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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Physics Tips: Physics Study Skills

  1. Math is at the heart of physics. So the better your math, the better you'll do in physics. A good working knowledge of algebra and trigonometry is needed for Physics 121 and of calculus for Physics 210.
  2. Get a good overview of your physics textbook before tackling it in depth.

    a. Read the topics in the table of contents. If you look at several physics books you'll notice that many are laid out the same way. For example, in both Physics 121 and in Physics 210 your book will have chapters on motion, work and energy, heat and thermodynamics, vibrations and waves, sound, electricity and magnetism, optics etc. TIP: So if you have difficulty with a concept in Physics 210, why not review it in a Physics 121 book?

    b. Read the preface. It will give you an overview of the author's intentions, emphasis and arrangement of the book. For example, here are quotes from a preface written by author W. Thomas Griffith: "An unusual feature of this book ... is the carefully worded conceptual questions at the end of each chapter... Many of these have been classroom-tested on quizzes..."

    "Another unusual feature of this book is that each chapter begins with an illustration from everyday experience that motivates the introduction of the relevant physical concepts."

    "Each chapter also include an 'Everyday Phenomenon' box that analyzes some common phenomena in more detail."

    c. Skim through the book. Notice the chapter objectives, the chapter outline, highlighted boxes, tables, illustrations, graphs, diagrams, terminology, summary statements and practice exercises.

  3. Read your assigned chapter BEFORE attending class and again after. You will get the most out of class if you read the material ahead of time. Notice that each chapter in your physics text has new vocabulary, terms, definitions, concepts, major ideas and many mathematical equations and practice exercises to be worked out.
  4. Make problem-solving part of each study session. The more you work out problems and test yourself, the better your physics will get. Devote your time to learning how to do each problem rather than in obtaining the numerical answer given in the solutions' manual. Even if you don't have homework problems to do, try working out at least five new problems every time you study.
  5. When working out a physics problem, determine what principal it is illustrating or what kind of problem it is. For example, is it a momentum problem or a force problem? This will help you to set up the problem.
  6. When working out a problem, try to visualize what it is asking you to do. Draw it out and/or set up a chart, then identify the variables and set up the equation. Remember setting up the problem is the most important thing you can do. Next, solve your equation for the unknown, and substitute your numbers into the problem, to see if it checks out.
  7. The true test for determining if you know your material is to do a problem you have never done or seen before. So when preparing for a physics exam, look for new problems. With each problem ask yourself what kind of problem is this, and how are you going to do it? Then do lots and lots of problems.
  8. Use more than one physics text when studying. Employ these other texts as reference books for reviewing or illustrating difficult concepts and for obtaining practice problems to test yourself on.
  9. Take notes while you are reading and organize yourself well. Write down all new vocabulary, terms, definitions, concepts, equations, major ideas, problems types, and the do's and don'ts for avoiding mistakes.
  10. Know your physics' terminology. Practice using the words of physics again and again so they start meaning something to you.
  11. Use small review cards for learning terminology and for testing yourself on concepts. Put a difficult term or concept on one side and the meaning on the other. Carry these cards where ever you go and review them at odd moments - you won't even feel like you're studying.
  12. To make physics more fun, keep relating it to your everyday life. Look for situations or occurrences that illustrate what you are learning. For example, what causes hairs to repel one another on a dry winter day? How does your engine use gasoline to produce motion? What causes the heat on a drill bit after drilling a hole in metal?
  13. The physics lab is wonderful for setting up experiments to illustrate and practice what you are learning. Use it often, but why not make the whole world your lab? Set up your own experiments at home, at work, in your backyard, or in your workshop.
  14. Form a physics study group to talk aloud and test yourself on your new learned knowledge. Explaining physics to others is an excellent way to reinforce new concepts. Study groups also help students to do better by increasing their motivation and confidence. If group is out of the question for you, try explaining new ideas to a family member, a friend or even your dog!
  15. Research has shown that we remember 90% of what we say and do. So practice, practice, practice (do, do, do) physics and explain it to others (say, say, say).
  16. Physics takes a lot of time and effort, so don't take it with a heavy course or work load or lots of family responsibilities. Give yourself time to really learn it and enjoy it. In addition to the hours you spend in lecture and lab, plan to spend at least 10 hours per week on homework problems and at least one hour for writing up your laboratory report.
  17. Physics is cumulative; one topic builds on another - so don't fall behind. Attend every class if you can. Keep up with the material. If you need help, get it immediately. You can get assistance from your instructor, the Math Learning Center, physics lab aides, your classmates, family or friends, other physics texts, the college outline series (ex. Schaum) or the library reserve shelf (problem solutions, study guide).
  18. Review immediately after class and again 8 hours later. Most of the information we learn is lost within the first 20 to 60 minutes after learning. So be sure to review as soon as you can.
  19. Begin studying for exams well in advance and avoid cramming. Throughout the semester, as you learn each new concept test yourself on it. The best students are testing themselves continuously throughout the learning process. In addition, make up your own difficult practice tests and practice working out all types of problems.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Mathematics Tips: Math Strategies

Andrea Michelle Jones:
To get better is to do all assignments as planned by teacher. That way, when its time to take the test you will not have to cram down a 3 to 4 week course in a night if you haven't done the assignments as planned to that were due. Don't spend time in earsing waste while taking the test. You need all the time you need.

Do your homework whether you have to turn it in or not. At first I figured that if I didn't have to turn it in I wouldn't do the homework. I got a 46% on my first exam. For the second test, I did all the homework and did several chapter reviews and practice tests. I got a 94% on that exam.

Stephen Nguyen Review: Absolutely correct. Math is not hard. Be sure to do all of the homeworks assigned. If you are stuck on a problem, re-read carefully your lecture notes and examples in the book. Chances there is a similar problem to your homework problem. If you still do not know how to solve the problem, ask your classmates or your teacher. It is important you know how to solve all homework problems because problems in the test are sometimes similar to those in the homework. Knowing how to solve all the homework problems will guarantee you a high B or above. To prepare for a perfect test, re-do all of your homework problems. By the way, do your homeworks early else you probably won't have enough time to complete all problems assigned.

You should expect math to be a time consuming class. Doing the homework is the biggest thing and the Math Lab located in Taft Hall is helpful. Also, I studied with classmates when the opportunity presented itself. This was nice because when we explained things to each other we found out how much we didn't know.

I keep candy close by and every time I finish a problem I reward myself with a piece of candy.

To do well in math, definitely study in groups. There's also a Math Lab in Taft. There are a lot of places on campus that have practice exams available (library, professors, etc.). These practice exams are very useful.

If you don't understand something, go see a tutor. Honors College offers tutoring and it's free!

Always, always do the assigned problems and then also do other problems that weren't assigned. I've noticed a pattern with my professors. On the tests, there always seem to be some of the problems that weren't assigned.

I not only went to my own discussion but I also went to other T.A.'s discussions in hopes that something would stick.

Always take at least two practice tests and talk to the professor and T.A.! The Math Labs are very helpful and so is the workshop which counts for one credit hour.

I always do practice tests and go to review sections.

The T.A.'s and professors know what you need to know and they will work with you -- not to mention give you helpful tips. You can't shy away from them when you're dealing with math. They'll help you pull up your grade.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Mathematics Tips: Substitution and Memory Strategies


The substitution strategy is used for solving math problems, especially when the student is unclear about some component of a math equation or cannot set up the appropriate math equation to solve a word problem. With substitution, one simply replaces the unknown part of a math equation or problem with something known. Applications and examples of the substitution strategy are given below (D. Applegate, CAL).


Math students are often confused when trying to solve math problems with fractions. Try substituting the decimal equivalent of the fraction whenever possible (as long as the decimal is not repeating). Simply divide the numerator by the denominator to get the decimal equivalent of the fraction. For instance,

2 (x + 4) = 14

0.5 (x + 4) = 14

0.5 (x) + 0.5 (4) = 14

0.5x + 2 = 14

0.5x = 12

x = 24


Sometimes the meaning or function of variables in an equation is unclear. In this case, substitute an actual number for the variable(s) and work out the problem. The numbers don't necessarily have to "make sense" mathematically - they are just used to help you logically figure out the steps of the problem. Then follow those steps to solve the actual problem with the variable(s). For example,

Given I = Prt
Find t in terms of the other variables.

Substitute numbers for the variables except t.
10 = 30 * 2 * t

How would you get the numbers on one side?
10 = 60 * t
10 = t

What steps did you follow to get t by itself?
Multiply 30 and 2 to get 60, then divide both sides by 60.

Use those steps to solve the real equation.
I = P * r * t
I = (Pr) * t
I = t

Word problems

Students commonly experience difficulty with word problems, especially how to set up the equation using the informaton given in the question. Try substituting the unknowns or variables with actual numbers to help set up the equation. For instance,

Question: Two numbers add up to 15. If the larger number is twice the smaller number, what are the two numbers?

Answer: First we need to assign variables. From the problem we know the relationship between the two numbers: the larger number is twice as big as the smaller number. If the smaller number is x, then the larger number is 2x.

Now we need to write an equation using the variables plus the other information provided in the question. But how? Try substitution.

Pretend one of the numbers is 2. If the two numbers add up to 15, as the problem states, the other number must be what? 13. How did you get this? This was determined by subtracting the pretend number from 15: 15 - 2 = 13.

Now generalize. One number is equal to the total minus the other number. In other words, one number equals 15 minus the other number. This is your equation in English! Now you just have to put it into an algebraic expression.

Our two numbers are x and 2x. We replace these into our English equation to get the math equation we need to solve the problem:
one number equals 15 minus the other number
x = 15 - 2x ... or ...
2x = 15 - x
Either equation will give the correct answer. Now just solve to find your answers!

Memory strategies

Math courses often require that four types of information be remembered by students on quizzes and exams. Strategies for encoding and retrieving terms and definitions, symbols, math equations, and problem solutions are described here (D. Applegate, CAL).

Terms and definitions

Key words

Highlight and focus on key words in the definitions. This reduces the amount of information to be remembered and helps one to identify words that may be omitted in fill-in test questions.


Once the key words have been identified, try to associate the term with the key words. You can use phonetic associations, vivid visual associations, associations with prior knowledge, or other associations. Some examples are:

  • The numerator is the top number in a fraction, whereas the denominator is the bottom number in a fraction. Remember that "numerator" and "top" go together because they begin with letters that are close to each other in the alphabet. Similarly, "denominator" and "bottom" also begin with letters that are close together in the alphabet, plus the letters "d" and "b" look very similar in form.
  • A polynomial is a series of one or more terms that are added or subtracted, such as 3x + 2y - 4. To associate this word with its definition, try this visual association: Picture a prison inmate in a black and white striped outfit whose prison term involves adding and subtracting a bunch of parakets named Polly.

Flash cards

Flash cards are useful for registering definitions of terms into memory. Write the term on one side of the card and the definition on the other. Use the flash cards to test your recall. Practice recalling the definition when given the term and visa versa.

Running concept lists

Make a running concept list by writing all terms and definitions on notebook paper divided into two columns. The terms go in the left-hand column and the definitions with highlighted key words are written in the right-hand column. Fold the paper or cover one column to test your recall of the terms and their definitions.



Try drawing or visualizing math symbols as characters in order to remember their meaning. For example,

  • A cursive M stands the for mean of a population. Draw or picture in your head a bunch of angry-looking M's to remember this symbol.
  • In the equation I = Prt, the P stands for the principal (amount of money) invested. Draw or picture in your head a large P that will remind you of your school principal - a face in the loop of the P and arms holding a ruler or some other significant object. Have little dollar signs floating around the P to help you remember the symbol represents a sum of money.

Flash cards

Symbols and their meanings may be summarized on flash cards and reviewed periodically to store them in memory.

Running concept lists

Make a running concept list by writing all symbols and their meanings on notebook paper divided into two columns. The symbols go in the left-hand column and the meanings are written in the right-hand column. Fold the paper or cover one column to test your recall of the symbols and their meanings.

Math equations and rules


Try phonetic, visual, and other associations to remember math equations and rules. The goal is to associate the math equation or rule with something you already know or something with which you are familiar. For instance,

  • This association based on fundamental moral principles helps one to remember the rules for multiplying signed numbers (REFERENCE). "Good" things in this association represent positive numbers and "bad" things represent negative numbers.
    • A good thing happening to a good person is good.
      [positive times positive equals a positive]
    • A good thing happening to a bad person is bad.
      [positive times negative equals a negative]
    • A bad thing happening to a good person is bad.
      [negative times positive equals a negative]
    • A bad thing happening to a bad person is good.
      [negative times negative equals a positive]

  • The rules for converting decimals to percents may be remembered using a variety of associations.
    • Use common experiences in the association: Think of common percentages we see in our everyday lives, such as sales (50% off and 20% off) or runaway inflation rates (100% or 150%). These are big numbers. Decimals are small numbers (0.5, 0.2, 1.0 and 1.5). How do you make a large number smaller? By dividing. How do you make a small number larger? By multiplying. So to change from percents to decimals (large to small), you divide by 100. And to change from decimals to percents (small to large), you multiply by 100.
    • Use alphabetic associations to remember the rules: To change from percent to decimal, you move the decimal point two places to the right. When you start with a percent you move to the right - p and r are close in the alphabet. To change from decimal to percent, you move the decimal point two places to the left. When you start with decimal you move to the left - decimal ends in l and left begins with l.
  • Use a variety of associations to keep straight the equations for the perimeter (P = 2L + 2W) and area (A = L * W) of a rectangle.
    • Associations based on real-life experiences can be used to remember the equations. When ordering fence to go around the perimeter of your yard, you would order so many feet or meters - the units are raised to the first power. How do you keep the units of something in the first power? By adding - so use the equation with the addition sign. Now, when ordering carpet to cover the area of your room, you would order so many square feet or square yards - the units are raised to the second power. How do you get units to the second power? By multiplying - so use the equation with the multiplication sign.
    • A simple association based on the length of the equations might help you to keep them straight. The word perimeter is a long word and it corresponds to the longer of the two equations. The word area is a short word and it corresponds to the shorter of the two equations.

Flash cards

Math equations and rules may be summarized on flash cards and reviewed frequently to store them in memory.

Running concept lists

Make running concept lists of math equations and rules using notebook paper divided into two columns. The names of the equations or rules go in the left-hand column and the mathematical expressions are written in the right-hand column. Fold the paper or cover one column to test your recall of math equations and rules.

Problem solutions

Problem solutions refer to the correct order of steps required to successfully solve math problems. Herrman, Raybeck, and Gutman (1993, p. 192) offer the following suggestions for registering and remembering solutions to math problems. Associations (D. Applegate, CAL) may also be used.


Repetitious review of the steps for solving a problem aids in registration in long-term memory. The effectiveness of this strategy is enhanced when rehearsals are done frequently and when rehearsals are made active by vocalizing, listening to recordings, or writing.


Working several practice problems for each solution set aids in registration. Try working sample problems from the book or problems for which answers are indicated in the book. Check answers to insure accuracy.

Solve forwards and backwards

Registration in long-term memory is enhanced when problems are solved forwards and backwards. Work the problem to find the answer, and then take your answer and work back to the original problem.

Procedure cards

Try using procedure flash cards to register problem solutions in long-term memory. On one side of the card write the type of problem and/or give an example. On the other side write the steps in English for solving the problem and actually show the steps for solving the example.

Explain problem to someone else

Remembering is enhanced when one explains or "teaches" the problem solution to another person. Try working with another student in the class, with a tutor, or with a friend or family member. Carefully and thoughtfully go through the solution process, step by step. Find an empty classroom and "teach" by writing the steps on the chalk board.

Frequent review

Review the solution often. Take flash cards with you to review while waiting in line or between classes. Explain the problem solution to a friend while walking to class. Frequent reviewing aids registration of information in your memory.


Problem solutions may be registered in memory using mnemonics. Take the first letter of each step and form it into a cue word or cue phrase. The classic math mnemonics are:

  • Foil
  • This cue word stands for the steps in multiplying two binomials: multiply the First terms, then multiply the Outer terms, then multiply the Inner terms, and finally multiply the Last terms.
  • Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally
  • This cue phrase helps in remembering the order of operations: Parantheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, and Subtraction. Combine it with a mental image of your aunt doing something rude in an operating room to enhance your memory.

Past experience

To remember the problem solution during a testing situation, think of specific practice problems that were similar to the test problems.

Key words and associations

Use visual associations or associations with real-life experiences to remember the key words in the steps for solving a particular problem. For instance,

  • Problem: Find the equation of a line that passes through the points (8, -3) and -2, 1).
  • Key Words: equation of line, through two points
  • Steps in the Solution: find the slope, use the point-slope formula, solve for y
  • Visual Association: Picture the slope equation at the top points of two mountain peaks [step 1], go down the mountain slope to the point-slope formula [step 2], and move to the Y of a clear mountain stream to find your equation [step 3].

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Mathematics Tips: Getting Assistance


Get help as soon as you need it. Don't wait until a test is near. The new material builds on the previous sections, so anything you don't understand now will make future material difficult to understand.

Use the Resources You Have Available

  • Ask questions in class. You get help and stay actively involved in the class.
  • Visit the Instructor's Office Hours. Instructors like to see students who want to help themselves.
  • Ask friends, members of your study group, or anyone else who can help. The classmate who explains something to you learns just as much as you do, for he/she must think carefully about how to explain the particular concept or solution in a clear way. So don't be reluctant to ask a classmate.
  • Go to the Math Help Sessions or other tutoring sessions on campus.
  • Find a private tutor if you can't get enough help from other sources.
  • All students need help at some point, so be sure to get the help you need.

Asking Questions

Don't be afraid to ask questions. Any question is better than no question at all (at least your Instructor/tutor will know you are confused). But a good question will allow your helper to quickly identify exactly what you don't understand.

  • Not too helpful comment: "I don't understand this section." The best you can expect in reply to such a remark is a brief review of the section, and this will likely overlook the particular thing(s) which you don't understand.
  • Good comment: "I don't understand why f(x + h) doesn't equal f(x) + f(h)." This is a very specific remark that will get a very specific response and hopefully clear up your difficulty.
  • Good question: "How can you tell the difference between the equation of a circle and the equation of a line?"
  • Okay question: "How do you do #17?"
  • Better question: "Can you show me how to set up #17?" (the Instructor can let you try to finish the problem on your own), or "This is how I tried to do #17. What went wrong?" The focus of attention is on your thought process.
  • Right after you get help with a problem, work another similar problem by yourself.

You Control the Help You Get

Helpers should be coaches, not crutches. They should encourage you, give you hints as you need them, and sometimes show you how to do problems. But they should not, nor be expected to, actually do the work you need to do. They are there to help you figure out how to learn math for yourself.

  • When you go to office hours, your study group or a tutor, have a specific list of questions prepared in advance. You should run the session as much as possible.
  • Do not allow yourself to become dependent on a tutor. The tutor cannot take the exams for you. You must take care to be the one in control of tutoring sessions.
  • You must recognize that sometimes you do need some coaching to help you through, and it is up to you to seek out that coaching.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Mathematics Tips: Taking a Math Test

Test-Taking Strategy Matters

Just as it is important to think about how you spend your study time (in addition to actually doing the studying), it is important to think about what strategies you will use when you take a test (in addition to actually doing the problems on the test). Good test-taking strategy can make a big difference to your grade!

Taking a Test

  • First look over the entire test. You'll get a sense of its length. Try to identify those problems you definitely know how to do right away, and those you expect to have to think about.
  • Do the problems in the order that suits you! Start with the problems that you know for sure you can do. This builds confidence and means you don't miss any sure points just because you run out of time. Then try the problems you think you can figure out; then finally try the ones you are least sure about.
  • Time is of the essence - work as quickly and continuously as you can while still writing legibly and showing all your work. If you get stuck on a problem, move on to another one - you can come back later.
  • Work by the clock. On a 50 minute, 100 point test, you have about 5 minutes for a 10 point question. Starting with the easy questions will probably put you ahead of the clock. When you work on a harder problem, spend the allotted time (e.g., 5 minutes) on that question, and if you have not almost finished it, go on to another problem. Do not spend 20 minutes on a problem which will yield few or no points when there are other problems still to try.
  • Show all your work: make it as easy as possible for the Instructor to see how much you do know. Try to write a well-reasoned solution. If your answer is incorrect, the Instructor will assign partial credit based on the work you show.
  • Never waste time erasing! Just draw a line through the work you want ignored and move on. Not only does erasing waste precious time, but you may discover later that you erased something useful (and/or maybe worth partial credit if you cannot complete the problem). You are (usually) not required to fit your answer in the space provided - you can put your answer on another sheet to avoid needing to erase.
  • In a multiple-step problem outline the steps before actually working the problem.
  • Don't give up on a several-part problem just because you can't do the first part. Attempt the other part(s) - if the actual solution depends on the first part, at least explain how you would do it.
  • Make sure you read the questions carefully, and do all parts of each problem.
  • Verify your answers - does each answer make sense given the context of the problem?
  • If you finish early, check every problem (that means rework everything from scratch).

Friday, January 26, 2007

Mathematics Tips: Studying for a Math Test

Everyday Study is a Big Part of Test Preparation
Good study habits throughout the semester make it easier to study for tests.
  • Do the homework when it is assigned. You cannot hope to cram 3 or 4 weeks worth of learning into a couple of days of study.
  • On tests you have to solve problems; homework problems are the only way to get practice. As you do homework, make lists of formulas and techniques to use later when you study for tests.
  • Ask your Instructor questions as they arise; don't wait until the day or two before a test. The questions you ask right before a test should be to clear up minor details.

Studying for a Test

Start by going over each section, reviewing your notes and checking that you can still do the homework problems (actually work the problems again). Use the worked examples in the text and notes - cover up the solutions and work the problems yourself. Check your work against the solutions given.

You're not ready yet! In the book each problem appears at the end of the section in which you learned how do to that problem; on a test the problems from different sections are all together.

  • Step back and ask yourself what kind of problems you have learned how to solve, what techniques of solution you have learned, and how to tell which techniques go with which problems.
  • Try to explain out loud, in your own words, how each solution strategy is used (e.g. how to solve a quadratic equation). If you get confused during a test, you can mentally return to your verbal "capsule instructions". Check your verbal explanations with a friend during a study session (it's more fun than talking to yourself!).
  • Put yourself in a test-like situation: work problems from review sections at the end of chapters, and work old tests if you can find some. It's important to keep working problems the whole time you're studying.


  • Start studying early. Several days to a week before the test (longer for the final), begin to allot time in your schedule to reviewing for the test.
  • Get lots of sleep the night before the test. Math tests are easier when you are mentally sharp.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Mathematics Tips: Problem Solving

  • The higher the math class, the more types of problems: in earlier classes, problems often required just one step to find a solution. Increasingly, you will tackle problems which require several steps to solve them. Break these problems down into smaller pieces and solve each piece - divide and conquer!
  • Problem types:
    1. Problems testing memorization ("drill"),
    2. Problems testing skills ("drill"),
    3. Problems requiring application of skills to familiar situations ("template" problems),
    4. Problems requiring application of skills to unfamiliar situations (you develop a strategy for a new problem type),
    5. Problems requiring that you extend the skills or theory you know before applying them to an unfamiliar situation.
  • In early courses, you solved problems of types 1, 2 and 3. By College Algebra you expect to do mostly problems of types 2 and 3 and sometimes of type 4. Later courses expect you to tackle more and more problems of types 3 and 4, and (eventually) of type 5. Each problem of types 4 or 5 usually requires you to use a multi-step approach, and may involve several different math skills and techniques.
  • When you work problems on homework, write out complete solutions, as if you were taking a test. Don't just scratch out a few lines and check the answer in the back of the book. If your answer is not right, rework the problem; don't just do some mental gymnastics to convince yourself that you could get the correct answer. If you can't get the answer, get help.
  • The practice you get doing homework and reviewing will make test problems easier to tackle.

Tips on Problem Solving

  • Apply PĆ³lya's four-step process:
    1. The first and most important step in solving a problem is to understand the problem, that is, identify exactly which quantity the problem is asking you to find or solve for (make sure you read the whole problem).
    2. Next you need to devise a plan, that is, identify which skills and techniques you have learned can be applied to solve the problem at hand.
    3. Carry out the plan.
    4. Look back: Does the answer you found seem reasonable? Also review the problem and method of solution so that you will be able to more easily recognize and solve a similar problem.
  • Some problem-solving strategies: use one or more variables, complete a table, consider a special case, look for a pattern, guess and test, draw a picture or diagram, make a list, solve a simpler related problem, use reasoning, work backward, solve an equation, look for a formula, use coordinates.

"Word" Problems are Really "Applied" Problems

The term "word problem" has only negative connotations. It's better to think of them as "applied problems". These problems should be the most interesting ones to solve. Sometimes the "applied" problems don't appear very realistic, but that's usually because the corresponding real applied problems are too hard or complicated to solve at your current level. But at least you get an idea of how the math you are learning can help solve actual real-world problems.

Solving an Applied Problem

  • First convert the problem into mathematics. This step is (usually) the most challenging part of an applied problem. If possible, start by drawing a picture. Label it with all the quantities mentioned in the problem. If a quantity in the problem is not a fixed number, name it by a variable. Identify the goal of the problem. Then complete the conversion of the problem into math, i.e., find equations which describe relationships among the variables, and describe the goal of the problem mathematically.
  • Solve the math problem you have generated, using whatever skills and techniques you need (refer to the four-step process above).
  • As a final step, you should convert the answer of your math problem back into words, so that you have now solved the original applied problem.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Mathematics Tips: Math Study Skills

Active Study vs. Passive Study

Be actively involved in managing the learning process, the mathematics and your study time:

  • Take responsibility for studying, recognizing what you do and don't know, and knowing how to get your Instructor to help you with what you don't know.
  • Attend class every day and take complete notes. Instructors formulate test questions based on material and examples covered in class as well as on those in the text.
  • Be an active participant in the classroom. Get ahead in the book; try to work some of the problems before they are covered in class. Anticipate what the Instructor's next step will be.
  • Ask questions in class! There are usually other students wanting to know the answers to the same questions you have.
  • Go to office hours and ask questions. The Instructor will be pleased to see that you are interested, and you will be actively helping yourself.
  • Good study habits throughout the semester make it easier to study for tests.

Studying Math is Different from Studying Other Subjects

  • Math is learned by doing problems. Do the homework. The problems help you learn the formulas and techniques you do need to know, as well as improve your problem-solving prowess.
  • A word of warning: Each class builds on the previous ones, all semester long. You must keep up with the Instructor: attend class, read the text and do homework every day. Falling a day behind puts you at a disadvantage. Falling a week behind puts you in deep trouble.
  • A word of encouragement: Each class builds on the previous ones, all semester long. You're always reviewing previous material as you do new material. Many of the ideas hang together. Identifying and learning the key concepts means you don't have to memorize as much.

College Math is Different from High School Math

A College math class meets less often and covers material at about twice the pace that a High School course does. You are expected to absorb new material much more quickly. Tests are probably spaced farther apart and so cover more material than before. The Instructor may not even check your homework.

  • Take responsibility for keeping up with the homework. Make sure you find out how to do it.
  • You probably need to spend more time studying per week - you do more of the learning outside of class than in High School.
  • Tests may seem harder just because they cover more material.

Study Time

You may know a rule of thumb about math (and other) classes: at least 2 hours of study time per class hour. But this may not be enough!

  • Take as much time as you need to do all the homework and to get complete understanding of the material.
  • Form a study group. Meet once or twice a week (also use the phone). Go over problems you've had trouble with. Either someone else in the group will help you, or you will discover you're all stuck on the same problems. Then it's time to get help from your Instructor.
  • The more challenging the material, the more time you should spend on it.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Mathematics Tips: General Math Tips

Read the book

Read carefully over the assigned sections and look carefully at the sample problems. Decide if you benefit more by reading before or after the instructor covers the material. More information about reading math texts will soon be provided in a separate section of this page.

Develop a sound math foundation

Because most math courses are cumulative, in other words new concepts are added to and build upon previous concepts, it is very important that the early material be mastered thoroughly. Similarly, mastery of material from previous courses makes success in later courses more likely, so continually review and practice concepts from prior math classes.

Time management

Complete all readings and especially homework assignments as soon after they are announced as possible. And definitely complete all assignments before new material is covered since math is cumulative. This insures that the inforamtion is fresh in one's mind and linked to prior, more fundamental information. Do your assignments early enough that you can get help with the things you do not understand.


Learn how to use your calculator effectively and efficiently, especially if exams are timed and you have trouble completing tests in the allotted time. Check with the instructor about suggestions for the appropriate calculator to purchase for a class. Be sure the machine comes with an instruction manual and read the manual. Learn how to use important function keys. Get in the habit of carrying the calculator with you. It is better in the long run to become proficient with your own calculator rather than borrowing other people's calculators.

Show your work

Avoid the temptation to skip steps when solving a problem unless you are quite clear about how to proceed. This is a good habit to get into with your math homework. And definitely don't skip steps on an exam no matter how well you know the material. Why take chances (unless you're running out of time)? Showing your work allows you to locate logical or calculation mistakes more easily, and sometimes partial credit is given for the correct portions of an answer.

Organize your work and write legibly

Write all numbers and variables clearly so they may be easily distinguished. Pay particular attention to 4 and 9, 1 and 7, x and y.

Spaces are as important in math equations as are the numbers and variables themselves. Allow enough space between different terms in an equation so it is easy to distinguish them.

Be sure to line up terms in each step of the solution, and write steps one below the other rather than to the right or left. Use lined paper or graph paper to help organize the problems on your page. Don't scrunch! Use plenty of paper to work each problem. Recycle the paper at the end of the term if you are concerned about wasting paper.

Support services and materials

Find out about the support services and materials available to you. Support services include workbooks, study groups, self-help videos and cassettes, peer tutors, professional tutors, and instructors' office hours. Using the resources from the start of the course may help your confidence and get you off on the right foot. Minimally, make use of these resources as soon as you feel uncomfortable with the material - do not wait until it is too late!

Preparation and supplies

Being prepared for each course involves several important factors:

  • complete any previously assigned homeworks
  • compile a list of questions about the previous assignments to ask the instructor
  • preview the material to be covered that day
  • take your textbook and/or workbook to class
  • carry the proper supplies to each class - calculator, pencils, erasers, lined or graph paper, etc.

Information organization

Math information - including definitions, symbols, equations, and steps for solving problems - may be organized using flash cards, running concept lists, flow charts, and matrices (D. Applegate, CAL).

Flash cards

Flash cards are useful for organizing all forms of math information. Two examples are given below.

Running concept lists

Running concept lists organize all forms of math information.

Flow charts

Flow charts are useful for organizing sequential information such as the steps for solving a problem.


Matrices may be used to organize math symbols, equations, and definitions.





top number in a fraction

the 1 in


bottom number in a fraction

the 5 in


the inverse of a fraction (flip it)


the reciprocal is



any member of the set of positive numbers, negative numbers, and zero

1, 2, 3,
-1, -2, -3,



perimeter of rectangle

P = 2L + 2W

area of rectangle

A = L * W

volume of a rectangle

V = L * W * H

perimeter of square

P = 4s

area of square

A = s * s

Monday, January 22, 2007

Chemistry Tips: Chemistry Study Tips

  1. You must be willing to accept the academic challenge of learning chemistry. For some people it is fun and for others it is hard work, but no matter it takes time. It requires persistence, concentration, discipline, patience and lots and lots of practice.
  2. Know How Your Chemistry Course is Structured. Your chemistry course may include any of the five traditional branches of chemistry or a combination of 2 or more fields of chemistry:

    a. inorganic chemistry ­ studies the structure & chemical reactions of substances composed of any of the known elements, except carbon containing substances.

    b. organic chemistry ­ studies of the compounds of carbon.

    c. physical chemistry or theoretical chemistry ­ applies the application of theories and mathematical methods to the solution of chemical problems.

    d. analytical chemistry ­ deals with two areas: qualitative analysis (qual), "what is there?" and quantitative analysis (quant), "how much is there?"

    e. biochemistry (or physiological chemistry) ­ studies the chemical structure of living material and the chemical reactions occurring in living cells. For example, general chemistry (Chem 151 & 152) gives you an overview of each of the above five branches of chemistry.

    Chem 130 and 140 focusses on inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry and biochemistry.

    Know How Your Instructor Structures the Course. Every instructor is different. Find out if he or she uses the text heavily. If not, what does he or she depend on? Library usage? Lecture notes? Additional materials? It is time­saving for you to understand how the instructor is organizing his or her thoughts.

  3. Get a bird's eye view of your entire chemistry course from the very start.

    Look over:
    a. topics on the course syllabus
    b. table of contents in your textbook
    c. read the preface of your textbook for ideas on how the book is arranged
    d. Thumb through your book ­ note the learning objectives, tables, graphs, marginal notes, word lists, terminology, summary statements, problems, etc.

  4. Math is essential for chemistry. Study basic math and introductory algebra before and during your chemistry course. Review and practice: addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, percent, exponential numbers, simple algebra, and logarithms.
  5. Chemistry progresses from the simple to the complex, building upon existing knowledge at each stage. Be attuned to the cumulative nature of chemistry. Understand the continuity of the subject. New work may be understood only after earlier work has been well understood. Keep up with the work and don't fall behind. Try not to miss important building blocks along the way.
  6. Learn the Basics. Practice and repeat them often so they become second nature to you. A large portion of what you learn early in chemistry is very fundamental and is often used repeatedly during the remainder of the course. Examples of such basics are:
    • simple algebra
    • metric system (length, mass, volume)
    • significant numbers
    • temperature (Fahrenheit, Celsius, Kelvin)
    • exponential numbers
    • factor­label method (or dimensional analysis)
    • chemical symbols and names of about 40 commonly used elements
    • symbols (formulas) and names of commonly used simple & polyatomic ions
    • writing and naming chemical formulas of ionic & molecular substances

    As in any subject, look for the most obvious basic concepts that allow understanding of the material. For example, most of the more complex topics in chemistry revolve around the topics of chemical bonding, nomenclature, and atomic structure. It is difficult to picture what is happening with Nitric Acid if you don't know it is HNO3. It is difficult to picture how ions are formed if you don't know the basic atomic structure. Spend a lot of time on these topics to make the rest of your chemistry go smoother.

  7. Learn and practice the terminology and the symbols of chemistry. This is one of the most important things to do.
    a) Write out all the definitions in your own words and give an example or two when appropriate. Recite the definitions. Do the same with the symbols of chemistry. Put them on 3" by 5" flash cards. Review them often. Study them before you go to sleep and again twice upon awakening. Test yourself under all sorts of conditions. Let them become second nature to you.

    b) At every opportunity as you study chapter after chapter in your text learn to name chemical substances when given the symbols or chemical formulas. Also learn to write the symbols or the formula of a substance when given its chemical name.

  8. Memorize selected material. For example, memorize chemical symbols and names of the 40 most commonly used elements. Also memorize diatomic molecules from the periodic table like H2, N2, O2, F2, Cl2, Br2, I2, At2 (inverted L).
  9. Make problem solving a part of every study session. Work out at least 10 problems per study session and review at least five problems from previous study sessions. Your proficiency in solving problems increases with practice. Cover up solutions in your text and work out the problems yourself.
  10. Study chemistry every day if possible, or at least 5 days a week. The more you review and work out problems, the more you will be able to put it all together.
  11. Learn how to use your calculator. There are many problems that require rapid calculation of numbers and by knowing how to use your calculator you will be able to significantly increase the number of problems you can work.
  12. Understand the difference between an abbreviation and a symbol. An abbreviation is just the shortened form of a word, but a symbol can have many meanings. It is important to know all the different meanings of a chemical symbol. For example, Cl could be the abbreviation for chlorine, or it could mean 1 chlorine atom, or by weight 35.5 atomic mass units of chlorine, or 35.5 grams of chlorine, or 6.02 x 1023 atoms of chlorine. It is important to understand that a formula or a molecule is nothing but a combination of symbols. These symbols retain their individual meanings in the formula; therefore, if you know the meaning of the symbol you will know the meaning of the formula. Then you will be able to do stoichiometry problems.
  13. Make the Periodic Table your friend! Learn how to use it. It will help you understand and correlate chemical and physical properties of the elements.
  14. Initially you will have to accept a number of things in chemistry without understanding or asking why. For example, at the beginning you must just accept that He, N2, O2, F2, Cl2, I2 are always found in nature as diatomic molecules, but it is only later that you will be shown why.
  15. Subjects like math usually follow a nice logical sequence, but chemistry doesn't! You have to accept some things on faith. You will not be able to see all the processes, although you may be asked to prove that they occur.
  16. Maintain your interest in chemistry by relating what you learn to everyday life and occurrences. In pharmacies and grocery stores look at bottles for names of chemical compounds and see if you can recognize the common and the formal (I.U.P.A.C.) name. For example, "Tums" is calcium carbonate, and rubbing alcohol is isopropyl alcohol.
  17. Learn the fine distinctions between related items, such as the distinction between an electron and a proton. Similarly, learn to correlate related terms. Facts, concepts and generalizations may be more easily understood and recalled when they are associated or related to each other as part of a meaningful whole.
  18. Learn generalizations. These may be useful for explaining chemical phenomena and for predicting new relationships and new facts.
  19. Study your chapter prior to attending lectures. Make it a practice to read over the topic or chapter before going to your chemistry class.
  20. Read your chapter 3 times. First skim over the chapter. Read the lead paragraph and the first sentence in each subsequent paragraph. Read all summaries. Note all graphs, charts, tables, word lists. On your second reading, read in detail. Understand all concepts, terms and formulas before going on. Cover up solutions and work out the problems given in the text. Underline, bracket, jot notes in the margin. Reread sections that are difficult to grasp. On the third reading, take notes. Write down all important concepts, symbols, terms, formulas.
  21. Use at least 2 different chemistry books when studying. Each book will explain it in different words and it will be like having different teachers explaining it to you. If one doesn't make sense, the other book might!
  22. Write and recite explanations to help translate the unfamiliar to the familiar. The more you get involved in the learning process the more you'll recall and understand. Remember to "Say" and "Do." Translate the new information into familiar and readily understandable terms. Capture the line of reasoning used in lecture and in the text. Explain what your have learned to a study partner or even a pet. Form small study groups of four or five members from your lecture or lab. Meet regularly, at least once or twice a week. Work out homework problems, review your lecture and lab notes, compare study notes and help each other prepare for exams. Study groups help you to "SAY" and "DO." You can talk out what you're learning and explain the concepts to each other. You can solve problems together. You can get your questions answered quickly and learn to relate chemistry to other classes and to your everyday life. Most important it can be lots of fun.
  23. Learn general reactions and illustrate each general reaction with specific examples. Where appropriate write the general reaction that corresponds to the specific reaction(s) studied.
  24. In organic chemistry: memorize types of organic compounds and types of organic reactions.
  25. Study biochemistry like organic chemistry and learn metabolic pathways.
  26. Take good, full lecture notes. Successful students usually take down about 66% of what is said in lecture, while failing students write half as much.
  27. Remember that despite all attempts to relate student success to something (like IQ, sex, race, etc.) all have failed except for one: REGULAR CLASS ATTENDANCE. Those that come to class usually succeed! So make it a rule: attend all classes and be an active listener. It is important to be alert and concentrate on what is said in lecture. It is most important to stay current. Do not allow yourself to miss classes and fall behind or the entire course will become an effort and a struggle for you.
  28. Review immediately after class and again 8 hours later. Immediately after lecture review your lecture notes. Fill in any blanks, bracket or star the important points, put summary topic statements in the margins and give your notes more substance by adding facts or statements from your text. Your lecture and textbook notes are "sacred." They are to be studied, restudied and reviewed again and again. Always recite and write out important concepts in your own words if possible.
  29. Always remember you have the right to ask questions before, during and after class. See your instructors during their office hours for help. Notice when you are beginning to get in trouble and seek help immediately.
  30. If chemistry is your most difficult subject, then always study it before all other subjects. You must study chemistry when you are most alert and fresh. Make sure to take 5 or 10 minute breaks every 20­40 minutes in order to clear your mind.
  31. Begin reviewing for exams well in advance and avoid cramming. Practice and work out lots and lots of problems. Make up your own practice tests or get copies of old exams. Give yourself your own timed exams. Test yourself until you can get 100% repeatedly on your own difficult exams.

    a. Create sample tests for yourself and test yourself often.

    b. Give yourself timed tests similar to those you expect in class. Time yourself with a kitchen timer or an alarm. Practice, practice, practice.

  32. Review the types of errors you make and types of questions that cause you difficulty. Give yourself more practice in these areas of difficulty.
  33. Maintain brain and body stamina. Maintain an alert mind and a happy, positive attitude.
  34. Take care of yourself before the exam. Get 7 to 8 hours of sleep in the nights before the exam. Eat a low fat, high protein meal before the exam to keep up your alertness.
  35. Finally, learn how to remain calm, confident, clear, alert and positive on exams.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Biology Tips: Biology Study Skills

  1. Successful biology students have told us they study a minimum of 2 to 3 hours per day, 7 days a week, throughout the semester.
  2. Biology is hard work, so be aggressive. Take it as a challenge and give it your time and your energy. Don't take it with lots of other hard courses or a busy work load.
  3. Know and understand all your terminology. This is one of the keys to success in any field. In biology it is extremely helpful to begin by studying your Latin and Greek roots. This is the basis for many seemingly difficult terms. Study these roots. Make 3" x 5" flash cards to help you memorize them and later do the same with your terminology.
  4. Biology teachers have reported that if something is brought into the lab, it is guaranteed that you will be tested on it. So pay attention to whatever is brought into lab, even its name.
  5. Chemistry is not a pre­requisite for taking biology at Pima College, but taking a chemistry course before taking biology would be exceedingly beneficial.
  6. Make it a practice to read over the topic or chapter before going to your biology class.
  7. Attend all classes and be an active listener. It is important to be alert and concentrate on what is said in lecture. Successful students take full and comprehensive notes, writing down about 66% of what is said in lecture, while failing students write half as much. It is most important to stay current. Do not allow yourself to miss classes and fall behind or the entire course will become an effort and a struggle for you.
  8. After class go over the material as soon as possible and again 8 hours later. Studies have shown that you are more likely to remember the information later. Fill in all the missing words or incomplete explanations. Recite important concepts in your own words.
  9. Always remember you have the right to ask questions before, during and after class. See your instructors during their office hours for help. Notice when you are beginning to get in trouble and seek help immediately.
  10. Read and study all your textbook explanations. You may wish to use at least two or more books. These books are often available in the library. Each book has a different discussion and examples on your topic, and one of these is likely to be helpful to you.
  11. Whenever possible explain aloud to another person what you are learning. Work with a classmate and explain terminology and concepts to each other.
  12. Describe in your own words the similarities and differences between the different concepts you are learning. Do this aloud with someone else.
  13. If biology is your most difficult subject, then always study it before all other subjects. You must study biology when you are most alert and fresh. Make sure to take 5 or 10 minute breaks every 20­40 minutes in order to clear your mind.
  14. Write up summary sheets of biology terminology and concepts and review often. The more you review the more you'll remember. Also visually picture the terms in your minds eye. Visualizing is a powerful technique for remembering terms. Break words into small chunks and picture each chunk until you can recall it. Then put the chunks together. Remember, the knowledge of roots can be extremely helpful.
  15. Making up mnemonics memory techniques may be fun as well as beneficial. For example, if you need to remember the 12 cranial nerves you can take the first letter of each nerve and make up a sentence where each word begins with the first letter of each nerves.
  16. Create sample tests for yourself and test yourself often.
  17. Give yourself timed tests similar to those you expect in class. Time yourself with a kitchen timer or an alarm. Practice, practice, practice.
  18. Review the types of errors you make and types of questions that cause you difficulty. Give yourself more practice in these areas of difficulty.
  19. If possible, have a friend or family member quiz you on your notes and text information. Done regularly this commits more information to long­term memory.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Biology Tips: Biology Reading Skills

  1. IMPORTANT: Have you taken the reading assessment test? Can you read at a level that is adequate for this text? In general, all the college biology texts are at least 12.6 grade level and some are considerably higher. If you read at the adequate level, then the following suggestions may be helpful. What follows is a summary of strategies that are being used by students who are successful in biology. AND YOU CAN SUCCEED TOO!!
  2. Slow down !! The flow of a biology book is not like the flow of a novel. A novel can be read effortlessly, smoothly and rapidly, but biology books cannot be. If you are reading a novel and are somewhat distracted, you can still get the idea of what it is about. When you are not concentrating on biology you will get very little out of it, and it will seem more difficult than it really is.
  3. Every word counts. Biology books are usually not repetitive, so there is little chance of picking something up from reading on. Writers of biology texts believe that extra words and repeats get in the way of clarity.
  4. It is best to tackle each chapter at least 3 times. The first time you should skim the chapter, noting topic sentences, words in bold print, all tables, diagrams and summary charts. This is best read before the lecture. The second reading should be in more detail, studying each area and not proceeding until each section is understood. Reread each section as of many times as necessary until you understand its meaning. Mastery can take minutes or hours or days. The last major reading is for writing down terms and definitions and important concepts (see #6 below).
  5. Talk to yourself as you read. Explain what you have read aloud and make up your own examples to better understand what you have read. Rereading the material aloud, especially in your own words helps clarify the information. Hearing yourself makes a lot of difference.
  6. Words and symbols of biology have specific meanings. Each time you come to a new term or concept, cover up the text and see if you can express the idea aloud in your own words. Write down all the words you don't know. Emphasize words in bold type. Whenever possible write out the definitions in your own words. Strive for understanding the definitions so that you can easily state them in your own words; you are more likely to remember them that way. By saying it out loud and writing it, you are more like to recall it later, when needed.
  7. Study all diagrams and charts. They condense a lot of valuable information. Cover up and see if you can visualize them.
  8. Write as you read.
    • During your first reading write nothing in the text.
    • Don't highlight ­ it slows down reading and it's often used as an excuse for not concentrating.
    • In a later reading, call attention to important words or phrases by underlining them (don't overdo this). Complete sentences or paragraphs should be bracketed and not underlined.
    • Write summarizing statements to yourself in the margin.
    • Make notes to yourself right in the text.
    • Note questions that you need to have clarified.
  9. Record all key points on a separate sheet.
  10. If there are study questions at the end of the chapters, be sure you can answer them. They are good practice for the exam.
  11. Make flash cards with terminology and concepts.
  12. Keep testing yourself on a separate sheet of paper.
  13. Without looking back, write out and say aloud the important points.
  14. Create tasks for yourself as you read the text. After reading an example and working it out for yourself, try to think of other examples that would fit the idea being discussed.
  15. Use more than one book on the topic you are studying whenever possible. Pick books that appeal to you. If you are very verbal, a book with long explanations is likely to be most helpful. If you are more visual, you might choose a book that has more illustrations.
  16. Read the chapter before, and again after, class. You will get the most out of class if you have read the material before the instructor presents it. Even if you felt you understood the material in class, read it over again in the text. The more you review it the more likely you are to recall it.
  17. If possible, have a friend or family member quiz you on your notes and text information. Done regularly, this commits more information to long­term memory.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Speech - Public Speaking

Fundamentals of Speech
"I'm always amazed by the number of students who freak out over having to stand in front of a group and talk. In one word, my advice to them is relax. Second, I'd like to suggest that they enroll in a section of fundamentals of speech. In "fundies," students learn that there is no magic formula for dealing with nervousness. However, they gain valuable confidence and they do learn how to actually make nervousness work for them. And a "fundies" class is the ideal place to get rid of the fear of public speaking. Your classmates are a friendly audience and, at least in most cases, your instructor is pretty friendly too. Everyone wants you to succeed. So if you're nervous about speaking in front of a group, relax and check into the next available section of fundamentals of speech."
- By Tony Peyronel

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Graduate Student Tips: Things you should know

  • Research into anything is like putting out to sea without a chart or compass, and only a vague idea of where you wish to go. This means that what you initially selected as an area of interest or topic to examine may start to appear less interesting or relevant and your topic may start to change. Even data availability, or lack thereof, can alter your direction of research. This is normal and should not be a cause for worry. If the change seems to be major, you should discuss it with your advisor before making radical changes of direction. There are bits of paper on file that specify what you are doing and if you do something else, problems may arise, especially for you!
  • Your aim is not to write the world's greatest thesis on your chosen topic, but to prepare one that is good enough to pass and which does not offer any loose ends that examiners can seize on to fail you, or refer it for rewriting and resubmission. The world's greatest doctoral thesis in your area might take you ten years, but one decent enough to allow you to pass might take only three years. After getting your doctorate, you can always use the seven years that you have saved to develop the thesis into a great book. In the meantime you are "Doctor X", and are qualified to get better jobs and start to earn real money!
  • Many grad students find loneliness a problem. The undergraduates have heaps of friends from the courses they are taking, but research can be a solitary pursuit. There may be few other graduate students around working on things that interest you. In a small university there may be few postgrads of any description. In addition, many universities have structures in place that take care of undergrads and other structures to take care of staff, but have relatively little organized ways of looking after the interests of postgraduates. Sadly, they often fall in between.

If you feel lonely, do not get depressed. Get out and try to make friends, and maybe join a society or two. Join the post graduate society if there is one. If there isn't, perhaps you could consider setting one up to look after the interests of these important but often overlooked members of the university. There may be sports clubs and the like where you can at least find a human being to talk to, after spending hours cooped up in a lab or hunched over a computer. You might well need to seek out human contact.

  • Liaise closely with your advisor. Different advisors have different preferences. Taking my own experience as an example, as a rule of thumb, you can expect to see him or her perhaps once or twice a month in your early days and also towards the end when you are writing up. In the middle period, when you are engaged in gathering data and materials, you may find that you barely need to see your advisor at all.
  • If you are working away from your own university, perhaps in order to gather data, a letter or lengthy Email message from you every month is a good idea: you keep in touch, and s/he remembers you (faculty staff have plenty to do and often several graduate students to supervise - it is easy for them to overlook you should you go off for a year!)
  • Your relationship with your advisor is important. Mostly it works out fine, but if you find that can never get to see your advisor, or s/he is persistently unhelpful, you might have to consider finding a different one. This is not something to undertake lightly, as it can be difficult finding someone else suitable to take you on. An additional issue is that your name might become known and you develop a reputation as a troublesome person. If this happens, it may become hard to find anyone willing to take you on. However, if things really are not working out between the pair of you, then at least try talking to another staff member and investigate the possibility of a switch.
  • Joint supervision, where you have two or more supervisors, can involve specific difficulties. If they are in totally separate disciplines, then you may have few if any problems, e.g., I once happily supervised the economics side of an energy dissertation along with a scientist who did the physics side and we got along famously with the student and each other. If, however, you have two political scientists you will probably find they have three opinions and if they disagree with one another about what you should be doing, or how you should be tackling an issue, then you will be in a no-win situation. Whatever you do will displease one of them.

I knew a student like this in England who was eventually institutionalized for mental problems, which I personally believe had been intensified by the conflicting advice of two supervisors. There was no way he could satisfy both, and I still recall his depression after he had spent several weeks following a certain path that supervisor A suggested, only to be told by supervisor B that it was a total waste of time even to think about that avenue. If you find yourself in a similar situation, I suggest you go and talk to someone in power, like the head of department or dean of faculty, and seek their advice on changing one of your supervisors. Prepare your case carefully, for s/he will not automatically enjoy hearing two members of their staff being criticized. Be cautious also in the way you present your criticisms - make them, but do it as nicely as you can.

  • When you are searching journals or newspapers, say 1990-99, you should start with the latest year and read that; then work backwards to 1998 and read through it. Never start with the earliest year and work forward, as this will waste a lot of your valuable time. It can cause you follow too many threads that lead nowhere; you can spend too much time on details that later turn out not to be needed; and a later article may render out of date an earlier one. It is sensible within a year to work forwards, as the mind seems to prefer this.
  • Start to write really early! Writing improves with practice, so the earlier you start, the better you will get. More importantly, after you have accumulated information on one section of a chapter, it helps to write up what you think the information means, including its significance, its weaknesses, questions it raises but does not answer, and implications for other ideas or theories. Later, when you come to start writing your draft chapters, it will help you a lot if you have earlier written something about the material you have gathered. It is a bad thing to keep reading, taking notes and accumulating more and more facts and details, then filing them away. Several drawers of a filing cabinet full of undigested notes are very off-putting!!
  • Your career as a graduate student tends to fall into three sections.
    • The first section is the beginning, when you find a working title and supervisor, get an idea of what you will be looking for, how you will tackle the subject, do your literature survey and decide on the methodology you will adopt. It varies, but for Ph.D. a minimum of two and a maximum of six months should suffice for section one. The MA degree will usually require less time.
    • Section two is when you go and find the information and data you need. This might involve using the library and Internet, running experiments in your university laboratory, or perhaps doing something like going to live in a new area or abroad to study the local flora and fauna. For a Ph.D., this whole section might take a year or more.
    • Section three is when you analyse the data and write up. I suggest above that you analyse and start writing as your data comes in (i.e. in section two) and not wait until you have a mountain of stuff on paper or in computer files. In section three, you write a draft of each chapter and submit it to your supervisor for comments and approval. It is usually best to do this chapter at a time unless your supervisor asks for something different. Section three will take longer than you expect! Some Ph.D. students think it will be a six month job, but my experience indicates a year or more is common. If you have six chapters to write and must prepare a draft of each, then a final version, and if you take only a month a chapter, you need a year. And for many students, a month is not long for a draft chapter. MA these might be written up in six months.
  • What might your chapter organization look like? Theses vary in the way the chapters are laid out. Much depends on your discipline, actual topic, and approach selected, but in some disciplines a sensible chapter layout might look like this:
    • Chapter 1: Introduction, justification for the title and thesis, why the subject is important, how little is known about it and so on.
    • Chapter 2: Methodology and literature search results.
    • Chapters 3 -5 or more: "the meat" part - what you have discovered. This must be presented in fashion which is logical for your discipline and thesis title. For example, in a history thesis it might be Chapter 3, The arguments for and against the issue; Chapter 4, The early years and policy introductions; Chapter 5, the later years and policy changes in response to experience and any emerging problems, followed by the results. Your knowledge of your discipline, and the example of other theses already written about similar topics, should help you.
    • Chapter 6: Conclusions and recommendations. This is usually a relatively short chapter, that sums up your findings.
  • It is a good idea to try to keep the length of your chapters roughly similar. If you find chapter 5 is three times the length of any other chapter, then it cries out to be split up into two or maybe three chapters, rather than left as one. Naturally, your introductory chapter is often shorter than the others, and the literature/methodology chapter might also be a little shorter, but this is by no means always the case.
  • Write your chapters in a sensible order, which is not necessarily 1, 2,….7. For many students the best chapter to start with is the first "meat" one, followed by the other "meat" ones in sensible order, then the literature search/methodology one, and finally the first and last chapters. Generally it pays to write the draft first chapter and final chapter last, to ensure that they do not contradict, and you clearly demonstrate that you have done what you set out to do. Whatever you feel comfortable with is probably good for you. Just remember that you do not have to write the chapters in the order of the final thesis.
  • Many advisors prefer to see your draft chapters one at a time, then hand them back with comments. You then rewrite the chapter. After that you put in another draft chapter and the process continues. In this case, your advisor may wish to see all the final drafts together, i.e. your thesis as a whole for a last look over.
  • Other advisors may prefer to see your thesis as a complete draft, and hand it back with comments for you to write the final version. You are better off following the preferences of your advisor. You do not wish to annoy him or her, you have to work together, and at the end you may need a reference from the person.
  • As a graduate student, you will almost certainly have more free time at your disposal than you will ever have in the rest of your working life. Try to use this time sensibly, profitably, and enjoyably! And good luck with that research!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Graduate Student Tips: Things you find useful

  • A small notebook to carry at all times and note down any sudden ideas you get about your research topic, possible questions, possible sources, anything at all…! Ideas can come when you least expect them. Make sure you have pen and paper by your bed, as you might wake up with a brilliant thought. Always write any ideas down at once: that way you can relax and get back to sleep if it happens to be 3 in the morning.
  • You must have access to a computer - preferably your own - with a word processing program. You will need a printer too, but your university probably has a computer room that allows you to print up stuff. Notebook computers are convenient and fun, but expensive for what they are. They are also more likely to be stolen, or else bumped and banged into oblivion, when compared with a desktop model. Unless you are wealthy, or have generous wealthy parents, a sturdy desk model is best.
  • Your own computer is really useful: you do not have to wait for set times when you are allowed to use a computer room, or hang about in the room waiting for someone to get up and leave. Nor will you have to stop suddenly and leave if the room has been booked for a classroom teaching session. And you can work at 11 at night on your own computer, should you wish, whereas the university ones may be closed.
  • You do not need the latest, fastest, greatest computer that just became available yesterday. Anything that will run your basic software will do. If you know someone who insists on upgrading and replacing all the time, that person can be a great source of a cheap computer. Buying anything secondhand can be tricky, but if you know the person is a genuine geek, and they will demonstrate it for you, then you can save an awful lot over buying new. The price of used computers tend to drop like a stone, as technology advances so quickly.
  • You will probably find access to the internet essential. There is much information out there. But Murphy's Law insists that you have to do a lot of searching among mountains of dross to find a valuable nugget. The internet can easily start to use up a lot of your valuable time. You can collaborate with others working in your area by email, as well as search for materials of value.
  • You will need pens, pencils, liquid paper, a ruler, a small notebook and a larger notepad, unless you write directly onto a computer.
  • Get hold of a copy of the rules and regulations that apply to your research, and notice things such as what length of thesis is specified, how many years you have, and what sort of layout is expected. I know they are boring, but you will have to follow those rules eventually.
  • Early on, it is a good idea to chose a Working Title and then draft out a Contents Page for your thesis. Don't worry about sticking to it - you will find it alters as your research proceeds but you need an outline to try to work to. Otherwise you can waste months, even years, reading too widely and without discipline or direction. I know - I did this, under a poor supervisor, when I started!
  • Have a look at a few theses in your university library and see how they are laid out and organised. When you have read the summary and contents pages of four or five theses you will probably start to observe there is something of a standard pattern. Universities and disciplines vary, but generally you might expect to find somewhere between 5 and 9 chapters is normal, with perhaps 6-7 being typical.
  • Check your library's holdings of Ph.D. and MA theses that might be relevant to your topic and glance over them to see if they contain information that you can use. You might get some ideas about organization from them too.
  • Make a list of all the journals that may contain articles that will be relevant to your needs. A computer search is a good idea, but first talk to the library staff and pick their brains about how best to search, where to search, and which search engines or journals in your particular library will allow you free access and free printing up of relevant articles.
  • Many university libraries have CD Roms of reference material. Again talk to the librarians and see what they have that you can use.
  • Do a literature search for all articles and books that refer to your topic. Usually, the books you find will cover more general issues, but the articles will be more specifically devoted to a smaller and more specific part of what you seek.
  • You also need to consider methodology, which means how you intend to tackle the issue and what approach you will adopt. If you have no training in this, read a book about scientific method; notice that we try to refute not confirm ideas, and consider for yourself what constitutes a valid test, and what kind of statistical tests may be available for your discipline and the particular topic you are researching.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Graduate Student Tips: Things to do early

  • You need to find a topic. Decide what general area of your discipline or subject-area interests you the most, then jot down some ideas about possible specific topics. You can talk to your fellow students and bounce ideas off them and also talk to your possible supervisor, or any staff member who will agree. If you have a strong interest or hobby in your non-academic life, at least consider if you can get a topic that relates in someway, however obscure. This can give you a stronger motivation, while your experience in the area can help you develop ideas and avoid making silly mistakes.
  • You will probably have coursework to do as part of your Ph.D. program; in the USA this is a normal part of the process. Some topics will be required, others might well be optional. For the optional ones, your general area of interest, and any inklings you might have of a specific topic, determine what particular courses will be the most useful to you.
  • In some countries, notably the United Kingdom, there may be no requirement to undertake courses, but your advisor (USA) or supervisor (UK, Australia, and other countries) is likely to suggest some courses that would be useful. Take the person's advice. If they do not volunteer such information, ask them what courses they would recommend. You might write them a short note in advance of a meeting, to allow them time to think about the alternatives and consider which courses might be most useful in your particular case. Your particular academic background and area of research will be important factors in their decision.
  • You will probably need to find a supervisor unless you came to the university by arrangement with someone to supervise you. You can ask:
    • Any of the staff members you know, as to who might be suitable.
    • The staff in the departmental office, about who is an expert in what area/discipline
    • Your ex-personal tutor, if you had one as an undergraduate, about whom s/he can recommend.
  • When you find someone who says that they might be prepared to supervise you, arrange to see them to discuss possibilities. Take any notes you have made about the areas that interest you and possible topics with you.
  • At some universities, your advisor will be allocated to you. In my view this is undesirable, but if your university is like this, there is little you can do.
  • In the USA, most universities have a dissertation committee. This can help you to formulate your topic and the exact questions you will be tackling. If you have the option to select your committee (rather than having one allocated to you), ask around about people. Other postgraduates who are further down the track than you may be able to advise you about the staff. If you can, go for people with experience, as well as in your area of interest. Personal chemistry can come into it; if you detest your advisor, it clearly will not help you to do well.
  • You will normally have to prepare a formal research proposal in order to get accepted into the graduate school and then be allowed to proceed to do the research. This should be carefully written and laid out in order to impress. Sloppy writing, poor grammar, misspellings, and vague waffle will damage your cause and could easily result in rejection.
  • You might divide it into clear sections, in a logical way. Perhaps something like:
    • A statement of the area of research and why you are interested in it
    • Why this is an important topic to be researched; what contribution to knowledge it will make
    • A listing of several questions that you would like to answer
    • Possibly one or more hypotheses that you wish to test
    • A brief review of what other work has already been published in this area
    • The sort of methodology you think might be appropriate
  • There are no rules about the length, but a dozen pages or so would not be too many, but it rather depends on your topic and how you lay out your proposal. Fifty pages on the other hand would definitely be too long!
  • ]Do not be dogmatic or assertive at this stage of your proposal; you do not wish to alienate someone with power who might hold a strong but opposite view to yours!
  • It is normal to start your research with a fairly wide coverage of interest and narrow it down as time passes and your research progresses. In some universities this is accepted as normal and approved virtually automatically. In others, you may have to go through a formal process of changing your dissertation title.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Trials and Tribulations in College

Physical Fitness
"It's a tough job to be a student. The endless assignments and stockpiles of information. It can make you into an academic couch potato. Therefore, don't neglect a balanced lifestyle -- the active with the academic. Keep your physical self in tune. There's substantial evidence which shows that high academic performance is more likely to occur when you're physically fit. Obvious conclusion? Routinely take yourself out for a jog, or a vigorous walk, or hit some racketballs, or play basketball -- whatever you can enjoy. Make it something that cranks your internal machinery into high gear for at least twenty minutes each time. Do this no less than three times a week. Wow -- that can be an investment of only an hour a week, and it's basically free. In return, your body will thank you and your brain will be refreshed."
- By Bob Gensemer

Seek Help When Needed
"Take this tip from a student who knows. Don't let those studies get behind. If you're having a difficult time in a course, falling behind, or spending too much time having a good time, this message is for you. Ask for help now, before it's too late. When I started college, I wasn't aware of the importance of an education. I was a freshman who didn't know what I wanted. When I fell behind, I skipped class rather than going for help. This put me on academic probation. I was lucky though, I found help through the Academic Support Services. They helped me find a direction, and I learned there are tutors available to help with those troubled classes. Class stopped being a burden and began to be interesting. I realized I could do the work and people here helped me to focus. If you feel like things are generally over your head, get help. There are people who care about you and want you to succeed. Take advantage of the help that is provided to you. Remember, you are here for a reason. Don't party yourself out of school. You can do it."
- By Tracy Hergenroeder

Withdrawing From a Course
"None of us likes to have to quit in the middle of something we've started, but sometimes it's the only alternative. Withdrawing from a course is not something to be taken lightly, but unforeseen things can happen that make it necessary. If you find yourself in the position of having to withdraw from a class, know the rules. The last day to withdraw from a class with a "W" grade is posted at the beginning of every semester. After the official withdrawal date, withdrawing from a class is possible for extenuating circumstances, but it's a more complicated procedure and it will only be approved if the reasons are truly extenuating. Keep in mind that poor classroom performance is NOT an extenuating circumstance. It is also important to be familiar with any financial aid implications before withdrawing from a class."
- By Linda Lacny

Campus Involvement
"The college experience is certainly a unique one that will have many implications for the rest of your life. It is important to dive right in. The experience will be more rewarding and enjoyable if you step right up to the plate. Get involved in campus life, not only in the classroom, but in other areas as well. Life will surely be easier if it is shared with the people around you. Many students are timid when it comes to talking with others, especially teachers. Talking with and getting to know your instructors is as important as showing up for class. Teacher-student involvement is an indication of a serious and committed student. So study hard, get involved, and enjoy yourself!"
- By Shawn Reagan

Top Ten Reasons: Why Are You Flunking Out?
"I'm bringing you, direct from the home office in Sioux City, Saskatchewan Today's "Top Ten List." The subject of this Academic Survival Top Ten List is "why are you flunking out of Edinboro University?" O.K., here we go, the top ten reasons you're flunking out of Edinboro is:

#10 All the professors in this school are morons.

# 9 The cafeteria food is secretly laced with a chemical that makes me stupid.

# 8 A college degree is over rated. Sharon Stone did not complete her Edinboro academic program and look how famous she is.

# 7 A college degree is really unnecessary. John Wayne Bobbitt doesn't have an Edinboro degree and he seems to have put things back together pretty well.

# 6 The scheduling computer predetermines my failure. How could I possibly be expected to attend classes that begin before noon?

# 5 My QPA is 0.20 right now. However next semester I'm joining the fraternity. They have all the tests and required academic materials on file so I can expect a 4.00 next Fall.

# 4 I'm an important link in the local Edinboro economy. Shoot, if I went to class and studied, the "Hotel" would probably go bankrupt.

# 3 Human development necessitates a prioritizing of one's life. Right now I'm concentrating on my socialization skills.

# 2 It's not what you know but who you know. So right now I'm dating 3 of my professors.

# 1 I'm not failing the system, the system is failing me.

O.K., so there are a lot of reasons for not doing well academically. However, some day you've got to accept that you, and you alone are responsible for your life and its success or failure. If you are not trying to be the best student you can be right now, you're wasting time, money and risking your chances of future happiness. Quit whining! Get to class and keep up on your assignments. That task should be #1 on your 'Top Ten List.' "
- By Doug Watts

College and Alcohol Reading
"Most people come to college expecting to have a good time while they're here, and some think that means drinking games or chugging contests. Did you know that most students at Edinboro don't drink heavily? Fewer than half drink even once a week, and only one in five drinks three nights a week or more. On the whole, at every campus in the country -- including Edinboro -- the less students drink, the better their grades are. Think about it. If you drink lightly -- or not at all -- you're much less likely to miss classes, do poorly on an exam, have trouble concentrating, or have to spend time dealing with the aftermath of a binge. So take a minute to look at your lifestyle and make some healthy decisions about alcohol and other drug use. If you choose not to abuse, you not only have a lot of company at Edinboro, but you're far more likely to succeed academically."
- By Mary Anne Weiner

Stay Clean and Stay Cool
"College can be a transitional period for many students. It's hard to know what to expect--academic pressures, different environment, making new friends and "fitting in". WOW! I used to think fitting in meant hanging out with my friends and drinking all the time. Now that I am in graduate school, I realize that one doesn't have to drink to have fun. Alcohol is a drug. You don't have to drink or do drugs to be 'cool'. Be high on life, not drugs. And remember it is O.K. to say NO. Don't let someone tell you that you have to drink or it's O.K. to just have one beer. If you don't want it don't take it. If someone is your friend they'll understand."
- By Valerie Smith