Demystifying the path to mastering science learning

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Looking back after almost thirty years of using science to build new technologies and companies, I realize that learning science in college could have been much more efficient and enjoyable for me. I spent almost all my time focused on details of how to do the coursework (to balance an equation, to get the right answer, to figure out what was going to be on the test), when I should have been focused on the connecting threads and principles behind the subject matter I was being taught.  

If I could go back now and help my college-student self, here is the first tip I would share: prioritize identifying “the plot” underlying what you are learning first and it will make learning the characters and the dialogue and understanding what they are doing together easier.

Emphasis on the “er” – you still will need to work longer and harder to master sciences than you will need to for some of your other courses, but classes like organic chemistry don’t have to feel as impossible as their reputations say they are.

This lightbulb went off for me the first time I saw the plot analogy articulated by David Klein in Organic Chemistry as a Second Language. I was using this text when I went back to re-master fundamentals of organic chemistry some years after college in preparation for teaching the material I had struggled with mightily as an undergraduate. In less than 150 words, Klein captured the essence of the first three stages in learning to understand and use the organic chemical reactions. I'll now try to distill his insight down to less than 50 words: the first half of the plot introduces the important atoms and electrons and how they form bonds and molecules before learning to draw and name the important kinds of molecules; the rest of the plot uses that knowledge to explore and understand reactions that are most central to biological processes.

The plot summary for your current General Chemistry or Biochemistry textbooks/courses may not be as concise as well-written as Klein’s summary in Organic Chemistry as a Second Language, but the discipline of articulating the basic plot for your current science course (or subplot of the chapter or topic) with your professor, tutor, or text as the foundation for the rest of the learning process will almost always demystify the processes and purposes of learning science and make the process more intuitive. It will also greatly increase your chances of getting the results you want in the course and provide a necessary framework for long-term retention of the principles you are working so hard to master long after your quizzes and exams are over.

If all goes well, you will most likely be using the tools developed in these courses long after this semester. I can say from experience that understanding “the plots” of different domains of science and how they fit together to explain our world minimizes the times you need to go back and relearn the same material. This frees you up to move through science and engineering faster and farther in the same amount of time. If you can get help to begin doing this more effectively earlier than I did, you will be way ahead in ways that can pay rich dividends in the rest of your studies and career! 

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