Tackling STEM Courses

The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) journey at Harvard is unique to each student and can involve several different interests, concentrations, and pathways. Whether you are probing your interest in STEM for the first time or have already explored STEM deeply here or in high school, there is a place for you!

What can be challenging about STEM courses at Harvard?

  • STEM courses in college often cover a broader range of topics at an increased level of detail than students are used to from their high school experiences.
  • STEM coursework requires the development of new skills.
  • Students are sometimes surprised by the amount of time needed to understand the material fully.
  • Assignments often involve work that goes beyond practicing what was explicitly taught in class, which means students have to apply the material to less familiar contexts and combine ideas in novel ways.
  • Assessments may be less frequent and, as a result, cover a substantial amount of material.

One step towards overcoming these challenges is to adjust your approach to learning to reflect the differences between STEM coursework in college and STEM coursework in high school.

How to work towards absorbing so much new information.

  • Preview textbook readings or course slides before class to get a handle on the topic of the day and why it’s important.
  • Previewing the material will help you stay engaged in lecture and pick out the most important pieces of information.
  • Review lecture slides after class to practice recalling the big ideas and to guess what might be asked of you on a problem set or exam.
  • Review or self-test a couple of times in the hours after class or section to improve recall dramatically!

How to stay on top of homework due weekly or even less frequently.

  • Be intentional in planning your time to complete this more substantial work.
  • Starting early is the biggest way to prevent memory loss from class and to allow yourself to take advantage of all of the resources available in your courses, such as question centers, instructor office hours, or ARC peer tutoring.
  • Spread the work over multiple sessions to allow time for both multiple approaches and the incubation effect (an aha moment).
  • Engaging with other learners is important, but do so after you have attempted the assigned problems to ensure that you fully understand the work you are submitting. Be sure to adhere to the course collaboration policies.

How to meet the challenge of solving problems that seem unfamiliar.

  • Start early. Give yourself time to figure out the connections and to get help if the problems seem too unfamiliar.
  • Sometimes the problems look different mostly on the surface, so it’s important to practice identifying structural similarities between the problems you’ve seen so far and what’s being asked on a particular assignment.
  • Course office hours and question centers are a great way to get help with finding these connections.
  • Talking through practice problems with an ARC Peer Tutor can help you discover the structural similarities.

How to study for exams that cover a lot of material and occur infrequently.

  • Start studying for exams early – as early as the first homework assignment. By completing your homework in ways that help you construct robust memories of the concepts, you will already be studying for exams.
  • When you complete an assignment, take a moment to summarize what you learned in order to synthesize the key takeaways.
  • Review key takeaways regularly and continue to add to the list as the semester passes. Frequent review makes studying for exams easier because you will have thought about these big ideas relatively recently.
  • Experiment with self-testing and spaced repetition of various topics over multiple days.
  • Practice exactly what you’ll be asked to do. Many courses will offer practice questions with their solutions; however, you need to work out the answers to practice problems before you review the solutions. Experience generating your own solutions is what you need to succeed on exams.

Below are two additional strategies that will help you successfully tackle your STEM coursework:

Take an active learning approach.

  • Recognize that success in STEM requires moving away from passive learning practices where your instructor gives you information that you write down and then replicate on exams.
  • Active learning means paying attention to points of confusion in lecture and following up with peers, tutors, teaching staff, and question centers to have them clarified.
  • Start P-Set assignments early, so you have time to ask questions and to get help.
  • Find a P-Set buddy or form a P-Set study group to review assignments after individual completion.

Identify your STEM support system.

  • The key is not to struggle alone: reach out to get the support you need! 
  • Academic coaching at the ARC is one piece of your STEM support system. Use the ARC Scheduler to make an appointment with one of the STEM Academic Coaches (Kate Penner or Sade Abraham) to learn more.
  • Peer tutoring at the ARC provides course specific support. Students can schedule appointments with peer tutors on the ARC Scheduler, where they will find tutoring support for most introductory STEM courses (and many other courses). Students can also request to be matched with a tutor through the ARC Matcher.
  • Accountability Hours at the ARC are a great way to get started on assignments.
  • The ARC also offers Workshops specifically geared towards STEM students, including topics like effective study strategies for math and science, assessing your understanding, and course correcting after exam results.
  • Students should reach out to their academic adviser or course faculty with questions about STEM courses, sequencing courses, and balancing workload.
  • Departmental Directors of Undergraduate Studies (DUSs) and Assistant Directors of Undergraduate Studies (ADUSs) are excellent sources of information about specific concentrations and courses.

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