Keep a study journal

The most frequently made comment by Chem 201 students is that they learn to study organic chemistry as the semester rolls along. Please read that again. They don’t say, ‘they learn o chem’ because that’s a given. What they say instead is, they ‘learn to study o chem.’ Nearly everyone who takes 201 spends some time struggling to discover and cultivate beneficial study habits.

The discovery and cultivation of beneficial study habits can be made into a scientific investigation. Like other scientific investigations, the steps are: 1) to gather data, 2) form a hypothesis, 3) gather more data to test the hypothesis, 4) (if necessary) revise the hypothesis, 5) and then repeat #1-5 as needed.

For example, you might obtain an excellent result on quiz #1 with no preparation whatsoever, hypothesize that preparation is not needed in order to be successful, and then head into quiz #2 on that basis. (Note: I strongly discourage this strategy, but I have seen many students pursue it through to its ultimate (and inevitably unhappy) conclusion.)

While your marks on quizzes provide a way to assess the success of your study strategies, how do you gather data on the study strategies themselves? Do you really know how much time you spend studying, what you spend your time on, and so on? If you’re not iron-clad certain, you will just be guessing when you form/revise your hypothesis.

One helpful way to learn about your study habits is to keep a Study Journal. Basically, this is a ‘laboratory notebook’ that records the results of your ‘experiments’ in studying organic chemistry.

Here’s a short list of items that you might enter into your ‘lab notebook’ for a typical ‘experiment’:

  • Date & day of the week
  • Start time & location
  • Goals for this study period, e.g., ‘read section 2.1’ or ‘do practice problems 2.5-8’ or ‘memorize names of hydrocarbon chains’
  • Habitat description, i.e., what is the local environment surrounding you at the time you begin studying? There’s no need to be exhaustive, just a few words about whatever strikes you as significant, i.e., the features that might enhance or derail your plans for this study session. It might be useful to think about two kinds of features:
    • Physical features. These include things that seem ‘external’ to you. Is your ‘habitat’ silent/noisy/listening to background music? Is it comfortable (warm/cold/drafty)? Is it isolated or is it there going to be lots of foot traffic (roommates, etc.)? Do you have the resources you need? Keep it short and sweet: “Commons table, my music, with textbook and laptop.”
    • Mental features. These include anything that you notice before you begin that might have an impact on your mental world. Relevant features might include comments about your emotional status (nervous/eager/bored), intellectual status (alert/sleepy/hungry/distracted), or any other features that affect your internal world (alone/with Caitlin & Josh/exam tomorrow).
  • Finish time & duration
  • Assessment.
    • Goals. Did you accomplish all of your goals?
    • Habitat. Do you need to update your list? Add things that got overlooked. Draw a line through things that proved unimportant.
    • Duration. The duration listed above represents ‘clock time’, the time that the clock ticked off during your session. How much time did you actually study? (Call this ‘study time’.) If ‘clock time’ and ‘study time’ disagree to any significant extent, what interrupted your studies?
    • Plans. What can you tell yourself about your next study session? Are there goals, habitat features, or changes in duration that you want to incorporate into your next session?

Overall it shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes to jot down a few notes about each session. Also, once you get a few sessions into your Journal, you can re-use certain entries: “Reading section 3.4. In my room (identical to 9/13).”

After a few weeks go by, start to read the old entries in your Study Journal. Gradually you should be able to learn:

  • where and when you study
  • how long you study for
  • what kinds of features (physical, mental) enhance or detract from your study sessions

And this should help you learn to study organic chemistryfaster and more effectively.

Good luck!

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