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How I Write and Learn

Tackling Carolina Science

By Mackenzie, a UNC Senior and Peer Tutor

When I first came to Carolina, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to major in, but I knew I was pre-pharmacy and so I signed up for CHEM 101 my first semester, along with other courses that piqued my interest. After a few bumps in the road and many nights of doubt, I finally settled on a Chemistry B.S. as my degree and started my planning. As I begin my final semester of undergrad, here are some of the most valuable strategies I’ve learned for how to manage science and math courses at UNC, and perhaps beyond.

I planned my semesters ahead (way in advance, if I’m being honest).

When I started at Carolina, I knew that four introductory science courses in the same semester was going to be difficult for me to manage based on experiences I had heard from friends and advisors. I was worried about managing my time, so I decided to plan on spreading these science courses out as much as possible, or divide up subject areas to avoid burning out on subjects that I generally enjoyed. For my first semester, I created a table on Excel with the courses I planned to take each semester until graduation so that I could really think about what classes I wanted to take together.

An Excel spreadsheet showing two columns with fall semesters on the left and spring semesters on the right.  Each column is divided into 4 rows, for a total of eight blocks corresponding to each semester of classes.  Each semester has a column for course code, course name, credits, and what the class is for (major, minor, etc.).
This is an example two year plan from very early on in my academic career.

Even though I changed majors and added a minor after making my initial plan, I had a general idea of the science and math courses I wanted to tackle together, and what combinations I knew I wanted to avoid. For example, I was okay with taking analytical chemistry and organic chemistry 1 together, but I knew I wanted to avoid taking two labs in the same semester. Every semester I ended up updating my “plan,” but I found comfort knowing I had a general idea of my intentions, and I could shuffle my plan accordingly if a class was full or I had scheduling conflicts. To double-check prerequisites for courses and make sure I had enough time to complete them, I found my major worksheet on the UNC Academic Advising website and consulted Academic Advising frequently when planning. In later semesters, I started visiting academic coaches at the UNC Learning Center to develop strategies for time management and juggling multiple courses at once. Looking back, I wish I had started those visits earlier!

I tried not to stress over a bad grade.

I really struggled with physics at UNC, and I received some of my worst exam grades in these classes. However, I knew that I was truly doing the best I could do and I tried not to compare myself to other people in my class who seemed to just get it. I tried to remind myself that plenty of pharmacists did not receive a 4.0 GPA in undergrad, and they are infrequently, if ever, asked to explain the mechanics of a pulley system. I talked to my boyfriend, friends, and family when I was feeling down about a grade, and they reminded me of something I already knew- that I had done the best I could.

When I received a poor grade, I committed myself to changing my strategies for the next exam and better managing my time in the days leading up to the exam. However, I also tried not to beat myself up over a mediocre grade on an exam I took during a week where I also had 2 other exams, a presentation, and a paper. Over time, I developed better time management strategies, like allocating a dedicated time for physics practice problems, no matter how badly I would rather be doing chemistry. Many departments have special centers for tutoring, like the Physics Tutorial Center, where I practiced making circuits for my studio practical exams. When a PHYS 118/119 peer tutor was available through UNC, I tried to make time for an appointment and to attend peer mentor sessions through my class.

Shows a spreadsheet with 4 columns: the first column is times of the day, the second has the location (Zoom), the third has coach name and subject area, and the fourth column has an option to reserve that coach for that specific hour.  Rows correspond to the hour (between 12:00pm and 5:00pm) and coach.
The UNC Learning Center Peer Tutoring Appointment Calendar. To make an appointment with a peer tutor, click on the ‘Reserve’ button next to a tutor’s name, time, and subject areas.

I took mental breaks from science and math by studying for a non-science course, doing self-care, or resting.

The time-consuming nature of certain science courses like physics and chemistry was overwhelming for me at times, and without realizing it, I would accidentally spend hours looking at numbers and molecules and diagrams. Because of the temptation to study for hours on end, I had to remind myself to take breaks. When I signed up for gen-eds, I picked things that sounded interesting, like MUSC 121 (fundamentals of music theory) and ASIA 300 (Buddhism in India, Nepal, and Tibet) so that I could learn about something different and exciting. When I took ANTH 147 (comparative healing systems) to fulfill a general education requirement freshman year, I fell in love with medical anthropology and eventually declared it my minor! Doing readings and assignments from non-science courses helped give my brain a break from the math and mechanisms I was usually doing.

I also created a self-care routine, including reading for fun, playing Animal Crossing, taking a nap, or treating myself to a sandwich from Tru Deli. Whenever feasible, I stopped working between 8:00 and 9:00 p.m. and read something for fun or played a game. I am far from a night-owl, and I knew that the work I completed past 9:00 p.m. was not my best. During the day, if I could, I would take a somewhat long lunch break to read or watch an episode on Netflix. In the midst of a heavy study session, I would break every 45 minutes or so to look at my phone, rather than constantly checking it for updates and getting distracted. When the weather was nice, I did my best to specifically allot an hour in the afternoon to take a walk. The fresh air, especially during COVID when I was not getting outside as much in general, made me happier overall and more productive when I returned home.

A screenshot from the Nintendo Switch game Animal Crossing: New Horizons.  There are eight animal characters (a cat, penguin, human, two bears, a monkey, pig, and bird) on a plaza shooting confetti in celebration.
A screenshot of my Animal Crossing island!

Some of my favorite memories are spending Saturdays coffee-shop hopping (pre-COVID) through Chapel Hill and Carrboro with my freshman-year suitemate who became one of my best friends. These were the moments I’ll remember most: stepping back and enjoying undergrad and the friends I met here!

This blog showcases the perspectives of UNC Chapel Hill community members learning and writing online. If you want to talk to a Writing and Learning Center coach about implementing strategies described in the blog, make an appointment with a writing coach, a peer tutor, or an academic coach today. Have an idea for a blog post about how you are learning and writing remotely? Contact us here.

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