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Learning science presents a unique set of challenges for students. In this lesson, learn the tricks of the trade as we discuss scientific vocabulary and other science study skills.

Challenges of Learning Science

‘Man, I hate science!”Yeah, me too!”Science is so stupid! It doesn’t make any sense!”I know. I’ll never be good at science.’Have you ever been part of a conversation like this? Lots of people have. Learning and studying scientific concepts requires a special type of thinking that doesn’t come easily to everyone. You may be surprised to know that even people who study science for a living often struggle with the complicated formulas and theories. Most people find science class fun when they are little. But in high school and college, scientific study gets way more difficult.

The books are hard to read, the words are hard to pronounce, and even the pictures are hard to understand! Science can seem really unfriendly to a student. But, there are ways to overcome the challenges and learn to study science effectively. Let’s explore a few techniques that will help make learning science easier.

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Dissecting Scientific Vocabulary

One of the toughest challenges in science is understanding the long, strange vocabulary terms. Science textbooks are full of crazy words like plasmodesmata, thigmotropism and chemiosmotic phosphorylation. It’s really hard to learn science effectively when all these weird words are being thrown in your face. How did scientists come up with these words, anyway? Why do they have to be so unfriendly?Most of the terms you see in science are combinations of word parts.

This is especially true with technical terms. Scientists originally coined the terms by putting together word parts from the Greek and Latin languages. For example, the word ‘thigmotropism’ comes from a combination of two Greek words: thixis, meaning ‘touch,’ and tropos, meaning ‘turning’ or ‘direction.

‘ Thigmotropism is the word we use to describe the coiling growth patterns that some plants exhibit in response to touch. Think about vining plants like beans, grapevines and the common morning glory. These plants can climb fences and trellises by coiling their shoots around any object that they touch. You might think it strange that a long, weird word like thigmotropism was ever invented. But, imagine if you were a plant biologist trying to describe a morning glory. How would you talk about its coiling growth pattern? ‘The morning glory climbs by using… its ability to turn the direction of its vine growth in response to a touch stimulus.

‘ No, that takes too long! If you were a scientist, you would want to invent your own word to describe this concept. Then you could just say, ‘The morning glory climbs by using thigmotropism.’ That’s exactly why scientists invented the word.

Breaking down scientific terms into word parts can help make them easier to understand.

Word parts

Most scientific terms refer to Greek or Latin roots. But that doesn’t mean you have to know Greek and Latin to understand science terminology. Many word parts are familiar to us in the English and other Romance languages. Take the word ‘photosynthesis’ for example. It comes from the Greek roots photo, syn and thesis.

Photo means ‘light,’ as you probably already knew from other words like photography, photon and photocopy. The word part syn means ‘with’ or ‘together.’ This might seem like a foreign definition to you. But think about familiar words like sympathy, synagogue, synchronize, system and symbiotic – all these words use a form of the Greek root syn to describe a togetherness of something. So, we’ve got photo and syn; what about the word part thesis? In Greek, this word means ‘setting, putting, or placing.

‘ So ‘photosynthesis’ means ‘light-together-putting’ or ‘putting together with light.’ In other words, photosynthesis is the process by which plants put molecules together using the energy they get from sunlight.

Word Parts and Combinations

As you can see, understanding the meaning of science terms is easier when you break them down into smaller components. This might be a good time to remember the three main parts of a word: the root, the prefix and the suffix.

A word root is the primary unit of a word. It’s often the longest, most central part of the word that carries the most significant meaning. Both prefixes and suffixes can be added to a word root in order to modify its meaning. Prefixes are word parts that appear before a root, like ‘un-,’ ‘in-,’ ‘dis-,’ ‘re-‘ and ‘a-.

‘ Suffixes are word parts that come after the root, like ‘-ed,’ ‘-ing,’ ‘-less,’ ‘-ly’ and ‘-ism.’ When prefixes and suffixes show up in science words, they work the same way as they do in regular English. For example, the suffix -ism appears in the word ‘thigmotropism.’ You don’t need to know that -ism is a suffix that indicates a noun. You already know plenty of similar ‘isms,’ like journalism, optimism and tourism.

These are all nouns. So, thigmotropism must also be a noun, even if we’re not yet sure what it means.Try to build connections between words that you already know and words you’re just learning. You’ll start to get a sense of what the word parts mean, and then you can apply them to other words.

For example, the word ‘sympetalous’ is used to describe a type of flower. Can you figure out what it means? Well, we know that flowers have petals, and we just learned that ‘syn’ or ‘sym’ means ‘together.’ It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that ‘sympetalous’ describes a flower in which the petals are joined together.

Make scientific terms easier to understand by thinking about how the words relate to each other.
Word connections

Lots of scientific terms are actually multi-word phrases like ‘selective permeability’ and ‘punctuated equilibrium.

‘ These terms require you to take one concept and apply it to another. It’s not too tough as long as you remember that a phrase like ‘selective permeability’ isn’t any different than the phrase ‘fluffy dog.’ Just like ‘fluffy’ describes a dog, ‘selective’ describes the ‘permeability’ of something; for example, the permeability of a cell membrane.

We can deduce from this phrase that, apparently, it is possible to have permeability that is not selective – just like it’s possible to have a dog that is not fluffy. But here we’re talking about a permeability that is selective. Cell membranes allow some substances to go through while blocking others. They are permeable, but they are selective in how permeable they are. So cell membranes have selective permeability. You see? It’s not so hard to understand science phrases when you think about how the words relate to each other.

Unique Study Styles

As you’re developing your science study skills, keep in mind that everyone has different learning styles.

Some people are visual learners, meaning they tend to learn better when concepts are presented through images. On the other hand, verbal learners relate better to words and sentences. Try to pay attention to how you learn best, and tweak your study methods to match your preferences.

For example, I’ve noticed that I am a visual learner. I like to use pictures, flowcharts, concept maps and even colors and symbols to learn new things. I usually scan all the pictures in a chapter before I start reading any of the text.

Sometimes, I even make my own color-coded study guides. But if visual aids aren’t really your thing, then you may be more of a verbal learner. Verbal learners often benefit from reading text aloud to themselves or writing about the subject. If you are a verbal learner, you could also try listening to a recording of someone talking about the subject, or talk with a classmate about the subject.

Most people do not subscribe completely to one learning style. But if you notice yourself leaning toward certain patterns, then use those patterns to your advantage. For example, when I study cellular processes, I find it helpful to keep reminding myself of how those processes fit into a larger scheme. This is called the holistic approach. Learning is holistic when new concepts are seen as being integrated and inseparable from one another.

I like this approach for learning chemical and cellular pathways, because it keeps me from getting lost in all the details. Using the holistic approach, I focus on relating chemical processes to the overall needs of a cell. Other times, I use a more analytic approach by breaking down concepts into subdivided parts.

The analytic approach works best for ideas that need to be categorized into separate groups. The classification of organisms into Kingdoms and Phyla is a perfect way to learn analytically. Again, it doesn’t matter exactly how you study. There’s no one way to learn science or any other subject. What’s most important is that you focus on the methods that work best for you.

Lesson Summary

Learning and studying scientific concepts is challenging for many. But you can make it easier by following the tips you’ve learned here.

Long, complicated scientific terms can be better understood by breaking down the components. Look for word roots, prefixes, and suffixes. Try to recognize any Greek or Latin word roots that you can, and relate them to other words that you already know. Dissect phrases, and take the time to understand how multiple words fit together.

Beyond the vocabulary, pay attention to your favorite learning styles and use them to your advantage. Try to find out if you are a verbal or visual learner. Think about whether a holistic or analytic approach is best in every situation. Allow creativity into the process of learning. If you tailor your study methods to your own needs, then you won’t have to stress about the challenges of studying science.

Learning Outcomes

After watching this video, you should be able to:

  • Explain how to use word roots, prefixes and suffixes to break down and understand scientific terminology
  • Identify whether you are a verbal or visual learner
  • Choose whether to apply a holistic or analytical approach to a given problem

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