Chemistry has a reputation as a difficult science to learn. Why is chemistry so hard? Is there any way of making it easier? Here’s what you need to know.
Why Is Chemistry So Hard?
There are several reason why chemistry is challenging. Knowing the science’s reputation, many students fear chemistry before they even enter the classroom or lab. Here are some of the reasons why chemistry is hard:
- It has a reputation. Basically, if you’re told something is hard, you have expectations that shape your experience.
- Chemistry uses a lot of math. Mostly this is algebra, but geometry, trigonometry, and calculus put in an appearance, too.
- Answers use significant figures. You can set up a problem correctly, use all the right numbers, and still get the answer wrong if you don’t report it using the correct number of significant digits.
- Learning chemistry is a progression. It’s like building a ladder. If you miss one of the rungs, you can’t easily keep climbing.
- There is a lot of new vocabulary. In a way, taking chemistry is a lot like learning a new language.
- Chemistry includes both time in the classroom and a lab component. Basically, it’s double the coursework.
- There is a lot of homework. Working problems helps with mastering the concepts. But, when you combine time in the class, the lab, and doing homework, there isn’t a lot of free time.
- There are a lot of exceptions to “rules.” The exceptions teach a lot about how chemistry works, but make learning harder because rote memorization just isn’t enough.
- There isn’t always a “right” answer. For example, consider acid-base theory. There are multiple models (Arrhenius, Bronsted-Lowry, Lewis), and each has its place. As another example, spell the element name for the symbol Al. The “right” answer depends on where you live!
- Chemistry involves visualizing particles and processes you can’t actually see, like subatomic particles, atoms, molecules, and chemical reactions.
- The science includes both logical and abstract concepts.
Tips for Making Chemistry Easier
But, a bit of preparation avoids some of the most common problems.
Before You Even Start
- Understand algebra before taking chemistry. This way, you can focus on the new material without battling math.
- Brush up on significant figures before taking chemistry.
- Find a good chemistry glossary or two so you can look up definitions when you encounter unfamiliar terms.
- Understand the scientific method.
- Know your way around your calculator.
During the Class
- Read up on the information before class. You might not understand it all, but you’ll get familiar with the topic and identify questions to ask.
- Don’t skip class.
- Do not get behind. Cramming just doesn’t work. Chemistry is about a progressive understanding. Build a foundation, so new concepts aren’t overwhelming.
- Do the assigned problems. Most likely, you can find answers online or from classmates and avoid the actual work. Homework takes time, but it really does help. Working through the problems yourself is the best way of mastering the concepts.
- Use multiple sources of information. Expand upon what you get in class by using the internet and other texts so you get multiple explanations of potentially confusing concepts.
- In a classroom setting, work with other students to get different perspectives on concepts and problems. If you can, help another student. Teaching another student is a true test of your grasp of the material.
- If you miss answers on tests or problems, don’t just skip the material and move on. Make certain you understand what went wrong. You need a firm foundation to build upon.
- Look for the connections between the lectures and lab work. The lab offers memorable sights (and smells). If you connect the experience to the concepts, you’ll remember them better during an exam.
- Don’t give up! If necessary, take a break, but then approach a problem from a different direction. Persevere and you’ll succeed.
The Role of Chemistry Teachers
Both chemistry students and chemistry teachers have roles to play in making chemistry easier to understand. Here are some tips for teachers:
- Reinforce unfamiliar vocabulary with illustrated flash cards, notebooks, or word walls.
- Spice up lecture time with exciting and interesting chemistry demonstrations.
- Ask questions that require longer answers than “yes,” “no,” or a number. Turn chemistry into a conversation rather than a lecture.
- Have students practice identifying incorrect answers. If you know why something is wrong, it makes it easier identifying what’s right.
- Represent complex or abstract ideas using diagrams and graphics. Since students can’t “see” certain concepts, give them pictures.
- Don’t get derailed in class. While it’s important to work problems and help students during the lecture, it can throw off your schedule. Instead, consider adding special study sessions or else encourage students to use office hours.
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