Welcome back to Science 101, Bwog’s weekly column where we share tips and tricks on navigating STEM at Columbia. In this week’s column, Bwog Science Editor Alex Tang shares his tips for succeeding in large, introductory science courses. He draws from his experiences in gen chem, Mowsh bio, and gen physics.

Many students claim that the introductory lecture courses are the toughest part of being a science student. Just picture a large lecture hall (does Havemeyer 309 or IAB 417 strike fear in your heart yet?) and potentially hundreds of classmates (so much for the small class sizes touted by Columbia’s admissions department). We’ve compiled some tips that you’ll hopefully find helpful, whether you’re in gen chem or orgo, Mowsh bio or Physics 1402. You might find some of these tips obvious, but you’ll be surprised at how ahead of the curve you’ll be if you follow every single one of them.

Figure out what type of student you are, and work towards your strengths:
Some students are auditory learners, and learn best during live lectures. If this is you, make attending lecture your priority. This might mean signing up for a lecture at a reasonable time (maybe not an 8:40?). Others prefer to learn by reading (including yours truly). For these types of learners, reading the class notes or textbook may be sufficient, and might be more helpful than merely going to lecture. Note that we’re not condoning that people skip lecture! Just analyze your learning style and organize your time accordingly.

Do the assigned problems (the most important tip):
If you chose to ignore every tip except for one, follow this one! Introductory lecture courses tend to be straightforward; the questions that you encounter in your assignments will be very similar to the questions that you encounter on exams. For every practice problem you encounter in your textbook assignments, practice tests, or additional problem sets, circle the ones you don’t get right the first time. Return to them before the exam, and make sure you know how to do them. This may mean doing the same problem twice or thrice. (And even if you don’t end up getting through every problem until a couple of nights before the exam, it’s still good practice.)

Be mindful of details and know the exceptions:
This is particularly pertinent in biology and chemistry. Your professor will introduce a concept to you, and will test you on how well you know the details. Easy detail-oriented questions might ask about certain exceptions to concepts. Gen chem, in particular, tends to come with lots of exceptions to rules.

Never walk into a test or quiz intending to drop it:
Just don’t. The material invariably gets harder.

If you need help, seek help:
Everyone has heard of office hours and recitations, but lots of people don’t know about CSA Tutoring, which offers tutors for every introductory science lecture course at Columbia. Some departments (like physics) even have open “help rooms” led by graduate students, so check if the department of your class has something like that to offer. Similarly, Barnard has peer tutoring services, including help rooms and individual tutoring, and students are welcome to go to the Writing Center with questions on lab reports. Also, if you’re stuck on a specific question in your problem set, try googling it. Oftentimes, if you skim through a couple links, you’ll find a step-by-step answer to the same problem or a similar one.

Make friends in your class:
One of the best ways to test your understanding of a concept is to explain it to someone else. Study groups make this possible, as you and your friends can take turns talking through rules and processes, or even drawing them out, and asking each other questions that may bear surprisingly high similarity to what you’ll see on the exam. Good rooms for these kinds of group meetings include the reservable rooms on Butler 4, seminar rooms in the LeFrak center, the Altschul mezzanine, and the bottom floor of Lehman Library. Also, if you don’t have friends in your class yet, it’s not too late to make some – just post in your class Facebook group asking who else is struggling, and you’ll have a group together in no time.

Go to office hours:
In large lecture courses, it’s impossible for every question to get answered, if any questions get answered at all. This is why office hours are invaluable – even if you don’t ask specific questions of your own, you’ll get to find out what questions your classmates are asking, and hear your professor explain the same concepts in different (and potentially more easily understandable) ways. If you can’t make any of your professor’s office hours, email them; chances are, they can accommodate you at another time, and you can still get that more direct learning experience.

Befriend your calculator:
Your knowledge of your calculator will make or break you, especially in physics (oh god, ESPECIALLY physics). Be extremely careful with parentheses and order of operations (remember PEMDAS!). I find that checking my calculations again at the end of exams and quizzes gives me peace of mind.

Keep everything in perspective:
Introductory lecture courses can be soul-crushing and cruel. It’s possible that you’ll put in the hours at Butler or NoCo, only to end up with a mediocre exam grade. It happens to the best of us; a couple of poor exam (and course) grades don’t automatically determine your capabilities in science. At times, you might also feel anonymous in these classes. Just keep your goals close to your heart and persevere. Once you get into the higher-level courses, class sizes will be smaller, research opportunities will be more plentiful, and you’ll actually know your professors individually. People tend to have an easier time getting better, personalized recommendation letters in these upper division courses.

At the same time, don’t be afraid to network in your intro courses:
If you’re looking to get into research, and are doing well in an intro course, approach the professor for that class during office hours to ask about research opportunities (either with them or with their colleagues). Your professors will be impressed with your initiative. Check out tips for finding undergraduate research here, from last week’s column.

You are enough:
No matter how you’re doing in these courses, you are enough. Remember to get enough sleep, eat, spend time with friends, and call home once in a while. Self-care is important, and grades don’t define you!

havie 309 via Bwarchives