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How to Succeed in Science Courses

The information on these pages comes from my personal experience and from many other sources.  Everyone learns in their own way, and these tips should not be expected to suit everyone.  There are no tricks which will instantly make it easy to learn science.  There is no substitute for study and hard work.  The purpose of this page is to make that time and effort that you spend more effective.


The most important factor in your success or failure in a science class is your attitude.  Students come into a science course with many thoughts and apprehensions:

"I'm worried that the course will be hard for me." -  That's okay.  Following the suggestions and guidance here should help.  Science courses are harder than many other courses.  They may require a different approach to study.  Most worthwhile things require work and effort.

"I shouldn't have to take a course in science because I'm not a science major."  -  Especially in the modern world, everyone needs a basic idea of how science works and about scientific concepts.  You need to understand something about how things work to function in and appreciate the world around you.  Our society needs people like you who will be educated in scientific concepts when the time comes to vote on measures affecting scientific issues such as pollution, global warming, the ozone hole, and so on.  We cannot afford to have a society in which only a handful of citizens know anything about motion, energy, heat, light, and electricity.

"I shouldn't have to take this course because I'm not going to be a chemist, physicist, etc."-  If you are required to take a particular course, it is likely that you will need that material in order to be competent in your field.  The curriculum has been designed by professionals in that field based on their experience.  In order to really understand biology, you need to know basic chemistry, for example.  Biochemistry is at the cutting edge of modern biology research.  Contrary to what most students think, your university education is NOT just job training for your chosen field.  You need a broad education, particularly because most people don't keep the same job their whole career anymore, and a great many change their field entirely.

"All I want is to pass and get out of this course"  -  This is a common attitude, but a poor one.  As shown above, it is important that you learn at least the basics of science.  Your goal should be to learn as much as you can.  Do not let any grade become your goal.  A grade is poor motivation.  Let the knowledge gained be your motivation.

"I'm worried about the math" - This is a concern for many.  First, have you met the math prerequisites for the course?  If so, you should have some familiarity with the required concepts.  If you had difficulty in those courses, you may need to go back and pick up some of the skills you missed.  Is the course the proper one for your needs?  There may be different levels of course, differing largely in the level of math complexity, and you should be sure you are in the proper one for your major.  Talk to the instructor for the course, and ask what level of math skills are required.  They can help you assess your personal situation.

"Why should I go to class?" -  Going to class and being on time is extremely important. Your instructor is there to help you to learn the material.   There will likely be portions of the material that you will find difficult to understand on your own. That is where your instructor comes in, to explain those areas to you.  Probably, many examples will be presented to show you how to go about the process of solving scientific problems.  Thus, going to class is extremely important.  However, just going to class is not enough.  While in class, you will see your instructor work problems.  He or she already knows how to work them, and it will probably look easy.  However, until you have worked them and many others, it will likely be difficult for you.  Sitting in the classroom is like watching professional sports on TV.  You can see how the pros play baseball, basketball, football, or golf.  When you try a sport for the first time, you don't expect to do it just like the pros just from watching them.  Likewise, you can't expect to be able to answer scientific questions after just listening to the lectures.

Learning is something you do, not something that is done to you. 

You cannot teach anyone anything.  You can only help them find it within themselves. 
                                                                                                                 Galileo Galilei

If after reading the above, you have the attitude that while science may not be easy, it is worth your effort to learn as much as you can, read on! 

How much should I study?

Spending too little time studying is probably the leading cause of poor performance in science courses.  At a minimum, most students should study 2-3 hours outside of class for every hour they spend in lecture.  This does not count time spent in the laboratory, or time spent preparing for lab, lab reports, etc.  In most courses, you will spend approximately three hours in lecture a week so you should study at least 6-9 hours a week.  By far the easiest and best way to do this is to spend some time every day studying.  Unfortunately, a large percentage of students will wait until just before a test and try to "cram" it all in for the exam.  Most of them are doomed to fail or not to achieve the results they could if they studied properly.  This is particularly true in science, because scientific concepts take longer to learn and fully understand than many of those in your other courses.  You cannot simply memorize them.  You must be able to understand them so that you can apply them to new situations which you have not seen before.  If you are unable or unwilling to spend this much time studying for a science course, then perhaps you should attempt to change your schedule to allow it or you should seriously reconsider taking the course at this time.

How should I study?

Almost as important as how long to study is how to study.  First, set the proper goal.  Your goal should be to LEARN the material the best you can.  The following is written with the physical sciences in mind, because that's what I teach.  Many of the principles can be applied in any field, of course.  There are several steps to learning science, which I suggest should be followed more or less in this order for a particular chapter or section of a chapter.

1.  Learn the language.  Your first task as you read a chapter is to learn the terms.  In science, there will be very many of these for you to learn.  By its nature, science is about discovery and as new concepts and ideas are discovered, they have been given names which you will need to learn.  Many of the terms to learn will be printed in bold in your textbook.  They may be defined in the chapter and/or in a glossary at the end of the chapter or the book.  Learn the definitions as best you can immediately on your first reading.  Begin to memorize the definition as soon as you come to it, and continue to learn it as you go along.  It may be helpful to write out your own list of definitions, or to put them onto note cards for later study.  If you do not learn the meanings of the terms, what you read and what you hear in lecture will be useless. 
Example:  Density is a measure of the amount of mass per unit volume in a substance.  It is determined by how much matter is packed into a given volume.

2.  Learn the important concepts.  By the concepts, what I mean is the important ideas.  There will be broad, general ideas which you will need to understand in order to get the "big picture" of the subject and to solve problems.  Another common mistake made by students is to ignore the general concepts and focus solely on specific problems.  The difficulty this causes is that if you don't understand the general concepts, you won't be able to see how to approach solving a specific problem. 
Example:  The law of conservation of energy states that energy can be neither created nor destroyed, but only changes form.  The kinetic energy (energy of motion) of a body may be converted into heat energy when the body skids to a stop due to friction, for example.

3.  Learn the equations / formulas.   This is essentially the same as number one above.  Mathematics is the language of science.  Mathematical equations are just like sentences.  Equations can express ideas in a very compact, powerful way.  In most physical science courses you will need to learn equations and how to use them to solve problems.  The first step is to learn what the variables in the equations stand for and what their units are.  A very common mistake is to learn the equation but not know what the letters stand for, making the equation useless.  Once you know what the variables are, learn one form of the equation.  Learn the form of the equation that looks the easiest to you.  You only need to learn one form because then all you need to do is to use the rules of algebra to solve for whatever variable you need. 
Example:        d = density in g/mL         m = mass in g         V = volume in mL


The above equation states that density equals mass divided by volume.  (Compare this mathematical sentence with the English sentence for the definition of density given above.  See how they are the same?)  Knowing this, we can easily find the mass of an object if we know its density and volume by multiplying both sides of the equation by V:                                              m  =  d  V

4.  Study the example problems.  Going over the example problems done in class or in your textbook will illustrate how to go about working specific problems.  As you study them, think about each step and do not go on until you understand why each step was taken and how it was accomplished.  Pay attention to how the general concepts lead to an approach to solving the problem.

5.  Work problems yourself.  In my opinion, most students should do all of the above before attempting to work problems on their own.  Many students jump right to trying a problem, get frustrated, and conclude that they will never be able to do it.  Once you have done the above steps for a particular section of material, you are ready to attempt some problems for that section.  You should be prepared to get stuck at first.  The purpose at this stage is to work out the kinks, and to practice the manipulations and problem-solving techniques.  When you get stuck, go back to a similar example problem for guidance.  Review the text material for that section.  Try not to get discouraged.  As a last resort, look to the solutions manual or the back of the book, etc.  However, if you do look up the answer, BE SURE YOU UNDERSTAND why and how the problem was solved, and make sure that you could do a similar problem YOURSELF the next time.  Work as many problems as you can.  Go over the problems several times, until you can do them quickly and easily.  You should view this stage of your study just as you would practice for a sport.  Athletes practice skills until they can do them automatically, without having to stop and think.  You can achieve nearly the same kind of ability to solve scientific problems.  Practice, practice, practice!

6.  Think while you are working in the laboratory.  Of course this sounds obvious, but I have observed that many, if not most, students fail to actually think while in the lab.  Do not focus on just taking the data and following the directions, but think about what you are doing and why.  Remember that the things you are doing in the lab are designed to help you to see and understand what you are studying in the lecture course.  Think about what happens in the experiment and why it happened.  Does it agree with what was described in the lecture?  If you are having difficulty with a topic in the lecture, is there a laboratory experiment containing that topic that might help?  If you are having difficulty with an experiment, look to your textbook or your lecture notes for help.  In short, let the laboratory and lecture classes work together to help you to learn the subject, which is what they have been designed to do.

7.  Assess your progress.  How will you know when you are ready for the test?  When you can answer questions and work problems from the chapter (that you haven't tried before), without having to peek at the solutions or search the chapter for help, you are getting ready.  When preparing for a test, you can pick a few problems and questions and work them under a time limit, simulating the test conditions.  When you can do the problems in the allowed time, you know you are ready.  When you no longer have to struggle to remember the equations, you will know you are ready.  This will come with working a large number of problems.