what can be done better, and marking what should be kept.

After my first year teaching AP Chemistry, and letting the dust settle a bit, I asked one of the students for an unabashed and frank critique on what she thought of the course.  She didn’t even take a moment’s pause before giving a succinct response:

“It was probably the hardest course I took in high school.  I always used my notes from your class to study.  No one could understand the book; your notes are clear.”

Quickly, I realized that while I did a good job teaching this particular student the material, I had done her a disservice by not teaching her how to access the book and its contents.  She, like nearly every one of my students, just used the textbook for the problems at the end of the chapter that we would work through.  It was actually worse for students enrolled in general chemistry; as a department, we had it as a policy that students would take their books home, and leave them there until June.  If we needed the textbook, we had a second copy at the school for them!

It doesn’t get any better at the university level.  Most students hate their textbooks.  And, with some, you can hear the crinkling on an non-creased spine of a new book as they open it before final exams.

We all need to learn how to read a STEM textbook, as it is not something we do in either high school or college.  This is especially true if you bought one for class (unless you want a 100 – 200 dollar paperweight!).  Here are a couple of steps to get us started:

  1. Examples and Sample Problems.  Looking over or skimming a sample problem is just a waste.  Reading through it is an improvement from skimming.  To actually benefit from the sample problems in a section or chapter, you need to do the problem with the book as you read it, using a pencil and piece of paper.  As you go through, ask yourself:
    • What step am I doing?
    • Why am I doing this step?
    • How do I complete this step?  What equations and facts are leveraged?
    • How does this step fit into the larger context of solving the problem?
    • What is the next logical step?  How do I use what I have found previously?

    You are actually teaching yourself not only how to solve the problem, and similar ones to it, but also to think through how to solve problems in general.  You are using your hands and your mind to perform the mathematics, manipulate an equation, and find the numbers on your own.  You can actually see how a scientific or mathematical fact relates to the equation you utilized or the step you completed.  By practice, you learn how to use the tools of STEM subjects, equations and problem solving, to answer questions!  Try it sometime.

  2. Vocabulary.  Mathematics, chemistry, physics, engineering, biology – they all have their own discipline specific vocabulary, and your textbook, your teacher, and the problems you will solve, will all employ that language.  What would you do if I said that I was experiencing depressed respiration, cramping, and myalgia, due to hypokalemia?  Sounds pretty terrible, no?  Spooky, obtuse language!  Personally, I’d enjoy a nice orange or banana, as someone who is hypokalemic is low in potassium.  If you know the language, you can participate in the discussion.
  3. Key Concepts and Ideas.  As I go through scientific journal articles or textbooks, I jot down the key concepts and take away messages from the reading.  They form the foundation of my lectures and inform both lesson plans and learning objectives.  In graduate school, it is how I was able to at least access a conversation in the lab or during departmental talks.  This has to be your first line of attack.  You’ll get more out of classes, labs, homework assignments, problem sets, and, ultimately, perform better on exams.  If you are getting around this at the end, when you are studying for the exam, you will be disappointed with your performance.

Your textbook can be a great resource, if you know how to leverage it!  It will help make things a bit easier for you; otherwise, it’s just a paperweight, and you end up doing more work in class and with your notes to learn what is being asked of you!

Solomon Berman is the Founder and Lead Teacher of Quantum Prep LLC.  He actively teaches chemistry, physics, and mathematics at the high school, college, and post baccalaureate levels, having taught both in public education and at a top tier university.  His focus lies in developing the most innovative and effective catalogue of pedagogical techniques for STEM disciplines, and helping students become powerful STEM learners in their classes, competitive in assessments, and successful with projects.  He has studied at Bates College, Harvard University, Boston College, and Boston University, and is a native of Boston, Massachusetts.

 
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Posted by on March 7, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Debunking the Highlighter Myth: Study Habits Worth Reexamining – From the Desk of Educational Psychologists

I am often asked a very simple, and rather loaded, question:  “How should I study?”

The question always results in an elongated pause from me, because it is an immensely broad question.   Are we asking about a daily study routine, a very important skill to master?  Or how to study using past exams, or how to learn from a test grade that was less than stellar?  Am I allowed to select answer D, all of the above?

I’ve taken to informally asking students how they go about studying for an exam.  Do any of these tactics mirror what you do, done the day or two before an exam?

  • Highlighting the textbook or notes.
  • Reading the chapter(s).
  • Reading notes from start to finish.
  • If given a sample exam or problems, focusing on those problems.
  • Making flashcards.
  • Creating mnemonics to remember necessary information.
  • Doing some of the assigned homework problems.

Would you believe that many of the techniques students are using, mine included, are minimally useful?

In a paper published last month in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a team of authors, led by John Dunlosky, examined ten commonly used and pervasive learning techniques, thoroughly reviewing decades of literature that has been readily available for educators.   Their conclusions are powerful, and reinforce what leading STEM teachers have been repeating to legions of students year after year.

You may not have the time to read all fifty-some-odd pages of the paper (though, if you can, I recommend you do!).  From the report, I’ve culled some important takeaway messages that students need to hear!

  1. Highlighting.  Summarizing.  Rereading.  Mnemonics.  These techniques, often the primary ones that the students use are not effective.   Honestly, I am not surprised.  Whenever a student uses any of these techniques, it tends to promote memorization of the material and recitation of fact.  There’s no understanding of the material.  It’s low in taxonomy.  For example, I haven’t been able to have a student discuss with me what they highlighted in their textbook.  I am not saying that these should be abandoned.  If you remember what is on the page by taking notes, summarizing, highlighting while you read, fantastic.  What I am arguing is that it is only the first step.  You have to understand what you read and what was discussed in the class!  That requires techniques of “high utility.”
  2. Constant practice, each day, and working through practice tests are of the “high utility.”  There is no substitute to working, and reworking, problems in STEM subjects.  Solving a chemistry or calculus problem takes not only understanding of the subject matter, but also skills, and skills need practice for someone to get both great at and efficient with that.  Find me a serious, competent athlete that does not practice most days of the week and is at the top of his/her game; you will not find that athlete.  Academics are no different!  And if my students think I am beyond brilliant when I discuss a topic in science with them, I tell them that it isn’t that I’m smarter, it is that I’ve been talking about these things for a long time, and often several times a day.  There is a reason why good standardized test prep courses have students work through practice tests, and practice sets nearly every day.  Practice makes perfect!
  3. Some are of “moderate utility.”  I find techniques like explaining the steps taken to solve a problem, explaining why a principle or fact is true, or mixing up the kinds of practice problems in a single session of studying, to be useful if you implement them correctly.  Why?  If you are engaging in simple recitation without any thought as to why or how, you end up engaging low taxonomy againI love having students explain not only the steps taken to solve a problem, but also why they are doing each step, and how it relates to the science.   At the end of my first year teaching AP Chemistry, the Salutatorian of the graduating class said in his speech that I drilled into his head, “Tell me what is going on in the beaker.”  I wouldn’t let anyone debate anything with me unless they were going to discuss the actual science and make their point.  Made for some rather powerful teaching moments, and chemistry students that went onto college and rivaled their classmates.

What’s the bottom line here?  We all need to practice everyday.  We all need to practice high taxonomical problems and questions.  We need to discuss the science and the math of what we are doing.  Otherwise, we are cheating ourselves.

Imagine that you are using “high utility” techniques in conjunction with knowing what will be expected of you to demonstrate on an exam.   How do you think you will do on your next exam?  Quite well, I’d say.

Solomon Berman is the Founder and Lead Teacher of Quantum Prep LLC.  He actively teaches chemistry, physics, and mathematics at the high school, college, and post baccalaureate levels, having taught both in public education and at a top tier university.  His focus lies in developing the most innovative and effective catalogue of pedagogical techniques for STEM disciplines, and helping students become powerful STEM learners in their classes, competitive in assessments, and successful with projects.  He has studied at Bates College, Harvard University, Boston College, and Boston University, and is a native of Boston, Massachusetts.

 
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Posted by on March 4, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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