Studying chemistry can be tough. This science course has a little bit of everything: there are abstract concepts and complex details like in biology and equations and problem-solving like in physics or math.
The exact mix of these two things can vary depending on the particular course or teacher. Nevertheless, for every chemistry course, students must be able to understand conceptual ideas and solve problems.
How to Study Chemistry: Studying for Conceptual Understanding
First, let’s take a look at how to study chemistry with a focus on conceptual understanding.
1. Make connections to something observable in the physical world
For every concept you study, make sure you can explain its connection to something observable in the physical world. Chemistry is all about using the smallest pieces of matter to explain what we can see or do.
If you can connect ideas like types of bonding or thermochemistry to things you can see, you will be more likely to remember and understand the concepts.
2. Focus on drawing and visualizing the particles to explain how or why they behave
Being able to visualize in your head how particles might behave can be particularly helpful for explaining topics like gas laws, intermolecular forces, or molecular shapes.
3. Review any labs you have done in class
Focus on what you were trying to determine or demonstrate in the lab and how each step of the lab helped you to reach the goal. Many teachers use labs as important ways to apply and explain the concepts, so don’t ignore them after you have finished.
4. Connect new concepts back to old ones
Chemistry is cumulative, and you are likely to see particular ideas like solubility, molecular structures, and stoichiometry again and again. When studying, consider how a teacher might use previous material to connect to the new material.
How to Study Chemistry: Studying to Support Problem-Solving
Now, let’s examine how to study chemistry with a focus on problem-solving.
1. Do a bit of problem-solving practice every day
The problem-solving skills and ways of thinking build on each other over time, and the more frequently you do some chemistry work, the better it will stick in your brain.
For example, taking 2.5 hours and spreading it into 30 solid minutes of studying over five days will be more effective than cramming all your studying into one session right before a test.
2. Keep an equation list
As you learn math-heavy portions of chemistry (e.g., thermochemistry, wave and light properties), keep an equation list. This list should include every major equation you learn, what each symbol means, and when you would use that equation.
Even if a list is provided on tests, it is important to be able to organize and understand the tools available to you when problem-solving.
3. When you see a new problem, start by making a problem-solving plan
Identify what the problem is asking for, what information you’re starting with, and any relevant information provided to get from start to finish.
Almost every chemistry class teaches a dimensional analysis or factor labeling approach to doing math in chemistry. Use it! Plan out all of the steps of a problem first before you start punching numbers into your calculator.
4. When solving problems, write down and keep track of units
The dimensional analysis approach requires you to write down and keep track of units, but attending to units all the time will help ensure the answer you give is the one being asked for in the problem.
For example, many formulas in thermochemistry use energy in the unit of Joules, but often information is provided in Kilojoules. To solve problems correctly, you will need to keep track of these differences.
5. When you get to a final answer, always do a gut check.
Does this answer make sense physically or mathematically?
For example, if you’re saying that the mass of a sample of material is hundreds of thousands of kilograms, that might be too big. Or if your answer shows that a temperature is less than absolute zero (-273 ºC), you know that is impossible and there was an error somewhere.
7. Keep track of different types of problems and how to solve them
If you can recognize patterns in the kinds of problems you come across and the steps required to solve them, it will be easier for you to solve similar problems on tests.
For example, combustion analysis of molecules and titration analysis are common types of problems in AP Chemistry. These problems are always solved with roughly the same plan, so if you know that plan, it will make understanding the problems much easier.
Subject Tutoring for Chemistry
There is no denying that chemistry can be a tough subject—but it can also be really fun! If you can build your conceptual understanding and problem-solving skills, you will likely be able to address many of the hardest aspects of the course and be successful moving forward.