Home / College Life / Study Tips / Study Tips for STEM Classes: Active Reading

Study Tips for STEM Classes: Active Reading

STEM classes are tough, that’s for sure. But the right set of study skills can help you master the course material. Here’s how to do it.

What is it about science, technology, engineering, and math courses that make them such a challenge? Four words: They’re really freakin’ hard!

For one thing, STEM textbooks are filled with lots of words you’ve never heard of. Monomers? Nope, no clue. And complex scientific concepts: “The mass of a mole is the gram formula mass of a substance.” Huh? Not to mention the indecipherable equations, figures, and graphs that are peppered throughout your textbooks.

The study techniques you use for your other classes probably won’t cut it for your STEM courses. For example, you may have been taught to skim textbook chapters for the main headings and ideas before you begin reading. However, this approach doesn’t always work with STEM texts, first because the headings are often densely worded with unfamiliar terms, and second, they don’t always summarize what’s in the chapter. (In fact, the headings might not make sense until after you’ve finished the entire section.)

Study resources for the courses you’re actually taking—whenever you need them.

Start here

So if you’re enrolled in a STEM course, how do you even begin to study this stuff without becoming completely overwhelmed?

Research shows that a technique called “active learning”—where you’re actively doing something that makes you think about what you’re learning—can make all the difference when studying for a STEM class. Participating in the learning process is a proven tool that will help you get a better grasp of challenging information.

For instance, instead of flopping on your bed to review a few chapters (with some music going?), you might explain what you just read to a study buddy (or that captive audience of Mom or Dad if your friends have their own work to worry about). Or you might take notes while you’re reading, or, when you’ve finished a chapter, summarize it in your own words. Active reading is experiential, mindful, and engaging, which has been shown to encourage deeper learning.

STEM classes are tough, that’s for sure, but developing some new study skills will help you tough it out. Changing up your approach can take some getting used to, but the payoff is worth it. Here are some active reading tips to try out this semester, culled from a guidebook funded as part of a National Science Foundation project from the Research in Disability Education program. The guidebook was created to offer STEM-specific success strategies, and the authors encourage teachers to share this information with students, to increase their chances for success.

Tip #1: Know why you’re reading the information.

To set yourself up to really understand, not just memorize, what you’re reading, ask yourself, “Why am I learning this?” You should be able to explain to someone why you care about this material (or why they should!). Your professor isn’t going to test you on something just because. There must be a reason … otherwise it would be a waste of everyone’s time.

If you’re learning about molecular weights in your chemistry class, for example, you might wonder, what’s the point? This just seems like a mathematical drill….

Well, maybe it’s so that you can weigh out chemicals to make solutions for a job in a research lab. Or figure out and compare one molecule’s properties to another.

Understanding the reason why you need to know something is a powerful motivator and learning tool. “Finding your why” helps you find your focus.

Tip #2: Summarize each section of text you read in your own words.

For other classes, you’re probably used to scribbling a few notes while you read—maybe in margins of your book, or using sticky notes or a highlighter. For STEM courses that won’t fly, first because there’s a ton of new information to digest in each chapter, and also because it’s not always organized in a way you’re used to. You’ll just end up frustrated that the information isn’t sinking in.

A better approach is to read one section or chapter at a time, and then write down a summary of what you just read in your own words. Pretend you’re responsible for teaching the material to someone else. Can you do it?

This will ensure you understand the information before moving on to the next chapter—critical for STEM courses since the material builds from one chapter to the next.

Think of it like walking up a staircase: Each step gets you closer to the top; missing steps can leave you stuck and prevent you from getting there. (Or else you fall into the gap and disappear down a scary, dark hole).

Bonus points: The exercise of summarizing what you’ve read means you’ll have study and review notes for exams or other assignments down the road.

Tip #3: Use examples from your own life to help you digest complex ideas.

If the information you’re reading feels way over your head, try thinking about it in terms of something that has meaning for you. For instance, if you’ve ever taken a ferry across a stretch of water, you might be able to understand the “vesicles” of a biological cell if you think of them as boats carrying passengers from a loading dock to a destination, then returning to pick up more passengers.

Putting your own spin on a concept can help you make connections between new, unfamiliar information and what you already know.

Your own drawings can also help you see information in a new way and improve your understanding. If a textbook says that first one thing happens and then this other thing happens and then this third thing happens, you could redraw it in your notes:study tips 3 stepsYour drawings don’t need to be frame-worthy! For instance, even stick figures can visually illustrate confusing physiology terms in a way that makes sense to you.

Tip #4: Make a list of the scientific and technical terms you don’t know.

STEM courses are full of weird words you’ve never heard before. When you come across them (are they even English?!), write them down, even if they’re unrelated to the subject matter. Don’t worry if you end up with a long list!

At the end of the chapter, look up the words—google, ask your classmate, email your professor or TA—and write down what they mean. Then, go back and reread the chapter. Do you understand it better?

Great! Now go ahead and summarize what you’ve just read … in your own words, of course.

Another way to get used to unfamiliar terms is by using them in conversation. Let’s say you’re taking class in anatomy and physiology and you’ve just finished studying the quadratus lumborum (the muscle located on the lower part of your back on either side of your spine). You could mention—humblebrag!—to your buddies that you did lots of side stretches at the gym to loosen up your QL.

Tip #5: Write down all your questions.

As you’re making your way through the sections of a chapter, it’s a good idea (like, a really good idea) to write down questions about anything you don’t fully understand. Save your list of questions to ask either in class or to email to your professor. Because the information in your STEM classes builds on what you’ve previously learned, it’s important to master each section or chapter before moving on to the next.

With good study skills, most students can be successful in their STEM courses. If you’ve struggled in the past, maybe you’ll want to give some of these new techniques a try.

What Is Course Hero?

Course Hero is an online learning platform where you can access course-specific study resources contributed by a community of students and educators.

What Is College Life?

In College Life you'll find fresh tips, videos, and expert advice to help you graduate confident and prepared.