Yes We Chem!: Passing Everything from Calculus to OChem

Organic chemistry. Multivariable calculus. Intro to physics.

These academic beasts are keeping an important secret: you can pass them! Here are some important tips to help you emerge from these classes with fists held high.

1. Tell yourself, “Yes, I can!” This or that friend told you how difficult the class was or how many times they had to retake it. This doesn’t have to be true for you. The two most important things you can do for yourself are 1) believe that you can pass your difficult class and 2) prepare yourself to pass.

2. Get the lowdown on Past students may give you great hints about how to prepare for a class and what to expect from your professor. For example, past students of professor Matthew Linford, who teaches Chem 105 and 106, suggest meeting with the TAs and doing the readings before the class to keep up with the fast-paced lectures. Don’t forget to study the slides and iClicker quizzes! Great advice, courtesy of

3. Keep your schedule open. “Make sure that your [classes, work, and other activities allow] you to dedicate plenty of time to the class,” computer science professor Ken Rodham advises. “Assume you will need more time than the average student, and plan your schedule accordingly.” Take fewer credits or lighten your work schedule if needed, he adds.

4. Set study goals. Outline times each day when you can dedicate time to your subject. Plan what you will study and how you will study it. Spend most of your time on concepts that are difficult for you—the amount of time you study is less important than the quality of studying you do. Remember that cramming is the enemy of science and math.

5. Get help. “Make sure you get help early: from the instructor, TAs, or peers. Let them know you need help, be engaged, and follow up,” Jean-Francois Van Huele, a physical science 100 professor, commented. Many classes have a teaching assistant (TA), and some offer labs outside of class. “Attend open labs during the morning (not late afternoon) and go on days when homework is not due,” stats 121 professor William Christensen suggests.

6. Form a study group. Study groups can be a great opportunity to collaborate and learn from peers. Within a group, you can learn difficult concepts and work out problems that take longer to understand on your own. Duke University offers great advice to create effective study groups here. Or get a study partner. “Commit to when you will work on the homework,” stats 121 professor Natalie Blades suggests. “Come and work on it together in the open lab—where you can get help right away from our TAs if you have trouble.”

7. Read and seek to understand the material before class. Reading is time-consuming, but it will prepare you to understand material taught in class and to ask questions about material you didn’t understand. If you can’t read before class, reinforce what you learned in class by reading afterward. “If you struggle with a particular topic, you cannot afford to not read,” Rodham says. “ . . . You will recoup your time investment in being able to complete assignments more quickly, and you will perform better in class.” Michael Jones, a computer science professor, advises students: “Don’t read past any words or ideas you don’t understand. . . . figure out what that term or equation means before you go on.” Reading and marking a textbook is actually a skill that can be learned. Check out tips on the Career and Academic Success Center website here.

8. Ask questions. “If you are not understanding something, ask,” Christophe Giraud-Carrier, professor of academic beasts such as CS236, suggests. “Chances are if you don’t understand it, there are several others who do not either, but one of you must ask; otherwise, the instructor has no way to know.”

9. Treat school like a full-time job. Get to your work meetings on time (attend every lecture), finish every project you’re assigned (do the homework), and become the expert of your subject (take great notes). Slacking may get you fired (a bad grade).

–> Attend every lecture. Christensen explains that some students skip statistics lectures in the beginning because the concepts seem deceptively simple. But later on, the difficulty seems to increase. “I would argue that the difficulty hasn’t increased, but . . . we are [combining] different ideas from earlier on, and lecture hours become increasingly crucial . . . to put the pieces together,” he says.

–> Do the homework. “As they say, practice makes perfect,” calculus professor Pace Nielsen advises. “Only by really getting our hands dirty do we come to understand how things work.” Practice difficult problems until you get the hang of them. Avoid the temptation to look at a solution before solving the problem. Get help from a TA, peer, or professor to help you understand the process of solving the problem.

–> Take good notes. If you have trouble keeping up with the lecture, consider recording it. You can fill in incomplete notes after class with your recording. Review your notes within 24 hours after you take them, and regularly after that. Actively memorize concepts from your notes rather than just reading them. This will increase your ability to retain and understand the information. Consider leaving a large margin next to your notes where you can later write mock test questions or summarize the material.

10. Say “no!” to zombification. Optimize your study mode by going to bed earlier and eating every meal. Don’t forget to take a 10-minute break for every 50 minutes of studying.

If all else fails… don’t plan on failing the class, but don’t be ashamed if, in the end, you do need to retake it. Some students may “need the extra time to master the material,” Rodham explains. Before you retake the class, however, check out BYU’s retake policy here.

For more helpful hints, check out the resources below.

Other Great Resources

—Eve Hart Smith, College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences


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