It’s that time of year. The time when I start thinking about cranberry brie baked bites, and undergrads start worrying about their grades. Being out of academia I sometimes forget about this.
I got awful grades in college science.
And I turned out ok. Why? Because I was damn determined. But I did get out ok, and you can, too. Here’s the story of what I did. And I hope that it will, maybe, help someone just a little.
I went to a fine public high school. We had honors classes and some AP classes. I took AP bio and got a 5, all that. But the classes were never that difficult for me. Maybe I was young and my brain was flexible. But I definitely had time to go to school, be in the marching band, be in the choir, take dance three times a week and be in every play the school had to offer, plus a theatre company on the side. I still got all my homework done, a higher than 4.0 GPA, and stayed up way too late hogging the phone line with my high school boyfriend (ah, back in the day when there was only one line).
But in all the science classes, math classes, theater and dance classes, I never really learned how to do one very important thing:
I never learned how to study.
We just kept getting these worksheets. You filled out the sheet, and you learned on the way. Or I’d copy my notes from a class over and summarize them, and I’d learn enough to get an A on the test. To me, that was studying.
But when I got to college, a very good public school, that studying style did NOT CUT IT ANYMORE.
I didn’t even realize til the first chemistry exam. It was a nasty wake up call. I can still remember the feeling in the pit of my stomach. I’d never failed anything before. And this was failed. Beyond failed. I think I got a 43. Out of 110.
I quickly realized something was up. Something was wrong. My study efforts were NOT working.
The first thing I did was turn to my new best friend. She’d introduced herself the first day of biology class and we took to each other immediately. She was scary smart and I knew it. And more importantly, she knew how to study. She did it constantly. She was always on the futon or the beanbag in my dorm room, head down, pouring over a textbook or writing furiously.
I begged for help and she obliged. She was a tough taskmaster, making me do all the problems at the end of the chapters and then some. Having me go over and over my notes. Reading the chapters again…and taking notes. Notes notes notes. I don’t recall much about that fall semester except chemistry…and the many bags of gummi candy I chewed on while I studied.
My grades began to rise. I recovered from the first failing grade. By the end of the semester, I even got a B on the final exam! It was enough to net me a C in the course and let me move on to the next level.
By then, I knew what I had to do. I knew how to take notes and study and work hard.
But Organic chem for biology majors was another beast entirely. Now, I was confronted with a double whammy. It required lots of studying…and it also did not come naturally to me. The professor was the kind to explain something once, one way, and never again. In a class of 200 I was too terrified to ask a potentially stupid question, and after class he teased me for my inability to understand. Another two failed exams and I was desperate.
My best friend, now my roommate, stepped in again. This time, we took it to the next level. I visited the office of HER organic chem prof, the one for chemistry majors. Dr. Hinkle. He listened to my tearful story (and BOY was it tearful) and looked at my exams and quizzes. Then he quizzed ME. I tried to answer the questions, and I did think I got some of them right.
I remember he looked at me and said “I don’t think you’re bad at chemistry. I think you can get this.”
I was floored. Of course I was bad at chemistry! That’s why I got bad grades! I was bad at chemistry just like I was bad at math, like I had been told since I was about 12. These were facts. I was a good writer. I was good at biology. I was good at philosophy and history. I was bad at chemistry and math. Fin.
Dr. Hinkle didn’t believe that. He said we could work through it. But unfortunately, it was too late for me to switch classes into his chemistry class officially.
So instead, I took two chemistry classes. I took my regular organic chem class for Bio majors on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. Tuesday and Thursday mornings, I sat next to my now-roommate in Dr. Hinkle’s organic chem for chemistry majors. I took the quizzes and tests for both classes even though only the first one counted.
And in any free time, I studied. I bought a tiny white board and markers so I could write reactions over and over until I memorized them and understood how they worked. I spent notebooks of paper writing out reactions and trying to understand. I doodled reactions.
And by the time the final organic chemistry exam came around, I passed. I did the same thing for the next organic chemistry class. It went a lot better than the first.
In the end, I got a PhD in Physiology and Pharmacology. I’m not so bad at chemistry after all.
With the hundreds of students, Dr. Hinkle has had by now, I’m sure he’s forgotten me. But I haven’t forgotten him. I saw him once at a 10K race, and told him excitedly that I was in grad school for pharmacology, and it was all because of him. I’d like to think he was pleased. 🙂
Undergrads, all is not lost.
It’s never too late to ask for help, to try and figure out why you aren’t getting something, and to work extra to make up the difference. Try different ways of studying. Ask people in the class. Ask people outside the class. Find other textbooks that maybe explain the concept in different ways. Find explainers on blogs, videos or podcasts. There are far more options out there than there have ever been before.
But don’t give up. If I can do it, you can, too.