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Saturn from Voyager 2 Astronomy 161:
An Introduction to Solar System Astronomy
Prof. Richard Pogge, MTWThF 9:30

How To Study for the Exams

As most students quickly realize, Astronomy 161 is very "content rich". This often makes studying for the exams a daunting task.

So, where do you start? This guide is based on talking to a number of students and trying to help get them on track to making effective use of their study time. I hope people find the advice useful, but as with all advice, it is not a guarantee of performance, though many past students who've taken this approach have shown improvement.

Study Guides

The first place to start in preparing to study for a particular exam is with the Study Guides that are made available a week before each exam. Each of these is a list of the main topics that will be covered on a particular in-class exam. Each of the 4 in-class exams covers only the material we have discussed since the last exam. Only the final exam draws upon the entire quarter.

You will quickly notice that the list of topics on the study guide mirrors the "Key Ideas" list that I begin each lecture with during a unit. This same list comes at the top of each lecture's notes. This is no accident: the key ideas list the core concepts covered by each lecture.

My lectures contain three basic types of content, in order of decreasing importance:

  1. Core Concepts: These are the basic ideas I want to get across in each lecture.

  2. Examples and Illustrations: These are what I use to give illustrative examples explaining the core concepts.

  3. Background Material: These include historical background, anecdotes that put the ideas into historical, cultural, or scientific context, etc.
In general, I test primarily on the Core Concepts, but I will also include the most important examples or illustrations of those ideas where I think they are essential to those concepts. Very rarely will I draw upon the background material. In that regard, I never ask about dates, places, biographical details, etc., so these should never figure in what you study.

As it happens, the study guide is my outline for making up the exam. After I've put together the draft exam, I go over the exam with the study guide and check off items to make sure I have covered the topics I want to with the balance I'm seeking. I won't always be able to cover all topics, but I get better than 90% of them in any given exam (my exams are made up fresh each time I teach, I don't believe in just falling back on historical exams).

How to Study

Using the study guide, how do you then go into the lecture notes and study for an exam?

Let's take a concrete example. In the notes for the lecture on Newton's Laws of Motion, move past the historical background material and look at the part titled Force, Mass, & Acceleration. This section actually poses three questions:

 Question 1: What do forces do?
 Answer: Forces produce accelerations

 Question 2: How much does a force make something accelerate?
 Answer: The more mass an object has, the less it is accelerated by a
         given force.

 Question 3: In what direction does a force accelerate an object?
 Answer: The acceleration is in the same direction as the applied 
         force.
You can see how I broke down the section into little question/answer pairs. Some sections go so far as to actually pose explicit question/answer pairs, in others this is more subtle, but it is there nonetheless.

The study guide and the Key Ideas list that begins each lecture is your guide to helping you decide which of the subsections of a given lecture are the core concepts (like the example above), and which are illustration and background. For example, in the Newton lecture, the info about Newton's life and intellectual development are background, and won't appear on any exam, while the sections describing his laws of motion, examples of those laws in action, and the implications of these laws for how things move are core concepts and will appear on the exam.. That's why the Key Ideas for this lecture are just statements of his 3 Laws of Motion, and include none of the background info.

What I'm trying to get you to do is to get in the habit of turning the class material into questions, and then answering those questions for yourself. In many ways, this is what I do when I make up a test. I pick a core concept (e.g., Newton's Third Law), and ask myself "what is a good question that will test their understanding of this idea".

Why Flash Cards aren't such a good idea

I have found that making up flash cards and using them to try to memorize particular facts doesn't help all that much in this class. This is because what flash cards do is try to boil things down too much into little disconnected factoids. As should be obvious from above, if all you do is memorize factoids, you won't be connecting questions with answers. Instead, you'll just be loading up your head with lots of disconnected facts and miss the important ideas that connect them.

Despite what you may have been taught after years of public education, flash cards are rarely useful in science classes. If you have tried using flash cards on previous exams, try this little experiment. Take one of your in-class exams and the set of flash cards you used to study before that exam. Go through your flash cards one by one and make two piles:

  1. Cards that if you had been have them with you during the test would have given you the right answer to a question actually asked.

  2. Cards that contained information that was either not on the exam, or that even it was on the exam the card wouldn't have helped.
Every student of Astronomy 161 or 162 who has done this exercise has found the "not useful" pile is a lot bigger than the "would have helped" pile. In most cases, maybe 4 or 5 cards are of any use. Not a good percentage for a 50 question test.


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Updated: 2005 October 2
Copyright Richard W. Pogge, All Rights Reserved.