Building Strong Study Habits for Success in STEM Subjects

Building Strong Study Habits for Success in STEM Subjects

Written by Tom; Tom is a physics teacher in the UK. Graduating from the University of Bristol, he finished at the top of his class with a 1st class Masters degree in Physics, winning a prestigious scholarship to remain for his PhD in physics. As a graduate student, Tom studied the electronic structure of unusual metals through x-ray techniques and state-of-the-art calculations. Highly regarded by his colleagues and students, Tom is available for private tutoring in A Level and IB Physics.


Embarking on your post-16 journey in the domains of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is a significant step. Success in these subjects goes beyond raw intelligence; it hinges on cultivating effective study habits. In any STEM subject, there is a significant amount of content to master and retain over the course of your studies. This guide outlines strategies to help you navigate post-16 study with confidence and prowess.

Thinking is key

The aim of studying is to get information into our heads and to make it stick. It is tempting to think that we just need to pour knowledge into our heads and it’ll stay there, but unfortunately this is not the case. We are actively changing the structure of our brains when we learn things after all so forming memories and understanding is no simple task. If you find that you are studying ‘mindlessly’ by copying out notes or re-reading passages from a textbook, this is unlikely to be the most effective method. That is because we are not engaging in any real thinking. Studying should be a time in which we are engaging in thought. The important rule of thumb is that we will only remember things that we have spent time deeply thinking about.

Understanding Memory

Forgetting is a natural process that we are all subject to. Whether its forgetting where you left your keys, forgetting someone’s birthday or forgetting how to factorise a quadratic equation. The reason for this is that our long term memory (the term we use for the place in which we ‘store’ ideas and concepts) is not perfect. Over time, we forget significant amounts of what we have learned. As a rough rule of thumb, we have often forgotten half of what we’ve learned after a day. This is a constant battle for us in our studies and the reason that we need to create good study habits early on in our studies.

Understanding Schemas

In our long term memories, ideas are not all stored as distinct objects, filed away in individual, mental filing cabinets. Instead, ideas are linked together in complicated webs that we call schemas. Learning can be seen as the process of taking a new idea and incorporating it into the network of ideas that we already have. Researchers in psychology and neuroscience agree* that it seems when we learn something, we are linking the new idea into the old ideas that we already have. Our schemas get more developed over time, as we learn more – not just because we add more content to our network, but we create more and more links between ideas that we already have. We start to see the links between one topic and another and this helps to reinforce our understanding.

How can we use the ideas of long-term memory and schemas to effectively study?

There are a number of study techniques that try to help us counteract the constant fading of our long term memories whilst also ensuring that we build more complex schemas.


We are often tempted in science to break things down into their component parts and try to simplify the world, but as we have seen from learning about schema, our brains require connections to be made between topics and ideas. One effective way to study is engage in writing out your understanding of a topic or idea in as much detail as possible. For example:

  • Explaining the process of photosynthesis
  • Explaining the formation of ionic bonds
  • Explaining the composition of an atom.

All of the above could be answered in a rushed, shallow way but this would not be as effective as if you continued to elaborate until you could give no further information. But the top students will see that each question could be answered in an incredible amount of detail. And in addition to written elaboration, you could:

  • Rehearse an explanation of an idea in your head
  • Explain an idea to a peer

The key is ensuring you give as much detail as possible. Afterwards, consult a textbook, teacher or peer to see if there any gaps you need to fill in your understanding to create a more rounded schema. If you think you’re only half right about something, still include it – imagine the process as translating your understanding onto the page to lay it all out. Only then, with it there in front of you, can you (or someone else) diagnose any misunderstandings or missing parts.

Concrete examples

It is vital within our study of science that we link each new idea we encounter to a real scenario. As such, another study habit that will help to create deeper understanding is to take a specific idea and think of as many examples that show that idea in action as you can. Equally, you could do the converse – take a physical scenario and explain all of the science that occurs. For example:

  • What aspects of science are shown by a car moving on the motorway? (Here we may have a number of topics from physics, including velocity and acceleration, work/energy/power, as well as lots of ideas from Newton’s laws.)
  • What aspects of science are shown by a streetlight?” (Here we can point to current and resistance, energy used per unit time, as well as the nature of light itself.)
  • What aspects of science are shown by burning a fuel? (In your chemistry classes, you will have learned about combustion, for example, whilst in physics we might talk about the changes in energy that occur.)

The examples above will be somewhat in our heads already, so we will attach scientific meaning to each of them by practicing in this manner. This will help build neural connections and improve your long term memory of the subjects.

Interleaving and Retrieval Practice

It is often tempting to only study what you have just learned in class. But recent things are still prevalent in our memories, whilst everything else is being forgotten. Our studies are more effective if we ensure we give attention to old topics, to prevent the degradation of our long term memory in these areas. It is particularly effective in STEM subjects (especially if you study more than one) to swap between different topics and different subjects with a reasonably high regularity – this practice is called interleaving. This can help us to see links between ideas that we hadn’t necessarily noticed previously – building better schemas. Retrieval practice aims to reduce forgetting by ensuring that we recover old material. But as study requires us to be actively thinking, we can’t just re-read notes, we need to be answering questions in some form. Simple methods to engage in retrieval practice might be:

  • Using flash cards to test yourself on old material
  • Finding quiz questions online of the more key content for each topic you study
  • Practicing exercises/questions from old topics
  • Engaging in elaboration or thinking of concrete examples (as mentioned previously) for topics that we’ve studied less recently.

Over time, our understanding will develop as we think more and more deeply about our subjects – we build better and better general ideas about science and maths. But the details will still fall away. We want to ensure that as our understanding deepens, we don’t forget the details that are such a key ingredient to success in examinations (although the more general understanding that is developing is perhaps more key to our future careers).

One additional method that is particularly useful to help us find out what is not in our memories or schema is mind mapping. Using only your memory, start with a central topic (this may be quite specific, or very general) and branch out with the most basic related ideas. Try to add in links about how these related ideas are held together, and add in further and further detail. It should start to look quite messy as your add in further and further details; it’s like creating a map of your subject’s landscape. In biology, for example, you might start looking at cells by writing out the main classes of cells that you know, before giving specific examples of these from different organisms. You might go on to outline the sub-cellular structures that are present in each cell as well as their functions and cross reference with all of the cells you have. Why does a red blood cell have no nucleus? Why does a red blood cell have no chloroplasts? The result should be a bit messy, and that is fine, there should be links between one cell and another all over the place. Compare your mind map with the contents page of your textbooks. This reveals any significant gaps in your understanding – and therefore steers you to subjects that you might need to study from scratch or ask your teacher to recover. Address these gaps by diving deeper into the content. This targeted approach ensures you have a well-rounded grasp of the subject matter but also ensures you are using your time effectively.

Further reading

Diversify your knowledge by exploring articles from reputable STEM sources. Websites like “Scientific American,” “Nature,” and “New Scientist” can offer insights beyond your textbooks. When you are reading these articles, try to look for links with things you already know to enhance your understanding and broaden your perspective.


In your post-16 journey, remember that success isn’t just about innate ability; it’s about employing effective study habits. By integrating the ideas of elaboration, concrete examples, and retrieval practice into your studies through use of the techniques we have discussed, you’ll enhance your understanding as well as improve your retention. Building strong schemas by forging connections between ideas is the key to mastering STEM subjects. Equally, just the act of building effective study habits is a vitally important skill to help you progress further into the study of science, engineering and maths, and can be something that sets you apart as a top student.

*S. Cottingham, 2023, Ausubel’s Meaningful Learning in Action, John Catt Education Publishing, 2023

*M.T.R. van Kesteren, L. Krabbendam & M. Meeter (2018) Integrating educational knowledge: reactivation of prior knowledge during educational learning enhances memory integration. Science Learn 3, 11.

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