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How To Study for Chemistry

Chemistry is one of those classes you either love or dread. At the high school level, chemistry is usually not a required course – it's an elective. However, most reputable colleges require all undergraduate students to take at least one chemistry course as a prerequisite to graduation. If you plan on pursuing a career in medicine, engineering, or a field of natural science, then you're likely going to be required to take at least one chemistry courses before you graduate. Chemistry is a challenging subject for most people, but it doesn't have to be.

Just like in sports or music, you wouldn’t read about running and then go out and run a marathon. Nor would you read about playing music for weeks on end and then try to play a concierto at a live musical performance. Chemistry is actually very similar—the courses rely on applied conceptual exercises, taking the knowledge learned through class and text materials and using it in problems.

The number one reason people struggle with chemistry is that they don't approach it the right way. Below we'll explore proven strategies and techniques that will, if applied, improve your ability to study and learn chemistry.

General Advices

Seek Understanding

As with any of the sciences, there is a lot of new information to learn and memorize in chemistry. In fact, there is so much new information you'll be presented with as you begin to study chemistry that you'll get bogged down quickly if you get caught up trying to memorize all the details. First focus on gaining understanding of fundamental concepts. Once you have a sound understanding of the fundamentals, you can spend time memorizing the details. Also, as you master the fundamentals of chemistry and gain understanding of the concepts, you'll find it much easier to memorize everything else.

Remember, memorization should never replace understanding. Seek to gain understanding first.

Don’t worry about the exceptions until you know the basics

In chemistry, it sure seems like every time a rule or a theory is laid out, you run across exceptions. Electron configurations are nice and simple, except for the compounds needing only two electrons instead of eight for a full valence shell. Lewis dot structures are easy to draw, except for that entire bit about expanded and unfilled octets. You get the idea.

Many times, students freak themselves out worrying about these exceptions without truly grasping the base concept. If the exceptions are going to be on the test, they’ll be a very minor portion. Besides, those exceptions won’t matter if you don’t understand the base concept in the first place.

Break Large Tasks Into Smaller Ones

When studying chemistry, break the material down into smaller pieces that you can master. Even though this may seem at times to be slow and tedious, it will help you actually learn what you're studying. Once you've master one concept, move on to the next. You'll be surprised to find that after you really understand a few of the smaller concepts well, it will become much easier to learn and master larger concepts.

Don’t ignore the math and everything that goes with it

Chemistry is a lot harder than it needs to be if you're learning essential math skills at the same time. You should be familiar with the following concepts before setting foot in the chemistry classroom.

  • writing and solving algebraic equations
  • exponents
  • scientific notation
  • negative numbers
  • logarithms
  • fractions

Read the syllabus

The course syllabus is available to the students from the beginning of the semester and often contain important information such as the exam times/locations, office hours times/locations, and grading schemes. Make sure to take a careful look at it!

Use Flashcards

Flashcards are nothing new, but they work. They are particularly useful for studying chemistry. Chemistry is full of scientific symbols, formulas and vocabulary that must be memorized and interpreted correctly. Flashcards are ideal for organizing and studying chemical symbols, formulas, and vocabulary – including the periodic table of elements. Once you've created an organized set of flashcards you'll find memorization must easier.

Clarify confusing topics/problems

If you do not understand a problem, see your professor. Don't hope that it won't be on your exam; most of the time those problems you didn't expect are on your exam (Murphy's Law in action!)

Mental Preparation

View chemistry class as an opportunity rather than a chore. Find something you like about chemistry and focus on that. Having a positive attitude can be a key to your success.

Jump in With Both Feet

As with other challenging subjects, including biology, jumping in with both feet is key to your success studying and learning chemistry. Partial efforts don't cut it. Decided now that you're going to succeed in chemistry and that you're going to give it your all.

Take responsibility for your learning

If you are confused, let your instructor know this. Don't be afraid to ask for help.

Focus on Your Work, Not Your Grade

Learning chemistry requires total concentration. Continually focusing on your grade takes focus away from learning chemistry. If you will focus on learning chemistry, your grade will follow. There are no shortcuts. At the end of the day, what you learn is what's important. And if you learn the chemistry, you'll get a good grade.

Be confident

Confidence is a key to being successful in all things in life. School and tests — especially chemistry tests — are no different. When you study, start with the easier material and then work your way up to the more challenging stuff. Do the first couple of practice problems in your textbook’s chapter review or on the study guide. The first problems are easier. This way, you build confidence in yourself and the material as you go. Don’t try the last problem in your chapter review, which is probably the hardest problem ever conceived by man, until you’re ready for it.

In Class

Attend Class

Attendance is related to success. It's partly a matter of more exposure to the subject and it's partly about getting on your instructor's good side. Teachers are much more understanding if they feel you've put forth an honest effort. If your grade is borderline, you won't gain the benefit of the doubt by disrespecting the time and effort your instructor put into lectures and labs.

There are distinct advantages in attending. These include: seeing all the demonstrations, many of which demonstrate a concept; hearing take-home questions that are often spur of the moment; getting hints about what will be emphasized on tests and quizzes; learning what the instructor emphasizes; attempting to understand the thought patterns of the instructor; becoming familiar with specialized jargon and nomenclature not always given in the text, but commonly in lecture.

Arrive on time

Many instructors review concepts at the beginning of class, often indicating likely test questions and going over problems that were difficult for most of the class.

Sit near the front

It's a matter of attitude. Sitting near the front engages you with the lecture, which can enhance your learning. It's easier to slack if you sit in the back.

Avoid Distractions for Yourself and Your Neighbors in Class

During the class, avoid texting, browsing your favorite web sites, playing video games, or other distractions. If you use tablets or laptops for taking notes during the class, make sure that they do not distract your neighbors (e.g. by too bright screens).

Take Good Notes

Attending class regularly and paying attention is important, but it's not enough. As you study chemistry, it's necessary to take copious, intelligible notes that further your understanding of the concepts being discussed. Note taking is of particular importance to the study of chemistry for the following reasons.

Note taking also forces you to write things down. The formulas and equations you'll be introduced to as you study chemistry will be far easier to remember and understand after you've written them down. Taking good notes, and then reviewing those notes, will help you to determine what you do and don't understand. Make sure your note taking is organized. Taking organized notes will help you review lectures effectively and prepare for exams. Note taking will enable you participate in study groups. The better your notes, the better you'll be able to participate and contribute to your study group. When taking notes, don't just focus on what your instructor writes on the board. Listen and copy down all key verbal points and concepts discussed during the lecture.

After each lecture take a few minutes to review your notes. Make sure you understand all the concepts covered in the lecture. Use your textbook to improve your notes and understanding of key concepts covered.

If you have a question, raise your hand and ask!

Often students sitting in a chemistry lecture fail to stop the professor when they do not understand a problem or a concept. Ironically, many other students have the same question. Don't push it aside and hope that you will understand it later on; you are paying for the course, and you need to ask questions.

Out-of-Class Studies

Review and Study Material Before Going to Class

In a traditional learning model, students arrive at class, the instructor introduces the material, expounds on relevant concepts, assigns follow up readings and assignments, and ends class. Students are then expected to go home, review their class notes, attempt to complete assigned readings and assignments, actually learn what was taught in class (which doesn't always happen), come to class the following week with any questions they have from the previous lecture, and be ready to move on and explore new material and concepts. The problem with this model is that it's ineffectively, especially with subjects and material that are challenging to learn.

The best way to learn chemistry is to come to each lecture having already read and studied the material that is going to be presented that day. This method of learning is known as the 'Flipped Classroom', sometimes referred to as 'Class Reversed', and it is a growing trend for teaching many subjects in schools and colleges nationwide. This model is especially effective for learning (and teaching) chemistry for several reasons. First, it gets students to come to class having already studied the material to be presented. Second, arriving at class already familiar with the subject matter, students are able to follow along and understand what is being taught. If students did not understand concepts from their studies, they are able to ask questions during the relevant lecture. Finally, classroom time is used more effectively as a learning tool. Students come away from each lecture with a much better understanding of course concepts and with fewer questions.

Read the topics to be covered (see the course outline in the syllabus) and when done ask yourself what the overall thrust of the lecture is meant to be. If you can't come up with an answer you should look it over again until you can.

Studying your chemistry assignments, readings, and material before going to each class is one of the most effective strategies for learning chemistry.

Practice Daily

A key to learning and studying chemistry is practice. Completing practice problems, solving equations, working formulas, etc. should be a core feature of your daily study routine. That's right, daily study routine. You should spend a little time each day (1 hour) studying chemistry if you want to learn it and stay at the top of your game. Test your understanding and knowledge of chemistry by reviewing and working the practice problems found on sample chemistry tests, as well as problems found on previous chemistry tests (if you can get your hands on them). Avoid any distractions like TV by switching it off or study in a different room. The same goes for cellphones and the internet.

Use Study Groups

Using a well-organized study group is a great way to tackle learning any challenging subject, including chemistry. Study groups allow chemistry students to share their insights with one another, exchange ideas, explain difficult concepts to one another, teach what they've learned, share notes, study for exams, and cover more material. The following are tips for forming effective study groups.

Keep groups between 3 and 6 people. All members must come prepared to group study sessions. Include members who are dedicated to their individual success as well as the success of the other group members. Schedule group study sessions at the same time and place each week. Keep study sessions between 2 to 3 hours. Keep study sessions focused. Don't let them turn into social events. Study as a group in an environment free from distractions.

Read the Textbook

The easiest way to master chemistry concepts and problems is to see examples of those problems. You can pass some classes without opening or even having the text. Chemistry is not one of those classes. You'll use the text for example and most likely will have problem assignments in the book. The text will contain a periodic table, glossary, and helpful information regarding lab techniques and units. Have a text and read it.

If you encounter any bold faced words in your chapter, look up their meanings. This may help you in solving problems.

Memorize all the formulas and common ions well in advance before your exam. There may be more than you anticipated.

Practice Solving Chemistry Problems

This is perhaps the most important piece of advice in this list. Just looking at your notes and following along with a problem won’t help you learn. You must do your practice problems. Chemistry is problem-solving, which is a skill you need to learn by doing. It isn’t something you can pick up by simply watching a teacher do it or by reading a textbook.

When working chemistry problems, don't look at the answer key unless (1) you've been able to work out the answer or (2) are completely stumped. Before looking at the answer, ask for help understanding how to work the problem from a study companion, teacher's aide or your instructor. Re-read your text book to gain understanding and clarification.

If you get a problem wrong, work it again on paper until you're able to get it correct. Make sure you understand each step of the problem and why it is necessary. Once you've been able to figure out the problem, find another problem of the same type and work it. Continue to do so until you thorough understand the concept being taught.

Don't copy someone else's work. Work through examples yourself. You may understand how a problem is worked, but don't make the mistake of assuming that is a substitute for working through the problem on your own.

Write down what you are trying to answer in a problem. Write down all the facts that you are given. Sometimes seeing what you know written down this way will help you recall the method for obtaining the solution.

If you get the opportunity, help someone else work problems. If you can explain the problem to someone else, there's a good chance you truly understand it.

Perhaps the most annoying situation a student gets into is working a problem out and failing to get the correct answer. This is not rare. Almost everyone works a problem wrong the first time. In addition, these mistakes teach us what we did wrong. Chemistry requires discipline in order to understand it and solve problems.

“How can I improve my problem solving skills?” There are many things that one could do; however, the best thing to do is work as many problems as you can. Every chemistry book should also have a study guide with many problems worked out and explained. These study guides are very useful, and they assist you in understanding the material.

Determine Areas of Confusion

If you come across topics, concepts, or chemistry problems that seem confusing to you, take action! Don’t hesitate. First, look it up online. There are a lot of great videos on YouTube that can help you figure things out. Next, bring it to your study group. Discuss it with the group and see if your peers can clear things up for you and help you understand. Finally, talk to your professor about it. Most professors are happy to help when students come to their office hours.

Laboratory works

Wear personal protective equipment

The long-term benefits of wearing laboratory coats and safety glasses have been demonstrated by the experts. The potential for harm and injury is considerably reduced. Safety specs, for instance, are useful in instructional and research laboratories, offering much-needed eye protection. The lab coats keep away nasty chemicals that may come in contact with the skin. As surprising as it may seem, many laboratory accidents take place. Personal protection equipment is necessary so as to protect yourself from chemical exposures and potential hazards.

Take Advantage of Lab Time

When it comes to understanding and learning chemistry, there is no substitute for hands-on experience, and there is no better way to get this experience than by attending chemistry labs. Take every opportunity presented to work in the lab. Working through chemistry problems and conducting chemistry experiments in a practical environment will strengthen your understanding and knowledge of chemistry.

Come prepared!

The pre-lab discussions go with both the lecture material you should know and the lab experiment you will be doing. Many labs have pre-lab assignments!

Mid-term and Final Exams

Studying for a chemistry test can be a real challenge, but it doesn’t have to be. You just need to know how to do it right. In reality, the process of studying starts long before you sit down the night before a test and try to figure out complex chemistry problems between energy drinks.

Don’t cram

Studying a little bit at a time over the course of the entire unit is far and away the best plan for mastering the material and building your confidence in it. Chemistry is complex. It isn’t really something that’s meant to be consumed in mass quantities over a brief period of time.

Taking the material that you learned in class each day and reviewing it at home for 15 to 20 minutes at night will pay huge dividends on test day. Yes, studying the night before the test is always a good part of the plan, but preparing far in advance will be more than worth it.

Know what resources you’ll have available for the test

Ask your teacher what you can use on the test. Will you be given a periodic table to use? (Almost always yes.) Will the formulas you need be available? (Entirely depends on class level and teacher.) Will you be given an ion chart telling you what all the polyatomic ions are? (Depends.) Figure out what you’ll have available so you don’t waste time memorizing things that will be given to you.

Know how to use your calculators

When you’re getting ready for your test, make sure your calculator is ready to go. Know how it works, which buttons to push, and so on. Not all calculators are the same, so if you’re planning on using one the teacher provides, be familiar with it.

Don’t just know how to plug stuff into your calculator; know how to write the calculations on your paper, too (with units). You’ll likely need to show your work.

Take Practice Exams

Taking practice exams can greatly increase your grades on exams in General Chemistry. If your chemistry professor doesn’t provide practice exams, look online or make your own. Sometimes making your own practice exam can help even more.

Sleep and eat

There’s no point to staying up until 3:00 in the morning the day of the test to study that one hard problem you’ve already looked at it four times. All you’re doing at that point is lowering your chances of doing well on the test. If you’re incoherent because you got only 2 or 3 hours of sleep, no amount of caffeine is going to make up for that when it comes to performing on the test. Getting enough sleep helps a great deal on tests.

Also, eat breakfast if the test is in the morning, and eat lunch if the test is in the afternoon. If you eat, your mind and body can focus more on taking the test than worrying about being hungry or needing energy.

Be Smart on Tests

You need to know the information covered by tests, but it's also important to study for tests and take them the right way.

  • Read through the test before answering any questions. This will help you know what to expect and will allow you to identify the questions worth the most points.
  • Be sure to answer the high-point questions. You may end up working the test backward, but that's okay. This is especially important if you are afraid you might run out of time taking the test.
  • Try to understand what the question is asking before diving into it. What concept is being explored? What information is given? What is required for solution?
  • Carefully revise your answers before turning them in.
  • Ask for translation if you have trouble understanding what the question is all about.
  • Review returned tests. Make sure you understand what you did wrong and how to do it right. Expect to see these questions on the final exam! Even if you never see the questions again, understanding how to get the right answer will help you master the next section of the class.
  • Come to exams early. Check out rooms in advance if you're not familiar with their location.

Don’t get discouraged when you take the test

Tests are intimidating, and they’re usually hard. Keeping a positive attitude while taking the test is important. Mark problems that you don’t understand and then come back to them when you’re done with the ones you do understand. Nothing is worse than spending 10 of the 50 minutes you get for your test on one problem that you have no idea how to do. Be aware of your time, and stay positive.

Need Help?

Before hiring a tutor, check your professor's office hours; moreover, have the questions fully prepared so that he or she can help you. In addition, make sure that your professor knows you by name, so that he or she will know that you take the course seriously. If the professor knows that you are a serious student, he will help you as much as possible. Also, NMSU has a learning center with many students who can assist you (CHEM 110-112). Your student fees fund these centers, and you will save money if you seek help there.


world/study_skills.txt · Last modified: 2019/06/04 10:17 by talipovm