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March 8th, 2012, 06:57 AM   #1
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Studying tips?

Hello all, I am actually a Physics major in college, but I have to take upper-level mathematics for my major anyway, so I thought it couldn't hurt to post here for some advice as well.

I am having trouble getting good grades in classes in general, not just Math/Physics. I've taken Calculus Physics I and II, and have gotten Cs in both. I have some Liberal Arts requirements I need to take in order to graduate, and I also get Cs in those.

I am currently at a Community College, so I commute to school in the morning around 6, and just stay there all day (because sometimes I have night classes) and go home at 9 at night. Throughout the day, if I am not in class, I will be sitting in the library studying, so technically I literally study all day, every business day. On the weekends I will do similar but since I don't have classes I just stay home and study.

Since this study time including classes accumulates to very close to 75+ hours a week, I figure I am doing something wrong if I am barely passing the classes (minimum grade for most of my classes is a C).

For example in a Math/Physics class, I can read the material and perform most of the questions presented to me based on that material, but on an exam if a question of similar nature is posed with slight variation, I often get lost and tend to overthink the problem and end up spending more than I wanted on a single question. Basically I go through the motions of "brute forcing" techniques on a problem to see if I can get an answer, which makes me believe for some reason I am not understanding the underlying concepts and only the basics.

For the Liberal Arts classes, they're mostly kicking my a** because I go off-topic a lot and don't complete the assigment given and I am terrible at structuring my thoughts so I don't know how to transition paragraphs or a set of information because I have difficulty discerning what information is relevant to other information...for example if I am discussing in a paragraph about, say, the topic of dangers of ice on the street, I am not sure if I sure reference the factor of speed into that same paragraph, or if it's not relevant at all. I don't know what the professor wants to read, and it doesn't help that she blows everyone off that seeks help. I sought the assistance of a classmate who is doing well in the class, but I still got a C on the essay.

Anyway, my study habits consist of just reading the texts of a particular class over and over again until I can understand the wording (sometimes they use complicated sentence structures so it can take a while to decipher a sentence into plain old understandable layman English), and then re-read everything until I believe I understand what I am reading. For subjects like Calculus/Physics I will do just the same except also solve all the practice problems I can find in assignments and textbooks, and if I have time to spare will review those same problems again because I don't have great memory so I usually forget the solutions to the problems which sort of works out because I get to solve them again.

I feel for most of the Liberal Arts classes, I am not understanding what the professor wants even though I try to make out what they do want from the class Syllabus but either I am naturally born to be terrible at academics, or I have some sociopathic lack of empathy which prevents me from understanding what people want.

If there is a flaw in my study technique, please advise so I can fix it immediately. It's a bit too late (the program I'm in requires a minimum of 3.3 GPA and minimum of 3.0 GPA for math/science classes with no re-takes) since I will be transferred out of the program into a regular college degree program, but I still want to get into grad school so I'd like to keep up my grades, ideally up to the 3.8-3.9 range so I have a good shot at a school with lots of funding for research in engineering and good lab equipment.
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March 9th, 2012, 11:11 PM   #2
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Re: Studying tips?

Wow, tough one.

Can't help with the paper writing cause I pretty well suck at that too. I think those classes are pure nonsense and I have never figured out who made all those rules about how to properly write some paper. I can put a coherent sentence together, but have never been capable of saying what someone else could have said in two sentences in less than twenty. I managed to get A's and B's in those type classes, but it about killed me and took up all my time.

You sound like you "study" too much. That is just an incredible amount of time to be spending on your classes. You sound like good proof for the people who thinking "learning" is just practice, practice and more practice. Practicing something you don't truly understand just gets you to regurgitating the same thing and not understanding anything. And then what you described is exactly what happens: something is worded just a bit differently or applied in a bit different way, and then you don't know how to do it.

That usually happens when you don't thoroughly understand the underlying concepts behind something. It sounds like you're on the right track when you're reading the material, stopping and thinking through the sentences until it is clear what they mean. I can be extremely slow reading through a textbook because I stop constantly to think through what it just said. So I think that is a good step.

Most people are visual learners. I don't know if you're trying to picture what you're reading. I quite literally make pictures out of things. I hate formulas (I hate the word), so I picture what they mean. (OK, sometimes I have to just memorize them cause the math used to derive them is beyond me.) I always think beyond what they tell me. I also try to think back to how it relates (or doesn't) to something I already know, and if it doesn't relate, what's the difference. That way I get a bit of a feel for how it fits together with other things, and also how to distinguish them. I look at subtle wording in the problems, like what makes these questions different from the last section? Then when something is worded a bit differently, or when the test combines 3 chapters, I have a much easier time decyphering what is what.

I also try to think ahead of the book, and see if I comprehend what they're saying well enough to work it out for myself. It works a good deal of the time, as long as I have read enough to know what they're talking about. (And if I don't know what they're talking about, I just keep reading and sometimes they say something later that strikes me.) I always did that in class too, try to work ahead of what the instructor was saying. I also suggest to people that they always consciously think about what it is they are doing, what it's called, why they are doing it, and what they are trying to accomplish with each step they do.

I'm having a weird feeling you over-think things. I'm not even sure what gives me that feeling. Sometimes people who over-think get the hard stuff and can't handle the easy stuff. And sometimes it's just a matter of always second-guessing yourself, so then you start to make more of something than exists. It's hard to stop doing that.

Since you're here, of course you can always post things you're learning here and just get different opinions on it. Several people will sometimes answer a variety of different ways and it might give you insight into different perspectives on things. And post some place else as well and get their perspective. Or just give your thoughts about something and get confirmation if you are right or not.

In the end, I think I would suggest finding yourself a private tutor, someone who can sit down with you and see how you think through things, see if you're over-thinking things, and also be able to see if you can apply things to something slightly different, or something that is worded differently. (Rather than just constantly re-hashing the same old problems again. I think that serves one purpose: memorization. Re-doing problems to make sure you still know it is not a bad thing, but it shouldn't be just to memorize it by rote.) Get someone who actually has experience working with people and not just knows the subject.

I might also suggest you stop studying so much. Sometimes things come to us when we're doing something else. I will get tired of looking at something and go off and do something else. But subconsciously that thing I was studying will be rolling around in the back of my brain, and suddenly out of nowhere, I just "see" it and sometimes don't even know where it came from. Sometimes you can look at things for far too long.
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March 10th, 2012, 05:23 AM   #3
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Re: Studying tips?

Thank you for the words Erimess.

I actually love studying the subjects I am interested in (save the Liberal Arts classes...) but it's so frustrating when you can't understand a topic you love and it makes no sense to you. It feels as if I'm being insulted by the content itself, mocking me that maybe this isn't the place for me, and perhaps it isn't. But then what else am I to do? Roll over and work at McDonald's for the rest of my life? I get that there's a certain point where you need to throw in the towel, but how do you know when?

I don't really understand what constitutes a certain idea or concept "difficult" to understand. How did the people who originated them think of them, if they weren't intuitive? Can't we just learn the material the same way these guys figured the stuff out as opposed to being taught to just read and practice? I think education is making things more complicated when there should be a different approach to learning something and to learn it easier.

I don't think my school has a tutor program at all, so I don't know how farfetched it'll be to find someone who would be willing to tutor me for free, because I certainly don't have the money since I'm living off unemployment, ha. And once that's up, I'll be up to my neck in school debt, much less have money for anything else. Which is kind of good I guess, since I never party or drink or smoke, etc.

I'm still sulking over why it's so hard understanding and accepting a concept when the information is laid out right there in front of you. Why can't my brain make sense of it?
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March 10th, 2012, 07:25 AM   #4
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Re: Studying tips?

There aren't many jobs in Physics or Math. Those, who got the jobs, tend to have very large butcher knives.
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March 10th, 2012, 07:34 AM   #5
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Re: Studying tips?

Well, technically I'd be getting a degree in Engineering (Physics Engineering). Don't financial institutions and banks hire Physicist Engineers?
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March 10th, 2012, 11:10 AM   #6
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Re: Studying tips?

Quote:
Originally Posted by RussellBear
Well, technically I'd be getting a degree in Engineering (Physics Engineering). Don't financial institutions and banks hire Physicist Engineers?
Certainly banks will hire anyone with math- or finance-related degrees for basic teller-to-management positions, or as personal bankers/etc. if they can pass relevant tests. But it sounds like you're talking about working as a quant. Those jobs exist, and certainly they hire physicists, but they usually go to the top few (and usually take Master's-level classes in finance after the physics degree).

Engineers mainly get jobs as, well, engineers -- they're rather in demand at the moment.
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March 10th, 2012, 12:56 PM   #7
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Re: Studying tips?

Right, this is why I want to get into a good PhD program for Physics Engineering - my friend who is finishing up his PhD in some Physics field at Harvard gave me the encouragement to go back to school, which is what I am doing now, but I'm concerned about my grades and study habits, an advice he doesn't really have anything for me. He didn't do spectularly in comparison to some competition (I think he held a 3.5-3.6), but had great undergraduate research experience, like the fancy ones overseas that looked really good on his application. It didn't hurt that he had couple LORs from very high-powered professors in the field as well (NAS member, Nobel laureate) but he did caution me about maintaining a certain level of minimum GPA which is distressing me at the moment.

I know of some pretty good MFE programs, and I think most of them only take about 1 year to complete. I'm sure they don't utilize as much upper-level mathematics as Physics does, so I'm not too intimidated - but that's a ways away. I have to focus on picking up my undergraduate studies right now.
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March 10th, 2012, 06:30 PM   #8
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Re: Studying tips?

Quote:
I don't really understand what constitutes a certain idea or concept "difficult" to understand. How did the people who originated them think of them, if they weren't intuitive? Can't we just learn the material the same way these guys figured the stuff out as opposed to being taught to just read and practice? I think education is making things more complicated when there should be a different approach to learning something and to learn it easier.
Well, I'll agree with you there. I do think education makes things more difficult, and a lot of school these days is being taught "to just read and practice." Although you don't really need to be taught to read and practice... you could have figured that part out on your own. Just seems teachers don't teach anymore. I've known teachers who literally read the book in class. Oh well, gee, the students could have done that. (You will find I'm very jaded about education.)

But whether you can learn the material the same way as the guys who figured it out I think could be difficult. You're presumably into a math level beyond me (if you're in physics), so I don't know exactly what you're doing. But I'd have to imagine the people who figured that stuff out were just total genus's and were very intuitive. We can't expect everyone to be on that level. But they certainly could teach you better concepts behind what you're doing.

And I wouldn't think too harshly of yourself if you're not understanding something that was "laid right out in front of you." Who says how it was laid out was all that great to start with? (I'm rather jaded about textbooks as well. )

I also wouldn't spend too much time comparing yourself to someone at Harvard. Unless you have some ambition that requires a degree from a place like that, Harvard is not a goal you need to reach and maybe certainly isn't worth it, and I also think a lot of people coming out of places like that are just plain stupid. There's a difference between book smarts, and just smarts smarts. Your friend might just be good at working the system and might be good at "how to work school." It's nice that he encouraged you to go back to school, but don't judge yourself if you don't quite follow in his footsteps. You don't have to be him, you know. In fact, if it were me I think I'd want to stay away from some of the bigger universities where many of the profs just went to teaching after getting a PhD and have no real life experience. For the Master's you might some place where you can get a teaching or research assistantship just to take care of financial issues.

I can't comment about the physicist engineering thing cause that means nothing to me. (My dad was an electronics engineer, which at least I can relate to a bit better, but maybe only cause I grew up in a house full of people who were good in electronics and it rubbed off on me, I don't know.) But physicist engineer? I can't even relate that to financial institutions, so no clue. So I'm about useless in terms of what you want to do.

But do keep in mind you're in a community college right now and you still have a lot of options open to you. You claim to like studying the stuff, so the interest must be there. I have to wonder if you just aren't a good test taker. I also wonder if you're just not good at "structured" things. Like maybe you understand the stuff perfectly fine if you can do it your way, but have a hard time fitting into their way, if that makes sense. I'm a lot like that. Like someone can give me an Excel template to put answers in, but I can't do it that way. So I have to go off and work on my own, get the stuff done, and then find a way to twist it around to fit their structured little template. (Which is why I'm better at jobs that tell me the goal and let me get there on my own, rather than giving me a detailed route to get there.) But it took me a long, long time to learn how to learn things my way, and then deal with twisting it around into something done their way. I did much better when I went back to school years later than I did the first time - studied less and got better grades.

Just food for thought. In the meantime, post here with your stuff.
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March 10th, 2012, 06:48 PM   #9
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Re: Studying tips?

Well, one reason I would like admission to top research schools such as Harvard/MIT is that I would have more resources at hand for research due to higher funding at those schools and also obtain access to lab equipment other lower-ranked schools probably do not have, which brings me to my next point:

That in turn would probably grant me better career opportunities. People in the field always say that your graduate school doesn't matter, but consider the following:
A prospective employer meets two people with similar credentials and would like both to work for him/her, but one has a PhD from a relatively unknown school, and the other from a brand name school such as Harvard/MIT. As ignorant as it may sound, would the uninformed employer not choose the brand name over the other person if they both had similar qualifications? The reality of it is, I feel like, is that no matter what people in the circle of their respective fields think and say that the school itself doesn't matter, I think that people outside of that have no idea what are the differences in abilities are between two schools and would intuitively pick the guy from Harvard/MIT as their first choice.

I think a degree from a top school would also be a personal boost (granted you don't get douchey about it). I spoke with someone who never got into a top research program for his field of study, and he seemed to always be second-guessing his potential by comparing his abilities to colleagues who do almost the same work he does except he gets paid a fraction of what they get, and wondering if he was ever good enough to be as successful as them when in reality he is probably just as proficient.

On the other hand, if a company has to let one of two people go, and both are performing rather similarly, would they not take the risk of keeping the guy from Harvard/MIT and dropping the other person? I mean, that seems to make the most sense.
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March 10th, 2012, 08:07 PM   #10
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Re: Studying tips?

Quote:
Originally Posted by RussellBear
People in the field always say that your graduate school doesn't matter, but consider the following:
A prospective employer meets two people with similar credentials and would like both to work for him/her, but one has a PhD from a relatively unknown school, and the other from a brand name school such as Harvard/MIT. As ignorant as it may sound, would the uninformed employer not choose the brand name over the other person if they both had similar qualifications?
It depends on what you want to do. If you're looking for a job where there are very few openings and many people applying for it, then you might be in the position above. But if you're not looking into a field that is oversubscribed then there's no problem if there happens to be a doppelganger but from MIT -- you let her/him take the job and you just take the next one. (In oversubscribed jobs like quants and particle physics, there is no 'other job' that comes along -- they all get snapped up.)

So if you are looking at a hard-to-get-into field then yes, do do need to compare yourself to the Harvard friend. But otherwise, it's not worth your time or effort.
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