How to Study Science Independently: Advice for High School Science Students
by Linda Jeschofnig, M.S. and Peter Jeschofnig, Ph.D.

It is so unfortunate that many people develop a fear of science somewhere early in life. Yes, the natural sciences are not the easiest subjects to learn, but neither are they the hardest. In the authors' opinion, the sciences are the most fun and the most useful of all subjects to study.

Like in any other academic endeavor, if you responsibly apply yourself, conscientiously study your course materials, and thoughtfully complete your assignments you will learn the material. Here are some basic hints for effectively studying science - or any other subject - both on or off campus.

Plan to Study: You must schedule a specific time and establish a specific place in which to seriously, without interruptions or distractions, devote yourself to your studies. Think of studying like you would think of a job, except that now your job is to learn. Jobs have specific times and places in which to get the work done and studying should be no different. Just as television, friends, and other distraction are not permitted on a job, don't permit them to interfere with your studies. You cannot learn when you are distracted. If you want to do something well you must be serious about it. Only after you have finished your studies should you allow time for distractions.

Get in the Right Frame of Mind: Think positively about yourself and what you are doing. Give yourself a pat on the back for being a serious student and put yourself in a positive frame of mind to enjoy what you are about to learn. Then get to work! Organize any materials and equipment you will need in advance so you don't have to interrupt your thoughts to find them later. Look over your syllabus and any other instructions and know exactly what your assignment is and what is expected of you. Review in your mind what you have already learned. Is there anything that you aren't sure about? Write it down as a formal question, then go back over previous materials and try to answer it yourself. If you haven't figured out the answer after a reasonable amount of time and effort, move on. The question will germinate inside your mind and the answer will probably present itself as you continue your studies. If not, at least the question is already written down so you can post it to a discussion board or discuss it with your instructor.

Be Active with the Material: Learning is reinforced by relevant activity. When studying feel free to talk to yourself, scribble notes, draw pictures, pace out a problem, tap out a formula, etc. The more physically active things you do with study materials the better you will learn. Have highlighters, pencils, and note pads handy. Highlight important data, read it out loud, make notes. If there is a concept you are having problems with stand up and pace while you think it through. Try to see the action taking place in your mind. Throughout your day try to recall things you have recently learned, incorporate them into your conversations, and teach them to friends. These activities will help to imprint the related information in your brain and move you from simple knowledge to true understanding of the subject matter.

Do the Work and Think about What You Are Doing: Sure, there are times when you might get away with taking a shortcut in your studies, but in doing so you will only shortchange yourself. The things we really learn are the things we discover ourselves. That is why we don't learn as much from simple lectures, passive videos, or when someone tells us the answers to our questions. Discovery learning, figuring things out for ourselves, is the most effective and long-lasting form of learning. When you have an assignment don't just go through the motions. Enjoy your work, think about what you are doing, be curious, ask yourself questions, examine your results, and consider the implications of your findings. These "critical thinking" techniques will improve and enrich your learning process. When you complete your assignments independently and thoroughly, you will be genuinely knowledgeable and can be very proud of yourself.

There is no denying that learning through any method of independent study is a lot different than learning through classes held in traditional classrooms. A great deal of personal motivation and discipline is needed to succeed in an independent course of science study where there are no instructors or fellow students to give you structure and feedback. But these problems are not insurmountable, and meeting the challenges of independent science study can provide tremendous personal growth and satisfaction. The key to success in an independent course of science study is in having a personal study plan and the personal discipline to stick to that plan.

Properly Use Your Learning Tools: The basic tools for web-based courses and other distance learning methods are often similar and usually consist of computers, software, videos, textbooks, and study guides. Double-check with your course instructor to make sure you acquire all the materials you will need. These items are usually obtained from a campus bookstore, library, or via the Internet. Related course lectures and videos may even be broadcast on your local public and educational television channels. If you choose to do your laboratory experimentation independently you will need to acquire the special equipment and supplies described in your lab manual or you may purchase an academically aligned LabPaq which contains course specific science equipment and supplies.

For each study session first work through the appropriate sections of your course materials. These basically serve as a substitute for classroom lectures and demonstrations. Take notes as you would in a regular classroom. Actively work with any computer and text materials, carefully review your study guide, and complete all related assignments. If you do not feel confident about the material covered repeat these steps until you do. It is a good idea to always review your previous work before proceeding to a new section. This reinforces what you previously learned and prepares you to better absorb new information. Actual experimenting is among the last things done in a laboratory session.

Plan to Study: A normal science course with a laboratory component may require you to spend as much as 15 hours a week studying and completing your assignments. To really learn new material requires at least 3 hours of study time each week for each hour of course credit taken. This applies as equally to independent study as it does to regular classroom courses. On a school campus science students are usually in class for 3 hours and in the laboratory for 2 to 3 hours each week. They then still need at least 9 hours to read their text and complete their assignments. Knowing approximately how much time is required will help you to formulate a study plan at the beginning of the course; then you must stick to it.

Schedule Your Time Wisely: The more often you interact with study materials and call them to mind, the more likely you are to reinforce and retain the information. Thus, it is much better to study in several short blocks of time rather than in one long, mind-numbing session. Accordingly, you should schedule several study periods throughout the week or better yet, during a little time each day. Please do not try to do all of your study work on the week-ends! You will burn yourself out, you won't really learn much, and you will probably end up feeling miserable about yourself and science too! Wise scheduling can prevent such unpleasantness and frustration.

Choose the Right Place for Your Home Laboratory: The best place to perform hands-on science experiments at home will be determined by the nature of the individual experiments. This is usually an uncluttered room that has these important features:

 a door that can be closed to keep out children and pets,
 a window or door that can be opened for fresh air ventilation and fume exhaust;
 a source of running water for fire suppression and cleanup,
 a counter or table-top work surface, and
 a heat source such as a stove top, hot dish or Bunsen burner
The kitchen usually meets all these requirements, but you must clean your work area well both before and after experimentation. This will keep foodstuff from contaminating your experiment and your experiment materials from contaminating your food. Sometimes a bathroom makes a good laboratory, but it can be rather cramped and subject to a lot of interruptions. Review your lab manual's safety sections to help you identify good locations for a home-lab

Reading each experiment before starting work will also help you select the most appropriate work area for that experiment. Some science equipment and supplies may pose dangers to small children and animals, so never forget to keep safety in mind when selecting a work area and always chose one where you cannot be disturbed by children or pets.

Using a Lab Partner: Most science experiments can be performed independently, but it can be fun as well as useful to have a lab partner to discuss ideas with, to help with taking measurements, and to reinforce your learning process. Whether the partner you choose is a parent, spouse, sibling, or friend, you will have to explain what you are doing, and in the process of teaching another you will better cement the information in your mind and teach yourself. Always review your labs a few days ahead of time so you have time to line up a partner to help you if needed.

Perform Internet Research: Students in today's cyber information age are often unaware of how fortunate they are to have so much information available at the click of a computer mouse. Consider how researchers of the past had to physically go to libraries, search through card catalogs for possible sources of information, and then often wait weeks to receive books and journals that then may not have contained the information they needed. They then had to begin their search all over again! Today, students can find in a matter of minutes information that took days, weeks, and months to find just a few decades ago!

Since most courses today include online components, it is assumed that you have reasonable computer skills. If you make ample use of those skills and include online research as part of your study routine, you can greatly enhance your depth of learning as well as improve your grades. Keep a browser open as you review your course materials and lab assignments. When you encounter words and concepts that you have difficulty fully understanding, perform a quick web search on key words and then review three, four or as many sites as needed until you get the definition or concept clear in your mind.

Web searches are especially valuable in science. For example, if you have difficulty with a concept, you can usually perform an “image” search in a search engine that will help visually clarify the object of your interests. Perform a “text” search and you can find descriptions and information from leading scientists at famous institutions all over the world. For unfamiliar terms, input “define” plus the term into the browser's search engine and a myriad of differently phrased definitions will be available to help you grasp the meaning of a questioned term.

Your text and lab manual should list numerous respected websites that you may find very useful, and you will undoubtedly find many more on your own. Rely only on trusted government and educational institutions as sources for valid research data. Double-check and be especially skeptical of information garnered from personal blogs and sites such as where anyone, regardless of their expertise or integrity, can edit and modify the information the site contains. As students all over the world are finding, the worldwide web is a treasure trove of information, but remember that not all of it is valid information!

One additional caution: while printed website links are valid at the time of printing, one of the drawbacks of the internet is that many good websites occasionally become unavailable or change URLs. However, if that happens, you can simply go to one of the other sites listed or perform a web search for more current sites.

Linda and Peter Jeschofnig were pioneers in the distance science field. They are the founders of Hands-On Labs, Inc. and the producers of LabPaqs (   ).

They developed a chemistry LabPaq in 1993 to provide real-world, at-home, chemistry lab experiences for Peter's distance-learning students at Colorado Mountain College (CMC) in Glenwood Springs, CO. As they became more involved with distance education, they observed a lack of experiential lab opportunities for other distance-science courses and formed Hands-On Labs, Inc. to fill this gap.

The Jeschofnigs share this motto: "Adventure is intellectual curiosity in action!" They whole-heartedly believe in experiential learning, love to discover new things, travel to exotic places, meet new people, encounter different cultures, and share these experiences with friends and students. 
How to Study Science Independently: Advice for High School Science Students