A while back, I wrote a blog post on the best study spots on campus. Now that you’ve settled in and found a place with a good ambiance for work, the questions evolves into: how do I get started? What’s the most effective way to study at Caltech? The answer, as always, is not clear-cut, since we each learn and process information in an individual way. However, in this blog post, I’ll provide some insight on the strategies I’ve used to study at Caltech and what tools I’ve found work for me.
To collaborate or to not collaborate?
The foundation of academics at Caltech is largely based-off collaboration. It’s highly encouraged for all freshmen who arrive here and upheld by the Honor Code, which states that no member of the Caltech community should take advantage of another member of the Caltech community. Coming from a rather competitive high school environment, it took me a while to get used to working on my sets with other people. I’ve found that there’s a balance to be struck with this process, which I’ll briefly outline below:
- Find a good group of friends/people you can work with for every challenging class you may take.
- Learn how to struggle on your own for at least a period of time before getting help.
- Try to use office hours, TAs and class resources before you turn to your friends/peers.
- Being mindful of the Honor Code, discuss the work you’re having trouble with to other people.
- This is a requirement in nearly every Honor Code guideline for a class, but make sure to write up your own solution so that you understand how you got to the final answer.
Many problem sets mirror what is found on the exams, so understanding the material in the sets goes a long way in eventually studying for the midterm or final in the class. Making sure you understand everything you’re doing will be imperative for how well you do once you’re not allowed to collaborate or access certain resources on an exam, which are pretty standard restrictions at Caltech for all the take-home exams.
I would recommend everyone take advantage of the iPad lender program at Caltech, especially if you’ve been looking for a way to go paperless with your notes. While some people, myself included, do have an affinity for old-fashioned pen and paper, there are a lot of benefits to digitizing your notes, problem sets and review materials in one place. Caltech loans out iPads and Apple pencils that many students on campus use for various academic purposes. There are many note-taking apps on the market. Apps such as OneNote are completely free and widely used by the student population, since it is fairly intuitive and well-organized. If you want to pay a bit more for a better designed app experience, applications such as GoodNotes may be worth the investment. Taking advantage of this resource can prevent you from potentially losing a problem set or sifting through various materials the night before an exam, looking for that one topic you’re still stuck on.
So you’ve taken all the preliminary steps to be familiar with the information – now the exam day is near and you still want to work on gearing up to do your best. Throughout my time here, nearly every class has offered some type of review session before an exam, which ends up being really useful in reviewing all the material you may have forgotten from earlier in the course or looking at certain areas of difficulty in the class. I would recommend being judicious about when these sessions are and also providing feedback to the TAs, who normally precede each review session by asking the class what topics people are interested in covering. Submit your preferences! Nearly everyone will have an issue at every topic in the class, so there’s no embarrassment in anonymously or privately telling the TAs that you’d like to go over a certain type of problem or a certain concept you didn’t understand. I also think that a lot of Caltech classes do not rely heavily on memorization of facts/concepts, so it helps to work more on practice problems in preparation for an exam, than using flashcards and other rote memorization methods to get ready.
Hopefully, this has given you some insight on how I study at Caltech. Like I said before, each person has a different sense of what works best for them, but I tried to generalize more aspects of the Caltech experience so that this article can be useful to you. Happy studying!