Mastering Chemistry

Author // Cathy Manwaring
Posted in // Cathy's Blog

“Chemistry is impossible!”  “Chemistry has no relevance to my life; why must I suffer through it?”  If I had a penny for every time a student complained about chemistry…  Some students do enjoy studying chemistry.  To those of you who find chemistry class to be a struggle at best, do not give up hope!  There are some basic things you can do now to improve your grade, learn to study more effectively and, most importantly, convince yourself that you are a capable student who is up to the challenge chemistry presents.  You might even learn to enjoy it!   As to its relevance to your life? We’ll touch on that later.

First, don’t fall behind in chemistry.  New topics build on previous knowledge, and falling behind can have a domino effect.  For example, learning nomenclature and stoichiometry now provides the foundation for solving many of the problems you will encounter later in the year.  If you are behind, don’t panic, but do take action.  Go back over what you got wrong on previous tests and quizzes.  Does it make sense to you now?  If not, put in the time it takes to catch up, and ask for help as needed.

Cramming and trying to memorize just enough information to get by will not earn you a high score on that next test – sorry!  Understanding how and why things work the way they do will allow you to reason your way through any problem you encounter.  The periodic table is arranged the way it is for good reason – elements with similar chemical reactivities are grouped together.  Use it as your guide.  If HCl (hydrochloric acid) is a very corrosive acid, you could reasonably expect HBr  (hydrobromic acid) and HI (hydroiodic acid) to behave similarly because  of the fact that chlorine, bromine and iodine are all halogens (i.e.: in the same group on the periodic table) and, as such, have similar valence electron configurations. Chemistry problems are like puzzles. If you can recognize the strategy needed to solve them you are more than halfway there.   The more problems you try the better you become at recognizing which strategy you need to use in a given situation.

A good text book can be enormously helpful, but only if you use it wisely.  How many times have you plodded through the pages assigned as homework in chemistry only to find you have no clue what you just read?  What a waste of your time!  Try, instead, what I term active reading.  At the end of a page or section ask yourself questions: What did I just read?  Did it make sense?  How does it relate to what I already know? Taking notes in the margin is a good way to stay focused (use post-its if you don’t own the book, or buy a used, clean copy of the book so you can write in it). Try the sample problems.  Then (it bears repeating here) go on and do more problems.  The more you practice, the more confident you will become.  Learning doesn’t happen all at once. Write a brief summary, in your own words, at the end of each chapter.  This is a good way to test your understanding, and the summaries are really helpful come exam time.

One final bit of advice: preview the next chapter or topic in your book before your teacher discusses it.  All it takes is ten minutes, and the payoff is worth it.  Read the introduction and summary.  Skim the titles of the sections and the diagrams.  Its O.K. if you don’t understand it all, you’re not supposed to yet.  You will, however, gain a general idea of what your teacher will next be talking about, and that will make following along in class and taking good notes a lot easier.  Most teachers present in class what they feel is most important.  Not surprisingly then, good class notes are really helpful come test time!

As to the relevance chemistry has in your life?  You, yourself, are a walking container of chemical reactions, many occurring at lightening speed without a moments thought on your part.  The car you ride in requires split second combustion reactions in order to move.  Knowledge of chemistry is integral to everything from improved health care to cleaning up the environment.  Learning basic chemistry is part of becoming a well rounded person in an increasingly complex world.  On a more personal note, succeeding in chemistry class feels terrific.  You may never write another chemical reaction after this school year is finished, but the next time you face a challenge you will do so with a touch more confidence in yourself as a student.  After all, you survived chemistry!

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