How to Excel in Chemistry

Instructor writing on whiteboard with two studentsIf you are looking for some ideas and strategies to help you to do your best in college chemistry, you’ve come to the right place. There are no universal answers — each person finds his or her own path to success. But you don’t have to go it alone. Here you will find the wisdom that other students have acquired on their way to success.

Below you will find 9 different topics to explore. Feel free to select them in any order.

Prof. Cathy Middlecamp
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Last updated: August 10, 2001.
Written for the American Chemical Society Scholars Program

Students are quick to point out that the attitudes of their instructors matter. One student put it this way:

  • “I tend to work harder and achieve more in a class where the professors, the teaching assistants and the other students have a positive attitude and are enthusiastic about learning. “

However, many students have noticed that their own attitudes matter as Student studying; on white is large heart with the word mole in itwell . As one student put it:

  • “Positive people produce positive results.”

So get an attitude. Be eager to tackle a challenge or two. Be curious about what you might learn. Be ready for steady work, sustained over the entire course. Be kind to yourself and supportive of your classmates. In short,

  • “Take in a positive attitude with you because if you believe in yourself and work hard, anything is possible … even Chemistry.”

With thanks to Jessica Kuehn, Lisa Abrams, and Steven Craig, who provided these quotes in their essays, “What makes a course student-friendly” written in the fall semester of 1996.

Are you ready to take chemistry? Timing can be everything. A semester’s difference in taking a chemistry course can mean the difference between success and a failure.

When is the right time? Success in a chemistry course depends in large part in having a good match between your abilities, the demands of your course, and your personal commitments outside the course.

BEFORE you enroll in a course, check your match in terms of:

  • Personal time constraints
    Let’s assume that your chemistry course requires about 20 hours a week for scheduled classes, homework, and studying. Instructor writing on whiteboard with two studentsIf you are working 15 hours a week and taking 12 credits in addition to your chemistry course, you simply may not have enough time to eat, sleep, and do the assigned work. You may need to creatively rearrange your schedule (or your life) before taking chemistry.
  • Your math background
    Let’s assume your chemistry course assigns numerous numerical problems. If your math skills are weak, you may be unable to solve your chemistry problems and/or you may be plagued with “stupid math errors” that cost you time and exam points. You may need to delay enrolling in a course such as chemistry in order to get more math under your belt, first.
  • Your chemistry background
    Let’s assume you took high school chemistry two years ago. If you have forgotten a lot or didn’t learn the material well in the first place, you may be at a disadvantage in your college chemistry course. You may need to review past material before enrolling, as college chemistry courses are not simply a repeat of high school courses.

Thus, it makes sense to look before you leap. If you don’t have what you need to succeed in chemistry, take the time to get it beforehand.

Do you have one? Actually, it would help to have a Plan C and D as well.

Why? Because, as one student put it, it is wise to “expect the unexpected”. When you start a course, you just can’t predict all the twists and turns that your life may take in a given semester.

Plan B may be to delay your chemistry course until you strengthen your math Group of students studyingbackground. Plan C may be to retake chemistry another semester when you don’t have to work as many hours. Plan D may be to switch to a different type or level of chemistry that better matches your needs and interests, such as environmental chemistry, food chemistry or biochemistry.

You may have noticed that plans B, C and D all can represent a delay in your plans to move forward. Over the years, many students have succeeded by taking a small step backwards before taking a leap forwards.

Thus, at the outset it may help if you are open to the possibility of Plan B, C or D. Find somebody who can help you work through the options available and help you get where you are going.

Shop around for a faculty member? By all means, if this is an option. Just as each student is different, so each faculty member is. The better the match you have with your instructor’s teaching style, the better your chances for success.

Think about what really matters to you. Do you want the most rigorous course possible? The most relevant and “real-world” course? The least mathematical? The best personal manner with students? The most engaging lecturer? Does it matter whether the instructor is a man or a woman? Does it matter what time of day the course is taught?

You may not have a choice. If you do, you may wish to:

  • Visit the instructor and ask some questions. If the  Instructor assisting a studentperson listens well and takes the time to answer your questions, this is a good sign.
  • Find out about special features of the course, such as cooperative learning groups, lecture demonstrations, discovery labs, use of the World Wide Web and email, writing assignments, field trips, etc. If the instructor hasn’t given any thought to special teaching methods, this may not be a good sign.
  • Visit a lecture if you can. Ask the professor’s permission to do this, if this is appropriate.
  • Look at previous exams. Do they feature multiple choice questions? Essay questions? time limits? How do these tests match with your strengths and weaknesses?
  • Talk to other students and consult teaching evaluations if available. Find out the opinions of your peers.

Don’t go it alone!

More and more, chemistry courses are emphasizing cooperative learning. Instructors are structuring their courses to promote teamwork and group decision making. Use the same strategies when you study.

Here’s what students have said about studying together:

Two students studying in a boothReach out to others and meet new people. You can not only make many friends but you also now have a group of study buddies.

Group activities also are helpful because two or more minds work better than one.

I benefited a lot from group activities done during lab, lecture, and discussion. Even though you may be confident about your response, it helps a lot to get feedback and other ideas from your peers.

With thanks to chemistry students Jessica Kuehn, Sarah Mautz and Lisa Abrams who provided these suggestions in their essays, “What makes a course student-friendly” written in the fall semester of 1996.

To be successful in chemistry courses, you will need top notch learning skills. Not only will you use these skills in your course, but also you will employ them throughout your professional career. Your ability to zero in on what is important and to quickly master it will be a lifetime asset. Here are some tips:

  1. Don’t be too quick to dismiss your mistakes as “stupid”. The pros keep track of their mistakes and learn from them.
  2. Immerse yourself in the material, studying at least five days out of seven.
  3.  Three students studying

  4. Study with a group of friends wherever possible. Pool your resources and talents.
  5. Increase your ability to think in three dimensions, even when information is presented in two dimensions. Use this especially for molecular shapes.
  6. Upgrade your computer skills. Check out electronic mail, the World Wide Web and library databases.
  7. Topnotch writing skills aren’t just for English majors. Keep working to improve yours.
  8. Look for connections between topics, between courses, and between laboratory and classroom work.
  9. Look for role models and possibly a mentor. Many have gone before you who can help and show you the tricks of the trade.
  10. Make any special needs known, such as physical limitations or family obligations.
  11. Ask for help, and do this earlier rather than later. Smart students ask for help.

There’s no mystery to it: if you don’t get enough sleep, your chemistry will suffer on two accounts:

  1. Your brain will not work as well.
  2. You are more likely to get sick.

Research shows that people often don’t get as much sleep as they need.

Dog sleeping
Photo by Jakub Dziubak

This sleep deprivation, over time, leads to reduced brain power and work efficiency. More simply put, if you stay awake too long, you don’t think straight and make stupid mistakes. When it comes to doing chemistry, you need all your brain cells working full power.

Furthermore, have you ever noticed that you are more likely to come down with a cold when you are behind on your sleep? For many people, this is the case. Illness and chemistry courses don’t mix. Do whatever you can (such as SLEEP) to keep healthy and well.

SLEEP! Forget cramming all night. Forget staying up all night to finish a laboratory experiment. Rather, plan ahead. Organize your time so that your work gets done early. Repeat: Get enough SLEEP.

Do you mix up terms like sulfide and sulfite? Symbols like Mn and Mg? Is it hard for you to remember how many milligrams are in a gram? Can you keep straight the charges on a proton, neutron and electron?

If you have trouble with any of these, relax. It is quite normal to forget. However, given that forgetting is a natural part of learning, you need to build in some strategies to remember the information that you need to succeed in your chemistry course.

Students and faculty alike may speak ill of memorization, saying that they believe one should understand, not memorize chemistry. Understanding is important. However, so is memorization. Here’s why:

  • Efficiency
    Once you memorize something, the information is instantly available to you. You don’t have to waste time searching for it each time you need it. Think how hard it would be if you had to look up every phone number you dialed, without having Four students studying; know these molecules' shapes written on the whiteboardsome key ones memorized. Similarly, you don’t want to be looking up the different numbers of carbon atoms in methane, ethane, propane and butane every time you use these.
  • Freedom to think
    Once you have memorized something, you are free to use your brain space for something else. Think how tangled your thoughts would be if you tried to compute something without knowing the basic math facts. You’d never be free to sit back and think about what the problem is about. Similarly, you can’t think about chemical equations and what they mean if all your brain space is taken up by trying to decipher the chemical symbols, subscripts and coefficients that they contain.
  • Smooth sailing
    Once you memorize something, you don’t have to mentally fumble around trying to remember it. Think how much more smoothly a conversation goes when you know a person’s name and aren’t trying to remember it while you are talking to the person. Similarly, your ability to talk to your instructor and peers goes more smoothly if you don’t fumble when you speak the language of chemistry.

One final thought. The important thing in chemistry is to know when to memorize something and when NOT to. For example, it is handy to have memorized the position of Na (sodium) on the periodic table so that each time you need to find it, you don’t have to hunt all over the chart for it. However, it is not necessary to memorize either its atomic number (11) or its average atomic mass (22.9898). Be strategic in what you memorize and what you don’t.

Enjoy chemistry? That’s right. At the very least, you can probably find some part of chemistry to enjoy.

Consider the alternative: a course with no fun and nothing to brighten your day, … or a course where you commit all that time and energy and you get little or Smiling studentnothing in return. A good strategy, therefore, is to find something that you like about chemistry (or else to switch to a different field or major).

It may be a particular topic you will enjoy. It may be an “ah ha!” that will make you smile. It may be the chemical reaction demonstrated in lecture that caught you by surprise. It may be the friendships that you form working with others in the laboratory. It may be the sense of accomplishment you feel. If all else fails, it may even be the fact that you are one day closer to the end of the semester.

The point is, there must be something. Find it! You are likely to do your best when there is something enjoyable involved.