Math & Science Courses

Even students who have done well in high school math and science courses can find it difficult to adjust to the expectations that university professors have of them. Here are some strategies to help you meet the challenge.

College professors expect a high level of independent thinking. While high school courses and tests are largely factual in nature, university courses focus more on the reasoning process. It isn't enough to know that a formula works; you will want to know why it works. It's the interconnections between facts that are important. 

Maintain Your Momentum

You will need to study at least two to three hours a day per course. This is true in math, chemistry, and physics, as well as other related subjects. You will be asked to cover more ground more quickly. You may have ten times the homework you had in high school, because your professor will assign three times as many problems and they're usually far more difficult to complete. 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 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. As one mathematician puts it, "Math isn't necessarily more difficult than other subjects; it's just less forgiving."

In Class

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.

Preparing for Tests

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, try to generalize from what you have learned.

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.

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 understandingyou can't use what you don't understand. Your second goal is speed.

Studying

Try to stay calm. Don't push yourself unkindly, and give yourself the time you need. If you're stuck, reach out to a friend or classmate. Find a study partner whose skill level is comparable to your own. If you can't solve the problem together, talk to your TA or professor.

You can visit the CLUE study center almost every night of the week to receive tutoring support and socialize with other students studying for Math & Science courses.

Adapted from Active Learning: A Study Skills Worktext by Rory Donnelly (1990).