Woe Is Me, for I Have STEM Courses
I’ve tutored a lot of high school and college students in STEM courses, from AP Bio to college physics to chemistry and back around. I usually act as a second teacher, re-explaining the concepts over and over until they understand them. But before I rehash cross-multiplication or the periodic table, I always give the same speech:
“STEM courses are hard because the concepts are abstract and difficult to grasp. All the math and spatial reasoning in physics is genuinely challenging. That said, the path to good grades is straightforward: if you understand all of the concepts and can do all of the problems, then you’ll ace every test.”
I tell my clients this because it directs their attention to the most important part of STEM courses—conceptual learning and solving problems. They don’t have to memorize every detail, reread their notes for hours, or record every word of each lecture. They just have to understand the concepts and solve the problems. That’s it.
The question then becomes: how should you learn the concepts and do the problems? There’s no one right answer, but I’ve found two things—one technique and one mindset—that have helped me ace all of my STEM courses in college. If you’re struggling in STEM and need a simple and effective strategy for better grades, then keep reading.
Conceptual Learning: The Feynman Technique
There are many different ways to learn conceptual material. I use flashcards and wrote an introductory guide here on my method. But if making hundreds of flashcards seems a bit intimidating, then you should try out another favorite of mine, the Feynman Technique.
This technique, developed by Scott H Young, is based on how the legendary physicist Richard Feynman learned theoretical physics. It’s an incredibly effective and time-efficient way to understand a concept, and I’ve used it for many years. Here’s the method:
- Write the name of the concept that you’re trying to learn at the top of a sheet of paper. Be wary of selecting the right “size” concept. You don’t want to pick a concept of “too small” a size, like “counting,” but you also want to avoid something as large as “geometry.” The concept shouldn’t take you more than 15 minutes to explain clearly.
- Using the paper and speaking out loud, pretend that you’re a teacher explaining that concept to a new student learning it for the first time. Brand-new students don’t know anything, so you have to make your explanation as simple and clear as possible. You are forbidden from using any technical terms—if you do, then give a super simple explanation of that term. Also, DO NOT look at your notes. This should all be from your head. You should also use the paper to illustrate what you’re saying. Make your explanation really good.
- If you can’t explain something or feel unsure, go back and learn about it until you can explain it. This is the most important step and the one that most people usually skip. It’s not enough to just explain the idea. You have to go back and learn what you don’t know to capture any real value from this exercise. Once you’ve grasped the idea, return to your imaginary student and explain what you learned with your own, simple words.
The Feynman Technique works because you can’t explain something in a simple way if you don’t really understand it. And when you can’t explain something then go and learn it, your brain is primed to understand the content. It’s also very quick—most of my explanations were under seven minutes. The only downside is that it’s very intense, draining, and even painful. On your first couple of attempts, you’ll probably explain the idea in your head, mumble your explanation, refuse to draw, or cut your explanation short. Avoid these shortcuts. Your understanding is only as good as your explanation, so put some effort in and make your little imaginary lesson good. If you’re interested in a more thorough explanation, the Scott H. Young article here is a great starting place.
Doing Problems: Mindset Over Material
There are many little tips and tricks for solving problems: don’t look at your notes as you do them, check your answers before looking at the solutions, always correct your answers against the solutions, etc. Little details like these are important for doing well, but they’re all a part of a bigger mindset that you should adopt.
When you’re doing problems, you are going to make mistakes. That’s fine. Everyone makes a few errors while working on problem sets. Your mindset should not be to never make mistakes, it should be to never make the same mistake twice. If you don’t understand how to solve a problem, self-study and learn the material. If you keep forgetting to look over your work before you check the right answer, draw a check box next to your problem and cross it off once you double-check your work. Errors are opportunities to improve—don’t let them go to waste and don’t let them persist.
For example, I made a lot of mistakes when I took organic chemistry. I usually got frustrated with myself—that’s natural—but then I would look at the answer key and try to figure out why my answer was wrong, what I was missing, and how I would get the correct answer the next time around. Often, the problem addressed a topic that we didn’t cover in class, so I went online and taught myself the concept. Other times I would understand the concept but misread the problem. I fixed these mistakes by slowing down, rereading the question, underlining keywords, and checking my answers.
The little tips and tricks I learned really helped me throughout the course. But nothing was as important as the mindset of never making the same mistake twice. That goal was what drove me to learn and improve, and it mattered far more than any individual tactic.
Now It’s Your Turn
Your STEM courses are still going to be hard—no one ever said they wouldn’t be—but they don’t have to be that complicated. All you have to do is understand the concepts and ace all of the problems. Use the Feynman Technique to understand concepts, and adopt a mindset of never repeating errors to master your problem sets. If you do those two things and do them well, you will be light years ahead of your peers.