Studying for STEM

College science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) classes move at a rapid pace, and the material piles up fast if you don’t have a good system for keeping up. You may find the content to be more difficult, requiring deeper levels of understanding than you’ve experienced in other classes. Also, most STEM classes are cumulative, problems can be more complex, requiring new knowledge that builds upon previous knowledge in order to get you to the right answer. You don’t want to wait until the test to realize you don’t have the necessary connections to the multiple concepts required to help you reach an answer. This guide provides a framework to help you approach your STEM courses more effectively.

Higher Order Thinking

College STEM classes want you to use application and analysis to solve problems. Where you may have previously relied on remembering and understanding basic facts to get through a class, you’ll need higher order learning skills such as application, analysis, evaluation, and creation to succeed in college STEM courses. Bloom’s taxonomy represents this hierarchy of learning levels. With these higher order thinking skills in mind, you can tailor your study time in order to develop and hone your critical thinking skills.

Level 6 Creating Use information to create something new
Level 5 Evaluating Examine information and make judgements
Level 4 Analyzing Take apart the known and identify relationships
Level 3 Applying Use information in a new (but similar) fashion
Level 2 Understanding Grasp meaning of instructional materials
Level 1 Remembering Recall specific facts

To take an example from chemistry, higher order thinking is the difference in remembering that HCl is a strong acid versus analyzing the present species to calculate the pH at equivalence point in a titration.

There isn’t a “one size fits all” fix to move from understanding to analyzing and eventually evaluating and creating (skills you’ll need for professional and graduate schools). This handout provides several study strategies you can incorporate in to your routine to help you achieve those higher level learning skills. Read on to learn more about them and see what works for you.


Metacognition is basically thinking about your thinking. Mentally checking in with yourself while you study is a great way to assess your level of understanding. Asking lots of why, how, and what questions helps you to be reflective about your learning and to strategize about how to tackle tricky material. If you know something, you should be able to explain to yourself how you know it. If you don’t know something, you should start by identifying exactly what you don’t know and determining how you can find the answer.

Metacognition is important in helping us overcome illusions of competence (our brain’s natural inclination to think that we know more than we actually know). All too often students don’t discover what they really know until they take a test. Metacognition helps you be a better judge of how well you understand your course material, helping you refine your studying and better prepare for tests.

The questions below offer examples of metacognition:

  • How did I get to this answer? How do I know it’s correct?
  • Does this answer make sense given the information provided? Why or why not?
  • What did I hear/read that conflicts with my prior understanding?
  • How did what I just hear/read relate to what I’ve studied previously?
  • Why is the professor focusing on this subtopic so much?
  • What questions are popping up during class and when I study? Where am I making a note of these questions? (Taking note of these questions can help you make the most of office hours and discussion sessions.)
  • When I do something like this again, what would I do differently? What worked well and should be used again?

The Study Cycle

You’re probably familiar with the five steps of the Study Cycle, and they may even seem obvious, but students often skip steps without realizing how valuable each is to a successful study plan. The Study Cycle is a way to help you move through the process of learning, starting with preparing for class and ending with checking your knowledge. Many of your STEM classes are taught in a flipped classroom style, where the majority of your learning happens outside of lecture. The structure of these classes already incorporates several of the Study Cycle steps outlined below. For example, you might have guided reading questions or online homework due before lecture to help you prepare for class, recitation and office hours to help you review what you learned, and low-stakes practice assignments due several times a week to help you assess your learning.

The Study Cycle is effective because it strategically organizes your studying into manageable pieces of enhanced and focused learning. It allows you to revisit class content many times; typically you can complete the Study Cycle in less than 24 hours; ideally, you’ll want to use the cycle nearly every day. This is called “distributed practice” and is another effective learning technique. Distributed practice is practicing for a small amount of time over several days rather than a large amount of time on one day (cramming). This spaced out practice helps our brains better encode the information in long term memory so we are more efficient when we try to retrieve the information later.

Aim to finish one whole cycle before beginning another.

1. Prepare for class. Read through the chapter and review the book’s (or ideally your professor’s) learning objectives. These learning objectives may be given at the beginning of class or closer to exam time. Learning objectives are a professor’s way of communicating what content pieces they feel are most important. You can use them as a checklist to be sure you are keeping up with and focusing on the appropriate material. Look at the objectives often and identify questions you still have that you’d like to answer from the lecture. Do as much of the assigned reading as you can, especially if you’re in a flipped classroom. This step is necessary in helping you get the most out of pre-class assignments (i.e. “Mastering” assignments, guided reading questions in many NIU STEM courses) and ensuring you can follow along in class and answer questions.

2. Attend class. Take useful notes and get answers to the questions you identified in the previous step. Take note of the process used to solve problems and flag concepts that are still unclear. Use metacognition here to further evaluate why a concept or problem doesn’t make sense.

3. Review what you learned. Read over notes, fill in any gaps, and take note of new questions. This is best done as soon after attending class as possible. Continue resolving and generating questions as you build your knowledge and move up Bloom’s taxonomy.

5. Study. Supplement class notes with readings, discuss content with a classmate, generate figures/diagrams from notes, and work problems. Dedicating several study sessions a week for practice problems is an invaluable part of your weekly study plan. Your exams will test your content knowledge with problems that you may have never seen before. Exposing yourself to as many different problems as you can, especially while self-testing, will help develop the critical thinking skills needed on exams. Check out the studying for math handout for more ideas. Whatever strategy you choose to use, remember to make it active and engaging. See the next section (“Intensify your studying”) for more information.

6. Assess your learning. Practice using recall (or using only your brain to answer questions) and metacognition to give you an idea of where you are with your understanding. This can be done with low-stakes online homework assignments: they give instant feedback, so they are great preparation for a testing environment! Be careful not to look at the answer before attempting problems—doing so can rob you of a valuable learning opportunity and you can fall prey to illusions of comprehension. Take every opportunity to test your learning (e.g., explain the material out loud to yourself or to a friend—this testing provides a good indicator of what you know and don’t know well).

Intensify Your Studying

When studying, you definitely want to get more bang for your buck. After all, you’re moving through new content quickly in multiple classes. Intense, focused study sessions can help keep you on track for what you want to accomplish while breaking the work in to manageable pieces. Since these study sessions take less than an hour, you can squeeze them in in-between classes to maximize your time. These short but productive study sessions can help you divide up the different tasks you need to complete, i.e., one session for reading and one session for problem solving. In particular, timing these sessions will give you an idea of how quickly you are moving through practice problems, an early indicator of how well you’re processing the information. It is common for students to unknowingly sink multiple and sometimes extra hours in to studying for their STEM classes because they become distracted or frustrated with the material. Breaking up your study time, especially with other subjects, is a good way to keep you interested and give your brain time to work on difficult problems in the background. Chances are when you return to that frustrating problem, it won’t be so hard after all!

An intense study session often follows this model:

  1. Set a goal. Be specific and realistic about what you want to accomplish. (<2 minutes)
  2. Study with focus (30–50 minutes)

    • Work homework problems without a key
    • Make a concept map
    • Paraphrase the lecture notes or textbook passages
    • Talk through figures and diagrams

  3. Take a break (10 minutes)
  4. Review what you just studied (5–10 minutes)
  5. Use self-testing to gauge what you learned and what you still need to work on.

Works Consulted

Cook, E.; Kennedy, E.; McGuire, S. Y. J. Chem. Educ. 2013, 90, 961—967.

Tanner, K. D. CBE Life Sci. Educ. 2012, 11, 113—120.

Christ, F. L., 1997. Seven Steps to Better Management of Your Study Time. Clearwater, FL: H & H Publishing.

Developed and shared by The Learning Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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