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  • Writer's pictureRiver Valley Student Editorial Club

How to be an Academic Weapon Part 1: The Sciences

Written by: Chong Qing Ya (23J01), Lim Sing Yang Stanley (23J16), Liu Xuanyi (23J19)

The June ‘holidays’ are coming, and while to juniors it means a whole month of relaxation and fun (with some mad homework-rushing in the last week), to all J2s (and maybe some J1s), it signifies crunch time where we will put in our 101% effort into our schoolwork to catch up on what we missed and revise all the topics we have learnt across J1 and J2, in preparation for our midyears and, eventually, A Levels 💀😭. 

Holiday? ❌ Mugging? 

Do you feel overwhelmed by the thought of having to recap SO MUCH within such a short time? 

Well, don’t worry, for we have interviewed some seniors about their study methods, tips and tricks for understanding some of the hardest concepts in their respective disciplines and some insights about H3 subjects for the sciences. 

Read on to hear from our seniors and learn from their wisdom so that you can become an academic weapon and make an academic comeback for midyears and prelims! 🥳✨

Academic comeback in the making 😎😎

We will NOT be this 💪🙏

We’ll be addressing the subjects in this order: 

  1. H2 Mathematics

  2. H2 Further Mathematics

  3. H2 Biology

  4. H3 Biology

  5. H2 Chemistry

  6. H3 Chemistry

  7. H2 Physics

  8. H3 Physics

  9. H2 Computing

H2 Mathematics:

Interviewees: Liu Gaoyuan (22J11), Mau Ze Ming (20J11)

What are some tips?

Gaoyuan: Unlike content-heavy subjects such as Biology or Geography, subjects like Math and Physics entail much more rigour in logical reasoning through internalising core concepts. A good example to illustrate would be looking at how the Mathematics department, managed to compress all H2 Maths topics into an A-level revision package only 20~30 pages thick, unthinkable for most other subjects. Hence, studying for such subjects requires a significant emphasis on repeatedly practising and reviewing past mistakes, less so reading and annotating notes.

There is a saying I like that goes something like this: To be sure that one fully understands something, one must be able to clearly explain it to a less experienced person. A good way to do this is to grab a friend and try to explain a certain concept to them, even if you are confident you know it already. The point of this is to verbalise concepts in your mind in a clear, concise, and (most importantly) consequential manner. Your chain of reasoning must not overlook any detail, and successfully lead from A to Z without any pauses. I can assure you that in the first few attempts, you would most likely experience hiccups, or be stopped by your friends because you said something wrong or unclear. And that is awesome! You now have a clear direction on how to improve. This will serve as the foundation for further honing our problem-solving skills.

I also strongly believe in the concept of “learning by doing”, which, according to Wikipedia, “...places heavy emphasis on student engagement and is a hands-on, task-oriented, process to education. The theory refers to the process in which students actively participate in more practical and imaginative ways of learning.” It is natural for students to struggle in the process of practising, in which you might be hung up on a certain maths question for hours. Some may choose to come back to it later or ask for help. While there is no wrong in doing so, you must attempt to tackle difficult problems by yourself as much as possible. A good way to do this is to break down the solution to the attempted question/the thinking process into clear-cut steps (do write them down), and analyse how they might go wrong and/or what is missing. 

At every line of your work, no matter how trivial, ask yourself these questions: “Why did I continue with this step? What is the purpose of this? What else can I do to move towards the solution?” Such uncomfortable situations force you to view a problem from different angles and brilliantly seek other information and conceptual links that may be helpful. That said, sometimes there is no other choice than to accept defeat. In that case, it is important to note down the solution and the key parts you missed and review them every once in a while (like a flashcard). Try to recreate the solution yourself in the future, be it in a week, a day, or even 5 minutes later. Additionally, you can create a Google doc/sheet for each subject to record a list of every mistake you’ve made in assignments or exams and then review them periodically.

TL;DR: Try to explain learning points, be it to your friends, teacher, parents, dog, fish, etc. Make sure to consistently do practice problems, and take time to review the steps involved or tricks used to arrive at the solution. If you struggle, keep struggling; force yourself to think out of the box, and to imagine. If even that does not work, see how others do it, and try to redo it without help in the future. Do so many problems that you can visualise a solution right after reading the question. At that point, you will be more than ready to tackle the A-level exams!

Practice makes progress

Now that I’ve graduated, here’s a fun fact: most of my Maths and Physics notes are incomplete (bad example). However, by using the aforementioned study methods, I have achieved grades that indicate otherwise (good example).

Ze Ming: On top of just getting the teachers to explain it more, I have also gone and watched YouTube videos by channels that break the topics down into much more understandable pieces of information for us to digest. Of course, if your goal is to just score well for the exams then none of this would be necessary. However, I still highly encourage doing this so that you understand what you are doing, instead of blindly following it through and having to memorise all the different topics right before every test.

Favourite thing about this subject?

Gaoyuan: My favourite thing was spending time thinking and problem-solving. Moreover, I just find Maths and Physics fun and fascinating. I suggest watching online creators like 3Blue1Brown, Veritasium, etc. to see how fascinating these subjects are. Thereafter, feel free to dive into more niche areas you might be interested in, and do some work on it. I became engrossed in the Fourier Series and made a program that can turn any drawing into a series of spinning arrows. An example is shown in this video. What's more interesting is that this fascinating effect can be learnt with the concepts taught in H2 Math, namely complex numbers, integration, and summation.

Maths is art! 🤯

H2 Further Mathematics:

Why did you choose to take this subject?

Gaoyuan: I took these subjects simply because I was interested in them, and they would help in my desired university courses.

To aspiring juniors wishing to take FMath, do take it only if you are passionate about Maths. There is no point in taking this if you are just ‘good at Mathematics’ and/or take this subject because you dislike other choices. The amount of time I spent on this subject alone can account for nearly half of my study sessions, and it is extremely easy to burn out if one lacks the aptitude for it. Additionally, it may handicap your university choices if you are unsure of what you want to do. If you are unsure about taking FMath, I would advise sticking with just H2 Math (and maybe taking H3 Maths later on if you find out you’re truly interested in pursuing it).

Ze Ming: Firstly, while I was not really eligible to choose Further Maths as a subject, I was really close to it (A2 in Y3 instead of A1) and I just tried my luck in appealing for it, since I still did decently well in class, which built my confidence in doing Maths. This resembles the Pygmalion effect, which is a psychological phenomenon where high expectations lead to improved performance in a given area (In this case, FM). Secondly, it sounded really niche and I was interested to learn more about it. Should you choose a subject just for the sake of it, you'll only do yourself a disservice as you'll eventually dread doing it for two years to come, and this would then affect how well you do in your A levels.

What is FM like?

Gaoyuan: The questions are notoriously non-standardised, and students are expected to face questions set in completely unfamiliar contexts, and sometimes learn new things on the spot. Excellent intuition in problem-solving is a must. Although an intangible skill, it is similarly built on experience, which comes from consistent practice. Additionally, one must have the stamina to go through long 7 to 10-mark questions and have the algebraic rigour to not make careless mistakes in any steps.

What do you think is the hardest topic(s) in FM?

Ze Ming: The hardest topic for Fmath would be Conic Sections. There were a lot of properties to remember, and I remember especially that during my year's A-levels, they combined Conic Sections and Linear Algebra, which at the time were two of the more complicated topics in my opinion, and completely stumped me. (Thankfully, I still got an A.) Although I've heard it's out of the syllabus for the newer batches of FM, I think MOE has its ways of adding more thought-provoking questions to their papers despite changing the topics, so I wish my juniors good luck in their endeavours! 

While Conic Sections is no longer in the new syllabus, Linear Algebra still very much is, so please take your time to better understand the topic. 

What are your tips for understanding these topics?

Ze Ming: A tip would be not to blindly copy down notes from your tutor, but to try deriving certain formulas, equations, or solutions yourself. This allows you to understand why some nice results or properties are the way that they are. I will credit one of my FM tutors, Mr Vincent Pang, for always showing us and letting us try our hand at derivations of concepts, which not only allowed me to gain a better understanding of the concepts taught. but have a greater appreciation for the topic and the subject itself. 

Another thing I found useful was watching YouTube videos by Maths channels such as 3Blue1Brown (also mentioned by Gaoyuan, this is most likely the secret to performing well for FM) as they undeniably helped to break the topic down into understandable parts. That was how I truly understood abstract topics such as Linear Algebra. (That channel has 16 videos on it so you should definitely check it out!) 

What was your favourite thing in FM?

Ze Ming: My favourite thing will have to be the way complex concepts can be understood and derived from everything that we have learnt already. It's like a Lego structure, — we can always keep adding on to it, making it grow taller. It is similar to how we can only ever keep on adding new knowledge based on our existing knowledge, where concepts that seem disjointed are actually joined together by several multicoloured Lego bridges. It is that build-up of knowledge that leads me to think that Math is a beautiful discipline that has endless potential for discovery since ancient times. 

Maths is amazing

Any tips for this subject in general?

Ze Ming: I studied mainly by paying attention in class and then reviewing whatever I've learnt at home, on the same day. Doing the tutorials helped as the wide range of questions we get in the tutorials helped me to better understand the different types of questions we can encounter and all the ways we can think outside the box to find unique methods to solve varying questions. If there was anything I was unsure of, I would ask during Tutorial periods or right after class to close any gaps in my knowledge. 

Buckle down, and keep exposing yourself to new questions! Maths is a subject that can pique your curiosity no matter what, so stay curious! Oh, and don't be afraid to ask your tutor for anything! Jiayous!

What are some tips you would give to juniors considering taking this subject?

Ze Ming: You can go look at some A-level questions for the subjects that you were considering and see if they genuinely interest you, especially those of the subjects you haven't learnt before. Also, don't be afraid to approach your teachers. 

Is there an overlap between the content you have learned and what they are teaching in university modules?

Ze Ming: I believe that Linear Algebra is very relevant in Computing, so you'll be able to understand it faster than your peers who did not study it. You'll also learn a few more Statistics topics that are not covered in H2 Maths, so while Further Maths is not a prerequisite for any courses, you'll know far more before even entering university.

H2 Biology:

Interviewee: Jay Sutrisno (22J04)

What are some tips for studying H2 Biology?

Jay: I did Learning Outcomes (LOs) for each topic using the LO guides provided (in both the H2 and H3 syllabus), and answered the LOs using what I know, then added on with notes and answers from papers. Also, you should watch your lectures and try not to lag behind the teaching pace. Clarify any doubts with your friends first before with teachers and help one another!

What do you think is the hardest topic, and what are your tips for understanding these topics?

Jay: ⁠I think the hardest topic would be Evolution, for both H2 and H3. Some ways to better understand it would be to be an expert on each idea within the topic, before drawing links between the ideas, as well as learning about how life functions from micro to macro level.

H3 Biology:

Why did you consider taking this subject? What are some tips you would give to juniors and what should they look out for when taking this subject?

Jay: I took this subject because of my interest and proficiency in biology, and also for building my portfolio. Some tips I have would be to get a good grasp on all the H2 topics first as H3 heavily relates to H2 knowledge. Don’t underestimate the difficulty of the subject, even though it may seem quite easy at first. Also, manage your schedule and allocate sufficient time for H3.

H2 Chemistry:

Interviewees: Su Zhixuan (22J01), Zhu Jia Hang (21J16)

How did you study for this subject?

Zhixuan: I did summary notes for organic chemistry reactions, reagents and conditions, etc. in a table format. This shouldn’t take too long; it’s mainly for easy referencing. I hated memorising organic chemistry and other chemistry topics, so I just kept doing long elucidation questions that forced active recall. I would advise you to do a ton of past year papers from different schools for question exposure.

Jia Hang: For H2 Chemistry, I would mainly break down my study style into two components — lectures/tutorials, and self-revision. Normally, lectures and tutorials are the key periods to ensure that I can largely comprehend each chapter’s concepts and clarify any doubts I have, building the foundation required to master the chapter. The main focus of self-revision ensuring that I remember my concepts, build my confidence in the chapter and get used to the complexity of questions. Personally, for that purpose, I would just do papers and practice questions. 

Any tips for this subject in general?

Zhixuan: Go for consults. Understanding is really important in Chemistry, so you should always seek clarification about things you’re unsure about after doing practices.

Jia Hang: Generally, try to understand the concepts well during lectures and tutorials. Do not let any queries or misconceptions snowball. Also, do not be afraid to clarify any doubts you have, no matter how stupid they may sound.

Always try!

What do you think is the hardest topic(s) in this discipline?

Jia Hang: Personally, the hardest topic for me would be electrochemistry, due to the many ways there are to set up the galvanic or electrolytic cell, especially since sometimes the set-up may be counterintuitive. However, that is largely because I am rather lazy to commit these setups to memory. 

What was your favourite thing about this subject?

Jia Hang: My favourite part of this subject is the analysis involved, such as elucidation questions for Organic Chemistry and pattern recognition for mechanism questions, because it is mentally challenging, and a great sense of accomplishment always comes with solving it.

H3 Chemistry:

Why did you consider taking this subject? What are some tips you would give to juniors and what should they look out for when taking this subject?

Jia Hang: I like Chemistry and wanted to pursue a Chemistry-related course at University. However, currently, I’ve decided to change paths. 

If you enjoy doing chemical analysis and Further Organic Chemistry, H3 Chemistry is the subject for you. It certainly is a very difficult subject because of the numerous varieties of questions they can test. Avoid stressing yourself too much over it, and just try your best. After all, even if you do not do well in the end, it would be good exposure and a good learning experience. It can also help you decide whether you would like to further your studies in Chemistry.

How did you study for H3 Chemistry?

Jia Hang: For H3 Chemistry, I used the same methodology to study as I did in H2 Chemistry. The only difference is that I would spend quite some time reviewing the concepts and key points taught before attempting questions in H3.

Is there an overlap between the content you have learned and what they are teaching in university modules?

Jia Hang: If you are planning to take a chemistry-related course at a local university, you will have an edge over your peers because you will already have learnt some of the content. It mainly focuses on compound analysis (spectroscopy, spectrometry) and further Organic Chemistry, which are definitely the basics in the pursuit of Chemistry or pharmaceutical-related courses.

H2 Physics:

Interviewees: Su Zhixuan (22J01), Liu Gaoyuan (22J11)

How did you study for this subject?

Zhixuan: I practised a lot of questions. Mug a ton of past year papers from all the schools, take the initiative to ask the teachers for these resources if they are not already provided to you all. This will help you memorise the formulas way better than if you just sat there and tried to absorb them. When you do more questions, you start to notice patterns of question types being repeated across many papers with similar answering techniques, you should aim to score for these conventional ones. After your foundations are stronger, continue doing practices for questions exposure and learn how to answer unconventional questions. If you are confident and don’t want to waste time on time practices, browse through papers and mentally run through how to answer the basics, then single out important weird questions to attempt.

Any tips for this subject in general?

Zhixuan: Keep a compilation of answers to explanation questions. These plus definitions can make up a decent portion of marks, so don’t neglect them! Make sure you actually understand the concepts behind the answers, too.

Importance of understanding!!

H3 Physics:

Why did you choose to take this subject?

Gaoyuan: The reason I took it was that I was already quite familiar with the H2 Physics content and many H3 topics. I think this is one of the easier H3 subjects, with the largest candidature, and hence juniors should look out for good friends to study and go through thick or thin together.

Is there an overlap between the content you have learned and what they are teaching in university modules?

Gaoyuan: For H2 subjects, there are little to no overlaps in university, although for some courses you are required to take bridging modules if you don’t take the subject or fail at the H2 level. If you wish to take a course related to or requiring Maths, topics in Further Maths like Linear Algebra and the many more statistical tests you learn will serve you well. Ultimately, these subjects give you the foundation, and allow you to learn related university modules easily.

What is H3 physics like?

Gaoyuan: The examinable subjects in H3 Physics are not limited to its curriculum, instead including more difficult and nuanced questions that test H2 topics on a higher level. We call this ‘H2 plus’. Hence, on top of being super familiar with your H3, you must also engage with the H2 topics. However, since A-level Physics is designed with the assumption that not everyone who takes it is fond of Mathematics, the scope of quantitative analysis is very much limited to basic algebra and calculus, with more emphasis on conceptual understanding.

H2 Computing

Interviewee: Ong Rui Hong (22J17)

How did you study for computing? 

Rui Hong: For practicals, I spent at least 2 hours twice a week on coding, excluding homework and lessons given by my teacher. This helps to stimulate your brain, allowing you to remember code and algorithms better!

For computing theories summarise the thick lecture notes given by the teachers in a digital copy for easy reference on the go! Always revisit them and clarify doubts with the teachers too!

What do you think is the hardest topic(s) in computing? 

Rui Hong: I focused too much on coding because it is more fun, but you have to remember that theory is 60% :( Remember to still put effort into your theory because it can make or break your grade, even if you are strong in coding! In terms of topics, it is crucial to remember how to use recursion! It makes your life a lot easier (and learn one-liners if you can, too, though not a recommended method in A's).

What are your tips for understanding these topics?

Rui Hong: Create your own practices by searching for resources online and learn different ways of doing the same question by asking around because, after all, you must remember that efficiency is key in coding! Your method might be the most brain-dead, but not the most efficient or the fastest to implement!

What was your favourite thing about Computing?

Rui Hong: Learning various algorithms and testing my logic — some of the homework practices were quite fun, such as how to check for valid NRICs or car plate numbers in Singapore.

Any tips for this subject in general?

Rui Hong: Honestly? It’s just practice, practice, practice! And always clarify your doubts with teachers to see what you are weak in, and how to see where to improve. Also, make it a point to write comments even on your own work, so you don't forget your own implementations in the future! Comments take up 3 marks in conventions for A's too, so it is essentially free marks — take advantage of them!

Why did you choose to take Computing?

Rui Hong: I liked robotics and block-coding previously, so taking computing was quite a braindead decision for me :)  I was also curious about the world of computing and wanted to learn more!

What are some tips you would give to juniors and what should they look out for before taking Computing?

Rui Hong: For theory specifically, many things can be adapted to daily life. For example, Wide-Area Network (WAN) and Local Area Network (LAN) or network security can be weaved into everyday life to continuously make us remember the content for theory :)

Is there an overlap between the content you have learned and what they are teaching in university modules? 

Rui Hong: If you check the curriculum of Computer Science in universities, there are indeed overlaps, such as web application programming!

Now, it’s time for your Academic Comeback!

And that’s all the stories, tips and tricks in How to be an Academic Weapon: Part 1! After reading about all the insights from our seniors who have braved this storm and won, are you more inspired and clearer about the way ahead? Never give up on trying to understand, and always remember, that our teachers are always available to lend us a helping hand! JIAYOU!! 💪📢 Do keep a lookout for How to be an Academic Weapon: Part 2 and Part 3, where we will be covering tips and insights for the English-based and Chinese-based humanities subjects respectively!

Let's do this!!

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