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Artist's depiction of an exoplanetary system, SSC Astronomy 141:
Life in the Universe
Prof. Richard Pogge, MTWThF 12:30

How To Study for the Quizzes

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

Where to start? This guide is based on talking to a number of students and trying to help get them make effective use of their limited 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

Start with the Study Guides available the week before each quiz. These are lists of the main topics that will be covered on a particular in-class quiz. Each of the 4 in-class quizzes covers only the material we have discussed since the last quiz. Only the final draws upon the entire quarter.

You will notice that the study guides closely mirror the "Key Ideas" that begin each lecture. 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 primarily test on the Core Concepts, with second place given to the most important examples or illustrations of those ideas (particularly those that are essential to developing the core concepts). I only very rarely draw upon the background material. In particular, I never ask about dates, places, biographical details, etc., so these should never figure in what you study.

To make sure that the study guide is failr, I use it as my outline when creating a quiz. After I've put together the draft quiz, I go over the quiz with the study guide and check off items to make sure I have covered the topics with the balance I'm seeking. I won't always be able to cover all topics, but I get most of them in any given quiz (my quizzes are made up fresh each time I teach).

How to Study

a With the study guide in hand, how do you then go into the lecture notes and study for an quiz?

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 
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 for each lecture is your guide to 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 material, and won't appear on any quiz, 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 quiz. That's why the Key Ideas for this lecture are statements of his 3 Laws of Motion, and include none of the background info.

The idea is to develop 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 in this class. This is because flash cards 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 quizzes, try this little experiment. Take one of your in-class quizzes and the set of flash cards you used to study before that quiz. 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 quiz, or that even it was on the quiz the card wouldn't have helped.
Every one of my past students of intro Astronomy who has done this exercise has found that 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: 2009 September 21
Copyright Richard W. Pogge, All Rights Reserved.