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How to make friends with content-heavy subjects

Jen Huang

Imagine walking into your morning double period and having your teacher inform you, out of the blue, that you’re sitting a SAC. A test-style SAC on everything you’ve covered over the last 4 weeks. Worth 15% of your total mark.

Hopefully, this exact scenario sounds unfamiliar to you. But if you haven’t yet mastered the art of tackling content heavy subjects — Biology, Chemistry, Health and Human Development and Psychology being heavy hitters in this category — you might find yourself in a similar situation. The difference between not knowing you had a SAC that day, and not having time to properly learn or review the content for that SAC, can be very, very small.

 If last minute panic isn’t your thing, we’ve got some lifesaving pointers that will have you not only doing well in, but also enjoying, content-based subjects.

3 steps to learning the content.

If your class timetable tells you that you will be covering 3 chapters of the textbook in the next week, don’t despair. Taking these three steps to learn new content can help with both short term absorption and long term retention. Your future self will definitely thank you.

Step 1: ‘Previse.’

Yes, we made that word up, but the concept has been used by university level educators for years. We strongly encourage you to stay ahead of the game by making notes for a topic before it is taught in class (you might want to ask your teacher for the course outline or timetable so you can plan ahead for this).

‘Prevising’ can be a fantastic investment of your time for lots of reasons. Besides the obvious pros – allowing you to get a feel for whatever topic you’re studying at your own pace first, and ensuring you can make the most of your class time by being prepared – the calm before the storm is also the ideal time for you to summarise the relevant chapter/s from your textbook or, even better, from our curated notes.

Just a pointer: if you’re handwriting your notes, make sure to leave space in the margins or a couple of blank lines below each paragraph – this will come in handy later.

While staying one step ahead of the curriculum can be tough, think of it as making a sound investment. Every hour you put into ‘prevising’ before you’re taught something saves you at least the same amount of time and effort after that class.

Step 2: Rethink class-time.

Unless you carve time out of your own lunch break to pay a visit to the staffroom, this is the only time you get to ask your teacher questions directly. So make the most of it. Come in prepared, notes made during your ‘prevision’ session in hand, any confusing parts or queries highlighted or sticky-noted. You don’t need us to tell you what being an effective participant in class means!

If you did step 1 justice and ‘prevised’ the content thoroughly, you’re unconsiously doing yourself another big favour. We all know that memorising a large volume of anything requires you to engage with that thing multiple times. Since you’re encountering the same content in class as you did during your ‘prevision’, you’ve essentially turned your classtime into the start of your revision journey, cementing information more firmly in the neural connections of your brain.

So if you’ve ever wondered how you can get extra revision time for a SAC or an exam, this is it.

Step 3: Polish up your notes.

Having hunted down answers to your questions and perhaps learned some new information in class/revision, now is the time for brushing up those notes you made before class. Here are two tricks of the trade that will boost information retention at this stage in your learning process.

Compiling information into one place.

Funnel what you remember from class and what you’ve read and absorbed from other resources into your pre-existing set of notes. By doing so, you’re creating the ultimate resource that you can refer back to, and keep editing, whenever you need a refresher about the Krebs cycle or want to read up on neuronal structure. This is a lot more convenient than having notes scattered between several notebooks or word documents.

Actively engaging with content by editing.

By editing your ‘prevision’ notes – correcting misconceptions, crossing things out that you don’t need to know, and adding things in that you missed – you are again engaging with what you need to memorise from a new angle. This means after you’ve finished step 3, you’d have studied the assessible material from three vantage points:

  1. Paraphrasing from the textbook/other core resource.
  2. Getting your teachers’ and classmates’ perspective.
  3. Correcting your own misconceptions and making new conclusions. 

Compared to trying to learn something by copying the textbook, this multi-focal approach sets you up to memorising content more easily efficiently, without letting boredom drag you down.

Using this pathway to learning content for the first time, you’ve already exposed yourself to the content needing to be memorised over and over again, each time editing and improving upon what you had before. This lays the ultimate foundation for a smooth revision experience later on.

4 steps to reviewing content heavy subjects.

Step 1: Schedule revision with spaced repetition in mind.

Never heard of it? It’s about time you’re let in on the secret. Spaced repetition was observed by the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus over 100 years ago. It essentially states that spacing revision strategically over a longer time period leads to better retention than clumping it into the night before your SAC. This is the closest thing to definitive proof that cramming is one of the worst things for long term recall of information.

This principle has been proven over many scientific studies of memory, so why not give it a shot? Make sure you have a revision session scheduled at least once a week for the first couple of weeks after learning new information. Then, you can space it out further – according to Ebbinghaus, you can afford to revise more infrequently the more time passes between the revision and when you learnt something initially. 

This careful planning ahead really puts you in the best place for a successful and relatively painless revision process.

Step 2: Don’t copy. Transfer.

Repetitively writing down the content you need to remember might be the instinctive thing to do when you’re revising. We’re here to advise you against for that trap. Not only is copying your notes mind-numbingly passive (and a big reason why people studying for content based subjects don’t enjoy themselves), it literally puts your brain on autopilot. Your neurons are drawn to the soothing sense of repetition and forget to actively absorb the information being recorded.

Instead, try transferring the same information into different formats. Say you begin with your awesome notes compiled from your ‘prevision’, what you’ve absorbed in class and what you’ve picked up from other resources. Your next step over the next week or so might be to transfer the key words from these notes into a glossary, and then into a set of cue cards two weeks later (following the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve, of course).

By moving information around like this, you keep your brain from falling into a rhythm and lulling itself into passivity. If you get creative, you can also make yourself a bunch of great study resources along the way – think wall posters, mind maps, cue cards and even audio recordings.

Step 3: Test yourself.

Now this is why everyone loves VCAA practice questions so much. If copying your notes is the ultimate example of passive, inefficient revision, testing yourself on assessible material (or, even better, quizzing an equally motivated friend) is active learning in one of its finest forms. 

So, even if the upcoming HHD SAC isn’t in a test format, consider revising the examinable content by doing available relevant practice questions or even making your own multiple choice or short answer quizzes. The latter is yet another example of transferring information described in step 2. This should help you expose errors you consistently make and things you always seem to forget, which should help you with your final step of revision.

Step 4: Address your mistakes.

This goes hand in hand with doing lots of revision and testing yourself. As you clock up revision mileage, you’ll start to notice patterns of what you’re breezing through and what you have a hard time with. It might be helpful for you to make a list of concepts you find challenging - even specific questions you didn’t do so well on - and focus on the more heavily during your study leading up to the big bad assessment.

This way, you won’t have chinks in your armour when those SACs come rolling in. Knowing that you’ve covered all your bases is also a huge confidence booster, and can play a huge role in placing you in the right mindset to show off your knowledge in the assessment.

What next?

As you can probably tell, the 7 steps in this guide to success in content heavy subjects are fairly flexible. You can choose to adopt all of them for a streamlined experience from initial learning to review, or pick and choose the tips you like to apply to your pre-existing study regime.

In addition, the value of this guide goes beyond the one or two content heavy subjects you might be taking in VCE. Much of the advice compiled here was gleaned from our team’s university experiences, where the content load is even greater than in VCE (yes, it’s possible). Hopefully, you’ll also find yourself returning to these methods again and again beyond your high school years. 

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