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A first year’s guide to surviving STEM courses

Tips and tricks for first-year courses, from biology to mathematics
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JESSICA LAM/THE VARSITY
JESSICA LAM/THE VARSITY

Anxious about being a first year STEM student? Don’t know the difference between a proton and a prokaryote and worried that it’s now too late to ask? Fear no more — The Varsity’s STEM survival guide has tips or tricks to guide you through it.

General advice

First, for some general advice. 

Don’t fall into the trap of skipping classes. Things move quickly, and missing just a couple hours can make a difference. When in class, take notes on important topics — preferably by hand, as using this method means you’re more likely to retain information. 

Make sure to also clear up any confusion as soon as possible. Future lessons will build on your understanding of earlier material, so make good use of office hours and tutorials to ask questions to your instructors and teaching assistants. When you receive feedback on previous assignments, incorporate it into your work in the future. 

To organize it all, it helps to use a calendar system like Google Calendars or Notion to keep on top of deadlines and make plans for projects and exams in advance so you’re not scrambling at the last minute. Find a study method that works for you, whether that’s summary sheets or flashcards, and do a little bit every day.

Biology

For first-year students in the life sciences at U of T, BIO120 — Adaptation and Biodiversity and BIO130 — Molecular and Cell Biology are a rite of passage. These courses provide foundations in ecology, evolutionary biology, and cell biology. Personally, I found that the readings for these courses provide a deeper understanding of the course material, as they demonstrate how concepts covered in class are applied to research. There are also a fair number of terms to memorize, so get those flashcards ready. Apps like Quizlet or Anki work well, but physical flashcards are great too. My advice would be to make flashcards after each lecture and revise them periodically. 

Chemistry

There are two streams of first-year chemistry courses: the combination CHM135 — Chemistry: Physical Principles and CHM136 — Introductory Organic Chemistry I for life sciences students or the year-long CHM151 — Chemistry: The Molecular Science, a theoretical course intended for those pursuing a chemistry program. With classes back in person, laboratory work is crucial for success in chemistry, so make sure to prepare well and pay attention, particularly if you haven’t done experiments before. Personally, I found that practice questions help with the understanding of course material, as well as memorization of important ideas. You can find practice questions in the Old Exam Repository or the ASSU Past Test Library.

Physics

First-year physics at U of T comes in two varieties: PHY131/132 — a more application-focused stream — and PHY151/152 — a more theoretical stream meant for students intending on physics programs. In my experience, reviewing the more abstract parts of the course material by making summary notes and explaining them to other students helped me wrap my head around things, and doing lots of practice is useful for remembering how to apply formulas.

Mathematics

When it comes to math, my advice is simple: practice. Several different math classes are offered in first year: the application-based MAT135/136 and the proofs-based MAT137 and MAT157. In my experience, the key to doing well in math is to understand and use concepts, so practice problems are essential. It’s one thing to think that you can understand an idea as it’s explained in a lecture or textbook, but another altogether to use it to independently solve problems.

Resources

If you’re not sure how to study or have trouble managing your time, try reaching out to a learning strategist, who can help you create a custom study plan. For collaborative learning and extra accountability, you can also join a Registered Study Group (RSG), which is a small group of up to eight people that meets regularly to work together. You’ll get a Co-Curricular Record  credit for being part of an RSG, and you’ll have the chance to hopefully meet some new friends. 

One final note

At the end of the day, grades are just a number and university isn’t all about academics. Remember that one grade in first year won’t make or break anything, and that you can use setbacks as learning opportunities instead of indicators of abject failure. School can get busy and overwhelming, so make sure to also make time to take care of yourself.

Good luck on your journey at U of T! You got this!