Science: Studying Systems, Drawing Connections

Now that you’re coming up on the close of the year in your science class, I’d encourage you to try to think about the big picture. Science is very much about the study of systems and how their different components interact — so why not try thinking about your science class in the same way? What does the unit you’re studying now have to do with what you were studying a few weeks or months ago? Making those connections will not only give you a deeper understanding of the material, it’ll likely also help you on any final exams or APs that might be coming your way, whether this year or next.

What you want to avoid is cramming the unit you’re learning, getting your A, and then forgetting everything for the next test. Asking yourself how the new material relates to what you’ve already learned is one of the best ways to prevent that from happening. I hope your teacher is structuring your class in a natural way to do just that, but even if not, I’ve got a great technique for you to try.

One of my favorite ways to emphasize those connections is to play what I call the Flashcard Game. Do you make or use flashcards to review for a test? That’s great, but simply memorizing what’s on the front and back of the card is just the first step towards success. That helps you learn the material in one context, but it doesn’t help you relate it to the entirety of the class.

To take your review to the next level, try this. Once you’ve made your flashcards and have those basic associations built, what I want you to do is to pick two cards at random. Then your job is to tell me how those words, concepts, or ideas are related in some way. It might take only a few words or it might take a few sentences to get there. What does that do for you? It helps you reinforce the concepts in multiple contexts, and that leads to better “encoding” — that is, you remember it better. And don’t worry if it feels like a struggle. Contrary to popular belief, studying that feels “good,” like you know everything, tends to be less effective. Studying that is hard work leads to deeper understanding.

Have fun picking those flashcards and building those connections! And it’s ok if you can’t connect all the dots every time. A really random draw will do that to you, but there are worse things to do with your time than wonder “how ionization energy relates to the equilibrium constant” or “what role do mitochondria play in the function of the liver.” Science, after all, is about asking good questions even if you can’t yet see the answers.