Home > Advising > Academic Success, Learning Assistance, & Student Resources > LEARNING SCIENCE AND EARNING EXCELLENT GRADES AT THE SAME TIME


Main Content

Authored by Dr. Jim Levin

Often students start science classes full of interest and excitement, but some students finish the class without gaining the understanding or grades expected. It does not have to be that way. Let's explore why some students who take science courses do not learn as much as they expect to, or receive the grades they are used to earning.  If you are a first-year student taking beginning science courses, it is well documented that first year college students often earn grades far below what they earned in high school. This is not because you lack the ability, after all you were admitted to college. It is the result of not having realistic expectations of what college classes will be like and how college differs significantly from high school. Not understanding these differences can have serious implications for the grades you earn.  Many students do not know how to study science effectively or efficiently. The following discussion about study skills can help all students in all subjects learn more and as result, earn higher grades.  We start with a discussion about coming to college having realistic academic expectations. Next specific study skills are discussed. These are divided into study skills that are applicable before class or preparing for class, during class, and after class.

Having Realistic Expectations About College

One of the most misunderstood differences between high school and college is the amount of time students need to study in college as compared to high school. This misunderstanding has a significant impact on grades earned in college. On average most students study about 5 hours a week in high school, relying primarily on their natural abilities to obtain excellent grades. In college, if all you do is study 5 hours a week, most likely your grades will not come close to what they were in high school.

Let's see why. In most high schools all classes and specifically science classes are taught about 1 hour per day (rounded off to the nearest hour). On average you attend 180 days of classes. Therefore, in high school, not even considering study time, you are in class or academically engaged for 180 hours. Now let's look at college. In college most science classes are taught for 4 hours a week, and most semesters are 15 weeks. Therefore, you are in class and academically engaged for 60 hours.

This means that if you are in class for 180 hours in high school and you are in class only 60 hours in college, there is a difference of 120 hours. The major implication is, who is responsible for the 120 hour difference! The answer is you, the student. This means that for every hour you are in class in college you need to study, at the minimum, 2 hours outside of class. Thus, 60 hours in class plus 120 hours of study equals the 180 hours you were academically engaged in high school.

Expanding this 2:1 ratio to all college classes means that if you schedule 15 credit hours you need to study, at the minimum, 30 hours per week. This means that you need to dedicate at least 45 hours a week to academics. In other words, going to college is a full time job.

When should I study?

Another difference between high school and college is when students typically study. In high school you are in class most of the day. After school most students are involved in some extra curricular activity, have a part time job, or they come home and hang out. This basically leaves the night for studying. Since most students only study a few hours per week, no big deal. Evenings leaves plenty of time.

However in college if you need to study a minimum of 30 hours per week, evenings no longer provides you with enough time, especially if you also want a social life and/or want to get involved in other out of classroom activities.

So how can you find thirty hours to study? The answer is to spend as much time studying during the day as you can. After all, you are in college classes only about half the time you were in high school classes. There is plenty of time between classes. The best way to make sure that you do study during the day is to plan for it. Just like you put your classes into a daily/weekly schedule, plan when you are going to study and place this time into your weekly schedule.

If you plan your study times during the day, this gives you more time during evening and weekends to do additional studying if needed, or to get more involved in out-of-classroom academic and social activities.

How should I prepare for assignments and exams?

In high school many students complete assignments and study for exams at the very last minute. This is typically referred to as cramming. Cramming is probably the least effective way to study. Let's use an analogy to understand why.

Suppose you wanted to do well in a marathon race that was going to be run in a month. You did some research and you learned that to best prepare for the marathon you needed to run 60 miles in the month leading up to the race. You had two training options. The first was to run 2 miles a day for the next 30 days preceding the race. The second was to run 30 miles two days before the race and 30 miles the day before the race. In both cases, you would have run 60 miles. Which training option would better prepare you for the marathon? Most of you would agree that the first training option would be better preparation. In the second option, you would probably be so sore and exhausted, having just run 60 miles in the previous two days that you most likely would do very poorly in the marathon, that is if you were even able to finish it. Another very important question is, which training option would take you the least amount of time to complete. Again, the first training option, running 2 miles a day, most likely would take you less total training time. Therefore, the first training option, would take less time and result in a better performance in the marathon.

This is quite similar to academic studying. The first training option is analogous to studying for exams and working on assignments every day. This will lead to better academic performance with less overall time. The second training option is analogous to cramming, which leads to poorer performance and the investment of more time.

There are modifications that can be made to the first option that can be very effective. For instance some students may study 2 hours per day and increase their study time to say 3 hours per day a few days before an exam. Also, if you have been studying every day, itsometimes a great idea to take a day off and relax a little. The important thing about studying is to find a system where you spread your studying over a period of time rather than cram it all into a few critical days.

Is there a difference between how college professors teach and how my teachers in high school taught?

The short answer is yes. In high school your teachers' instruction was designed to cover most of the material in class. Homework was often drill and practice of what was covered in class.

In college professor's instruction is designed to cover large amounts of content and to expand upon what was covered in the text. Homework is often designed to have students apply, analyze and synthesize what was covered in class and in the textbook. Thus, the learning of the basic content is pretty much your responsibility.

These differences have significant implications in regard to how you prepare for class.

What else can I do?

It is very important that you attend all classes. Unlike high school where the pace of instruction is much slower and there are ample opportunities to make up the missed work, in college the pace is much faster and the responsibility to make up missed work, if the opportunity is even provided, is totally up to you.

Many college classes are large. In some larger schools it is not uncommon that you will have classes with several hundred students in a large lecture hall. In such classes, it is important to get to class early and sit up front. This provides you with a number of benefits. First, it will be easier to hear the professor and read the material on the board and overhead. Second, the professor will get to know you by name and who you are and it provides you with the opportunity to ask the professor questions before or after class.

We already discussed the need to study at least 2 hours for every hour in class. However, it is also necessary to study in chunks of time and take frequent breaks. A good guideline is to take a 5 to 10 minute break after every hour of studying, and longer breaks after 2 to 3 hours of study. The break should be designed to refresh and relax you, such as stretching, getting some fresh air, and during longer breaks, going for a jog or a walk.

Many students plan enough time to study, but because of where they study they are constantly disrupted. Plan to study in a quiet place away from distractions. In this way your planned 2 hour study time will be spent on studying and not an hour and a half studying and a half hour talking to your friends or answering the phone.

Whenever possible, form a study group. Research has shown that studying in a group, if done properly, can result in enhanced learning and better grades. Your study group should include serious students, not necessarily friends. The groups should not be used as a substitute for doing your own work and assignments. The group should be used to help answer members' questions, preparing for exams by asking each other questions, and explaining to other members material they may not understand. After all, one of the best ways to learn new concepts is to teach them to others.


  • study at least 2 hours for every hour in class
  • plan study time into your daily/weekly schedule
  • study as much as possible during the day
  • study every day, do not cram for exams or wait till the last minute to complete assignments
  • attend all classes
  • sit in the front of the class
  • study in moderation, taking breaks every hour
  • study in a place that is free of distractions
  • form study groups

Study Skills

Before we begin a discussion about study skills, consider the following hypothetical story. Suppose you attended a college where you were required to take every course three times. However, upon starting the first class you needed to tell the professor when you wanted to receive your grade. Would you want to receive your grade after the first time you took the course, the second time or the third time? When this hypothetical is posed to students, almost all students say they would want their grade based upon how they did in the course after the third time. When asked why, they all respond that they would have learned the most material and understood it better after taking the course for the third time. Well luckily for all of us, unless you do poorly the first time you take a course, you need only take a course once. However, this hypothetical leads us to wonder, how can we take a course once but design it to simulate taking it three times? The answer lies in how we study. If we design studying into three intervals, what we do before class to prepare, what we do in class, and what we do after class, we can simulate taking the class three times while in reality we are only taking it once.

What can I do before class to prepare and increase my learning?

Many students tell us that the most important thing they do to enhance their understanding of the content of a course is to prepare for class. This is especially true for science courses where there are usually many new concepts and terms to be learned. When we refer to preparing for class we mean much more than just reading the chapter in the text and highlighting the important information. Many students do this, but often their thinking is along the lines of, ll highlight the important stuff and then I'll know what to study before the test.his is not a good use of time or an effective way to learn.

When we talk about preparing for class, we mean teaching yourself the material before you actually go to class. To do this takes time (remember in college you will usually need to study at least 2 hours for every hour in class), but the results in how much you learn and the grades you will earn make the use of this time very worthwhile.

Since most science courses have a textbook, you need to consider how to use a textbook to its utmost advantage and how you can maximize what you learn from reading the textbook.

Reading Skills

Many students read a textbook as if it were a novel. When reading a novel, you read rapidly and for the ultimate goal of enjoyment. When reading a textbook the goal is different. It is to learn specific facts, concepts and principles. As you understand how the isolated facts are combined to form concepts and how the concepts are integrated into principles you develop new insight. Where reading an entire chapter at one sitting might be a good idea for a novel, it is not a good idea when reading a textbook. It is far more effective to read a textbook in sections that represent chunks of similar material.

Reading for a purpose is important. That is, determine what it is you are supposed to learn before starting to read. You can do this by reading the chapter goals, looking at the headings and subheadings, and reading the summaries as well as chapter questions. In other words, get a good sense of what you will be learning.

Most importantly, become actively engaged in your reading and learning. It is a well accepted principle of learning, that the more actively engaged you are with the material, the more of the material you will learn and retain. Reading, deciding what is important, constructing an outline and writing represents much more engagement than highlighting whole sections of text to be returned to later.

A very successful strategy for taking notes from reading is to divide your notebook into two sections, as shown below. One section is for your outline from your readings and the other section is for your lecture notes from class. How this type of note taking is used in class will be discussed as part of the in class study skills strategies.


As you outline your readings use the headings and subheadings of the text to guide your outline. Also make decisions as to what is important and what should be included in your outline.


Study for Understanding, Do Not Memorize

When studying science it is important to study for understanding rather than memorizing. This means that you should always be able to answer the question, "why?or example, in reading that surface winds flow counterclockwise around a low pressure area, if all you retain is the direction of the wind, you have memorized the material. However, if you can explain why the wind flows counterclockwise, then you are beginning to understand the material. If you can draw a picture representing the concept, you will enhance your learning even more. The table below illustrates the difference between memorizing and studying for understanding.




Surface level winds blow into and counterclockwise around a low pressure area.
















When a parcel of air rises in the atmosphere it cools.

Because of the pressure gradient force surface air flows into (convergent flow) a low pressure area. Because of friction and the Coriolis force the air spirals into the low in a counterclockwise direction. The reason the pressure area stays low, even though air is entering it at the ground, is because air is leaving the low pressure area at higher altitudes as fast or faster than air is entering the low pressure area at the ground.



A rising parcel of air approximates an adiabatic process, that is the rising parcel of air does not exchange heat energy with the surrounding air. As the parcel rises the surrounding air pressure steadily becomes less than the parcelinitial pressure. Thus, there is a net outward pressure force within the air parcel and the parcel expands. When the parcel expands, its density decreases because the same mass occupies a greater volume. Since the parcel is not exchanging any heat energy with the surrounding air, the thermal energy for expansion comes from the thermal energy of the parcel air molecules. /span>As a result, the temperature decreases as the parcel rises and expands.



When you study for understanding, you increase the likelihood that you will retain the material longer than if you just memorize. Furthermore, you will be better able to apply and analyze meteorological concepts and skills that your professor will likely expect you to demonstrate. When you don't understand something you read, or you cannot explain why, highlight it in your outline or write a question in the margins of your notebook. These questions need to be answered during the next class and are critical for in-class study skill strategies.

Studying graphs, tables and figures


In all science texts, there are many graphs, tables, figures and flow charts. These graphics help to illustrate many of the concepts and principles, show relationships among the concepts and principles, and plot data to illustrate trends and relationships. They are very important for an in-depth understanding of the content. When coming to a graphic in the text, study it. Look at the title of the graphic. If it is a graph read the axes' labels. Label all the important parts of the graphic. Try to put in your outline what the graphic is illustrating in your own words.


When you can, try to draw your own graphic illustrating the relationships among the concepts you are studying. If you can find relationships among the concepts you are reading and you can find ways to represent these relationships, the more you will learn.

Studying equations

When you read a mathematical relationship written as an equation, it is an excellent study skill to write the equation meaning in your own words. For example, relative humidity is expressed as an equation in the text as:

RH = r/r s /span>x 100%

Writing this equation in your own words might look like this.

Relative Humidity (a measure of the quantity of the water vapor in the air) is equal to the actual mixing ratio of the air (the number of grams of water vapor present per kg of dry air) divided by the saturation mixing ratio (the number of grams of water present per kg of saturated air).

If you know the two mixing ratios you can calculate the relative humidly by division RH = r/ r s . If you know the relative humidity and the actual mixing ratio, you can calculate the saturation mixing ratio by division r s = r/RH. If you know the relative humidity and the saturation mixing ratio you can calculate the actual mixing ratio by multiplication r = RH x r s.

Preparing for class is analogous to taking the course for the first time.


  • prepare for class by teaching yourself the material
  • read "chunks" of similar material (one checkpoint to the next checkpoint)
  • determine what it is you are supposed to learn before starting to read, by previewing the section and the checkpoint summary and questions
  • become actively engaged in your learning by outlining your readings
  • study for understanding, do not memorize
  • highlight in your outline any material you do not understand, write questions in the margins of your notebook
  • study the graphics in the text, write in words what the graphic illustrates
  • draw your own graphics to illustrate connections among concepts
  • write mathematical equations in your own words

What can I do during class to increase my learning?

A prerequisite to any effective in-class study skill is to be at every class. As discussed earlier, try to sit up front. In addition, arrive early. This provides you with a number of advantages. Before class begins is a perfect time to review your previous reading and class notes, and read over the outline of the material that is going to be discussed in the day's class. If you have any questions from previous classes, or from your readings, and you should if you have been studying for understanding, arriving early gives you the opportunity to privately ask the professor your questions. Not only will you get a more individualized answer, you will be demonstrating your interest, your professor will get to know you, and you will get to know your professor.

Once the class begins, follow the lecture and demonstrations by using your outline notes that you took from the readings. If the professor expands upon what you outlined, explains the material differently, or clarifies what you have read, record these notes in the appropriate space in your notebook. This is easily accomplished if you divided your notebook into two parts, as suggested previously. By using this method, you are no longer in a race to copy everything your professor says. Instead, you can pay attention to the professor and record only what your professor says that helps clarify or expand upon what you have already outlined.

Additionally, it goes without saying that you should actively participate in class by both asking and answering questions, of which you will know the answers to many, since you have prepared for class.

Attending class and actively participating is analogous to taking the class the second time.


  • attend all classes
  • sit up front
  • arrive early
  • review your previous class notes and reading outlines
  • get all questions answered from previous classes and from your readings
  • follow the lecture using your reading outline as a guide, recording only the material that expands or clarifies your outline
  • actively participate in class

What can I do after class to increase my learning?

As soon as you can after class you should review the day's reading outline and class notes. Some students find it very useful to rewrite their class notes. Always try to relate the new material of the day's class to previous material.

If there is any homework, don't procrastinate. Do it as soon as possible while the material is still fresh in your mind. If you have problems completing your assignment, consult the textbook and your notes. If you are a member of a study group, try completing the homework on your own before consulting with other group members.

Finally, begin preparing for the next class.

Studying after class is analogous to taking the class for the third time.


  • study the day's material as soon as possible after class
  • try to relate the new material to previously learned material
  • do homework as soon as possible
  • begin preparing for the next class


The study skills system that has just been described may be quite different from how you studied in high school. However, making a resolution to study more effectively and efficiently when beginning college, or at the start of a new semester, is like a New Year resolution. We all make them and then many of us let them slip. It easy to promise yourself that you will be a diligent studier and use effective study skills, but it's another thing to stick with it throughout the semester. Sticking with it requires personal discipline, week after week. The most successful college students, those that learn the most and earn the highest grades, often are not the ones with the greatest abilities; they are the ones who are the most disciplined. They make study schedules and adhere to them. They use effective study skills and continually refine them. They attend and prepare for every class. They take their education and thus their studying seriously, as if their learning, grades and future depends on it, because it does. 

Document Actions

Share this page: |
There was an error while rendering the portlet.