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 course before you graduate. Chemistry is a challenging subject for most people, but it doesn't have to be. 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.
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 ineffective, 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.
Studying your chemistry assignments, readings, and material before going to each class is one of the most effective strategies for learning chemistry.
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.
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 to 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.
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.)
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 textbook 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 thoroughly understand the concept being taught.
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.
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 be easier.
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.
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 mastered 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.
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 chemistry, you'll get a good grade.
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.
The following are links to other study skills resources we recommend for chemistry students.