Chemistry Study Skills

Cindy Arem, Ph.D.
Pima Community College

These effective study skill strategies 
were specifically designed for you to
be successful in learning chemistry. 

1. You must be willing to accept the academic challenge of learning chemistry. For some people it is fun and for others it is hard work, but no matter it takes time. It requires persistence, concentration, discipline, patience and lots and lots of practice.

2. Know how your chemistry course is structured.

Your chemistry course may include any of the five traditional branches of chemistry or a combination of two or more fields of chemistry:

Know how your instructor structures the course.

Every instructor is different. Find out if he or she uses the text heavily. If not, what does he or she depend on? Library usage? Lecture notes? Additional materials? It is time­saving for you to understand how the instructor is organizing his or her thoughts.

3. Get a bird's eye view of your entire chemistry course from the very start.

Look over:

4. Math is essential for chemistry. Study basic math and introductory algebra before and during your chemistry course. Review and practice: addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, percent, exponential numbers, simple algebra, and logarithms.

5. Chemistry progresses from the simple to the complex, building upon existing knowledge at each stage. Be attuned to the cumulative nature of chemistry. Understand the continuity of the subject. New work may be understood only after earlier work has been well understood. Keep up with the work and don't fall behind. Try not to miss important building blocks along the way.

6. Learn the basics. Practice and repeat them often so they become second nature to you. A large portion of what you learn early in chemistry is very fundamental and is often used repeatedly during the remainder of the course. Examples of such basics are:

simple algebra
metric system (length, mass, volume)
significant numbers
temperature (Fahrenheit, Celsius, Kelvin)
exponential numbers
factor­label method (or dimensional analysis)
chemical symbols and names of about 40 commonly used elements
symbols (formulas) and names of commonly used simple & polyatomic ions
writing and naming chemical formulas of ionic & molecular substances

As in any subject, look for the most obvious basic concepts that allow understanding of the material. For example, most of the more complex topics in chemistry revolve around the topics of chemical bonding, nomenclature, and atomic structure. It is difficult to picture what is happening with Nitric Acid if you don't know it is HNO3. It is difficult to picture how ions are formed, if you don't know the basic atomic structure. Spend a lot of time on these topics to make the rest of your chemistry go smoother.

7. Learn and practice the terminology and the symbols of chemistry. This is one of the most important things to do.

8. Memorize selected material. For example, memorize chemical symbols and names of the 40 most commonly used elements. Also memorize diatomic molecules from the periodic table like H2, N2, O2, F2, Cl2, Br2, I2, At2 (inverted L).

9. Make problem solving a part of every study session. Work out at least 10 problems per study session and review at least five problems from previous study sessions. Your proficiency in solving problems increases with practice. Cover up solutions in your text and work out the problems yourself.

10. Study chemistry every day if possible, or at least 5 days a week. The more you review and work out problems, the more you will be able to put it all together.

11. Learn how to use your calculator. There are many problems that require rapid calculation of numbers and by knowing how to use your calculator you will be able to significantly increase the number of problems you can work.

12. Understand the difference between an abbreviation and a symbol. An abbreviation is just the shortened form of a word, but a symbol can have many meanings. It is important to know all the different meanings of a chemical symbol. For example, Cl could be the abbreviation for chlorine, or it could mean 1 chlorine atom, or by weight 35.5 atomic mass units of chlorine, or 35.5 grams of chlorine, or 6.02 x 1023 atoms of chlorine.

It is important to understand that a formula or a molecule is nothing but a combination of symbols. These symbols retain their individual meanings in the formula; therefore, if you know the meaning of the symbol you will know the meaning of the formula. Then you will be able to do stoichiometry problems.

13. Make the Periodic Table your friend! Learn how to use it. It will help you understand and correlate chemical and physical properties of the elements.

14. Initially you will have to accept a number of things in chemistry without understanding or asking why. For example, at the beginning you must just accept that H2, N2, O2, F2, Cl2, I2 are always found in nature as diatomic molecules, but it is only later that you will be shown why.

15. Subjects like math usually follow a nice logical sequence, but chemistry doesn't! You have to accept some things on faith. You will not be able to see all the processes, although you may be asked to prove that they occur.

16. Maintain your interest in chemistry by relating what you learn to everyday life and occurrences. In pharmacies and grocery stores look at bottles for names of chemical compounds and see if you can recognize the common and the formal (I.U.P.A.C.) name. For example, "Tums" is calcium carbonate, and rubbing alcohol is isopropyl alcohol.

17. Learn the fine distinctions between related items, such as the distinction between an electron and a proton. Similarly, learn to correlate related terms. Facts, concepts and generalizations may be more easily understood and recalled when they are associated or related to each other as part of a meaningful whole.

18. Learn generalizations. These may be useful for explaining chemical phenomena and for predicting new relationships and new facts.

19. Study your chapter prior to attending lectures. Make it a practice to read over the topic or chapter before going to your chemistry class.

20. Read your chapter three times. First, skim over the chapter. Read the lead paragraph and the first sentence in each subsequent paragraph. Read all summaries. Note all graphs, charts, tables, word lists. On your second reading, read in detail. Understand all concepts, terms and formulas before going on. Cover up solutions and work out the problems given in the text. Underline, bracket, jot notes in the margin. Reread sections that are difficult to grasp. On the third reading, take notes. Write down all important concepts, symbols, terms, formulas.

21. Use at least two different chemistry books when studying. Each book will explain it in different words and it will be like having different teachers explaining it to you. If one doesn't make sense, the other book might!

22. Write and recite explanations to help translate the unfamiliar to the familiar. The more you get involved in the learning process the more you will recall and understand. Remember to "SAY" and "DO." Translate the new information into familiar and readily understandable terms. Capture the line of reasoning used in lecture and in the text. Explain what your have learned to a study partner or even a pet.

Form small study groups of four or five members from your lecture or lab. Meet regularly, at least once or twice a week. Work out homework problems, review your lecture and lab notes, compare study notes and help each other prepare for exams. Study groups help you to "SAY" and "DO." You can talk out what you are learning and explain the concepts to each other. You can solve problems together. You can get your questions answered quickly and learn to relate chemistry to other classes and to your everyday life. Most important it can be lots of fun.

23. Learn general reactions and illustrate each general reaction with specific examples. Where appropriate write the general reaction that corresponds to the specific reaction(s) studied.

24. In organic chemistry: memorize types of organic compounds and types of organic reactions.

25. Study biochemistry like organic chemistry and learn metabolic pathways.

26. Take good, full lecture notes. Successful students usually take down about 66% of what is said in lecture, while failing students write half as much.

27. Remember that despite all attempts to relate student success to something (like IQ, sex, race, etc.) all have failed except for one: REGULAR CLASS ATTENDANCE. Those that come to class usually succeed!

So make it a rule: attend all classes and be an active listener. It is important to be alert and concentrate on what is said in lecture. It is most important to stay current. Do not allow yourself to miss classes and fall behind or the entire course will become an effort and a struggle for you.

28. Review immediately after class and again eight hours later. Immediately after lecture, review your lecture notes. Fill in any blanks, bracket or star the important points. Put summary topic statements in the margins and give your notes more substance by adding facts or statements from your text. Your lecture and textbook notes are "sacred." They are to be studied, restudied and reviewed again and again. Always recite and write out important concepts in your own words, if possible.

29. Always remember you have the right to ask questions before, during and after class. See your instructor during her or his office hours for help. Notice when you are beginning to have problems and seek help immediately.

30. If chemistry is your most difficult subject, then always study it before all other subjects. You must study chemistry when you are most alert and fresh. Make sure to take 5 or 10 minute breaks every 20 to 40 minutes in order to clear your mind.

31. Begin reviewing for exams well in advance and avoid cramming. Practice and work out lots and lots of problems. Make up your own practice tests or get copies of old exams. Give yourself your own timed exams. Test yourself until you can get 100% repeatedly on your own difficult exams.

32. Review the types of errors you make and types of questions that cause you difficulty. Give yourself more practice in these areas of difficulty.

33. Maintain brain and body stamina. Maintain an alert mind and a happy, positive attitude.

34. Take care of yourself before the exam. Get 7 to 8 hours of sleep in the nights before the exam. Eat a low fat, high protein meal before the exam to keep up your alertness.

35. Finally, learn how to remain calm, confident, clear, alert and positive on exams.


To return to Frequently Asked Questions go to my Web site: Effective Math and Sciences Study Skills

Pima Community College

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