How to survive basic chemistry.
Learning style management.
How to study for tests.
Some pointers on general studying for
Problem solving skills in chemistry.
Some possibly useful pointers on problem
HOW TO SURVIVE BASIC CHEMISTRY
In many high schools and colleges the basic chemistry course
is the one that causes most concern among students. With
everything going right, chemistry can be a fun but challenging
course. Under poor conditions, your first chemistry course
can be a real spittin', cussin' nightmare. The study of
chemistry may be different from anything else you have ever done.
In fact, there are several different topics in chemistry THAT MAY
NEED TYPES OF STUDYING TAILORED TO THE TOPIC. Basic chemistry is
a survey course in chemistry (That is, it covers a little bit of
everything.) with emphasis on common chemicals and study
techniques. The aim is to give you some chemical and general
scientific literacy rather than train you to be a chemist. This
outline is to: (a) tell you what to expect in most courses, (b)
show you some methods of study for the course, and (c) show you
some directions you can turn to for help, if you need it.
The most useful advice is to stay up with or ahead of the
class. As the Red Queen said to Alice, "Now, here,
you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same
place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least
twice as fast as that!" If you fall significantly behind in
basic chemistry, it is hard to catch up, but catching up is the
only way to continue. The material "snowballs" in this course. By
that I mean that the basic facts that need to be learned or
memorized at the beginning are going to be used later in the
course. Fluency in the basic material is necessary for you to be
able to understand and learn the more complex ideas in the
course. Chemtutor can help you keep up by showing you study
methods, explanations, and other ways to learn the material.
We have found that students do better by having a quiz over a
small amount of material. Act as if you will have a quiz every
class period. These quizzes would either ask you to memorize some
basic material or to use some of the material in a math process
or a basic idea about chemistry. Designing and giving yourself
quizzes to help you schedule your studying will prepare you for
the major tests. There are quick quizzes on the web for many of the rote memory
items in chemistry. For instance, you could look up (Google, Bing, etc.) quizzes
on the elements and their symbols on the web and use those for practice.
If you are studying with
someone, teach it to each other. The teacher always learns more
than the student. (If you have it together sufficiently well to
present it to someone else, you know it a lot better.)
Many students find studying with others from the same class is
a lot of help. If you get together in a group of three or four,
you will always have someone to study with. If you study with
other students, it is easier to contact them for missed
assignments if you must be out.
Back to the beginning of Heuristics.
YOUR PERSONAL LEARNING STYLE MANAGEMENT
Learning is easy for some people. They can read something or
hear something and understand it. For others, the number
of useful learning methods is more limited. Just because a
person has a limited way to easily learn DOES NOT MEAN
THE PERSON IS STUPID OR UNEDUCABLE. The term LD (learning
disability) indicates that a person has a difficult
time acquiring and learning information by one source or another.
It is truly unfortunate that a small number of students
have used the idea of a learning disorder to attempt to cover for
laziness. Most of the students who have a learning
disorder would dearly love to be like other students, but they
have experienced disappointment after disappointment.
If you have a learning disorder, you must analyze (or have
analyzed) exactly what it is and learn your best way to
compensate for it. Anyone teaching for any time has seen the
student who will obey a spoken request, but when asked to
read the request will appear to let it go in one eye and out the
other. For some people the written word just does not
register in the right way. For this type of learning disorder a
student might find that reading the assignment aloud from the
book will help. For others, copying the words in the book works
best. For students who have a rough time understanding
oral lectures, (Ask the teacher first.) you might bring a recorder to
school and preserve the lecture. At home, speak the lecture after
the teacher or transcribe the lecture. Whatever works is best for
If you have a problem with learning, YOU CAN
USE THIS CLASS AS AN EXPERIMENTAL PLACE to find some
ways you can adapt to learning these various types of material.
Particularly the students who want to go into any type of
scientific work will see this material again along with the need to
grasp great amounts of it quickly. So the basic chemistry
course makes a good practice ground for whether you can adapt
yourself to this type of study. You know yourself best,
so the person to help you with learning problems best is
yourself. You need to vary your learning techniques UNTIL
YOU FIND SOMETHING THAT WORKS for you for each type of studying.
Try a number of methods. Use varying
techniques. If teaching chemistry to your little sister works for
you, do it. If you do not seem to find a way that you can
use, consult a counselor who is willing to help you get
Back to the beginning of Heuristics.
HOW TO STUDY FOR TESTS
The type of test you can expect will, to a certain extent,
determine what kind of studying you must do for it. Most
instructors will tell you what style of test they will give you.
Objective tests (fill-in-the-blank or multiple choice) likely
have the most obvious study methods. Flash card and
association techniques are old standards for this type of work.
Students working in pairs can quiz each other on this type
of material. Make lists when you need to. Be sure you understand
definitions rather than just memorizing them.
Math tests require the information of the objective tests and
the practice in working problems. Historically in this course, the
majority of trouble with math comes not from the math itself, but
with background information that is lacking. Much of the
background comes from the material Chemtutor suggests you know.
If you have a problem with the math, first go back
and learn the background well enough to use it. If the math
itself is a problem, you need to ASK FOR HELP from a
student or instructor. There is some help in math for you in
Chemtutor, but if you have live help who can emphasize the
points your instructor is requiring, that can be as useful. Many
times your instructor will suggest a problem solving
technique to you. Learn it and use it. If your instructor does
not suggest a problem solving technique, Chemtutor has
several approaches you can use.
Essay questions require yet another set of skills. The
questions contain words like "explain" or "describe"
or "compare" and you will be expected to write an essay on
the subject at the test. The first requirement, of course, is that you
be able to write in the English language. Without intending to be
unfriendly or mean, do know that there may be some who have difficulty
with that. The best I can tell you for a problem with the English
language is that practice definitely shows.
Some students are used to writing a large amount of FILLER on
essay tests. Most instructors can easily see through that and do
not grade it, except downward if it becomes excessive. Most
instructors look for content when they grade an essay test.
Essay answers may be expected to contain information from the
book and/or from lecture. To study for essay tests, you should:
(a) consider some of the likely questions you might have, (b)
collect information, (c) organize the information into an answer,
(d) compare your answer to some of the answers of your
classmates, and (e) practice answering the questions at home as
if you were at the test. You should memorize important items you
need to mention ("key words"), but usually efforts to
memorize whole answers word-for-word do not work well.
Chemtutor can help you keep up with the class. If you still
need help, other students in your class may be able to help you.
If you do not get the help you need from students, call or visit
your instructor. Many professors have "office hours" posted for just
such student consultation visits. If the other students cannot help you,
maybe they also need some help. Most instructors would be glad to
help you on an individual or group basis. ASK. Get help
far before you find yourself close to failing. Many
instructors understandably feel uncomfortable about helping
students with their work only a few hours or minutes before a
test. Usually they have test materials to get together at that
time and feel a panicky student is not likely to learn much at
The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve (and the research that followed it) is a milestone of cognitive theory that has been the most effective in helping people learn with the most efficiency. The idea behind it is that as time progresses, the memory of information decreases unless some reminder is accessed. When regular reminders are practiced, the information becomes more solidly entrenched. It is important that the material be learned correctly the first time, but the material will be retained much longer if it is reviewed regularly. Further research shows that material is learned best when it is tied in with other material. Learning meaningless words, for instance definitions that you don’t understand, is not very effective at all. Learn ideas by understanding rather than just by rote memory if you can.
What does this mean for you? That depends on how you learn and what your base of knowledge is. How could you use this? You will have to adapt the idea to your lifestyle. Let me give you an example that you might practice to develop efficient learning.
Let’s say you have a test with little or no math scheduled for a week away. Gather your information for the test and go over it in the way that suits you best until you have a good grasp of the material. Make a list of the things you need to know for the test. Every night (or every other night) before the test, review the material for NO MORE THAN 15 MINUTES, preferably before you go to sleep. Let's say you are learning about acids and bases and that you know some German. You learn the definition of an acid to include that acids taste sour. AHA! The word for acid in German is sauer, pronounced the same way the English word sour is said. You see that sauerkraut just means acid cabbage. You remember that candy sour balls are made with the taste of citrus and that citrus gets some of its flavor from citric acid. With these ideas, you have sealed in the idea that acids are sour.
Take the test and analyze the answers when you get it back. Based on how well you do on tests by studying this way and your personal situation, you may have to change the routine some to adapt to your own needs. Hopefully, you will be pleasantly surprised at how well you know the material and how easy studying was.
Math work sometimes takes a little different approach. There is some background information with math that has to be known. You can learn the background material by rote and then do the math, or you can have the background material with you as you practice the math and then make sure you have memorized the background material and perfected the math process for the test. Make sure you understand the steps in the calculations and the reason for each step.
A good example is the Dimensional Analysis (DA) or Unit Conversion. In order to do the conversions, you need the definitions. To change from grams to kilograms, you need to know the definition that 1 kg = 1000 g. (See Chemtutor Units and Measures, http://www.chemtutor.com/unit.htm, for the definitions you need to know and Chemtutor Numbers and Math Operations, http://www.chemtutor.com/numbr.htm, for the conversion techniques.) Instead of reviewing material as you would for other material, you should learn the idea and then practice the math for short times spread out far in advance of when you need it.
Back to the beginning of Heuristics.
Chemtutor can be of significant help to you in the general
material of the course, but each course and instructor is
somewhat different. Your instructor should give you a course
syllabus, a description of the course with information on
what you need to do to pass the course. Keep your course syllabus
as the first page of your class notebook. This may sound somewhat
compulsive, but a well-kept notebook can be a great help to you.
Keep all your notes in a three-ring or other insertable binder.
Everything pertaining to the course should go into the notebook,
preferably in date order.
Taking class notes is another important art. You must be able
to judge what is important enough to write in your notes. If you
are too busy writing notes, you may miss something useful. If you
have trouble taking notes, you should compare your notes with the
notes of other students in the same class as soon after the class
as you can.
If you need help or information (notes or assignments) in the
course, your first questions should go to the members of your lab
or study group. Next, ask other students in the class. Get the
name and phone number or email address of the members of your lab
group and other students in the class. Keep these in your
notebook. CALL or EMAIL or MESSAGE them when you need guidance about course
Some colleges or universities have teaching professors who only lecture
and TA's (teaching assistants) who will do the "dirty" work of consulting with
students in small groups, give quizzes, and grade tests. Most lecturing professors
will stick to the material in the course, but, since the classes are large, do
not take questions during the class. You need to rely on your TA for help in the
class. If your TA does not help you, complain to the school administration. They will
send the TA to the school outpost in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, for the winter semester.
Some colleges and universities allow you to drop a course
before the end of it to preserve your grade average. If for
some reason you need to drop out of the course, give your
instructor the courtesy of the opportunity to talk with you.
There are some good reasons for wanting to drop out; you don't
feel you have the background, you don't have the time to devote
to the work, you have other turmoil in your life and can't
expend the emotional or mental effort, your work schedule
conflicts with your school, etc.
Back to the beginning of Heuristics.
SOME POINTERS ON GENERAL STUDYING FOR CHEMISTRY:
- Keep up with the course. Catch up as quickly as you can if you fall behind.
- Understand all concepts before going on.
- Thoroughly memorize all background material you are assigned.You will need it later.
- Keep a list of emergency contacts if you have problems. Get the names, telephone numbers, email addresses, social network connections, etc of the teacher, other students in the class, your TA. and other sources of help. Make a list of web sites that could be of help.
- Keep a close watch on the assignments for the course. Contact other students first if you must rather than bothering the teacher.
- Find a good place to study. It must be comfortable, quiet, well-lit, and have all the things you need.
- Find a good consistent time for studying chemistry.
- Review lectures as soon afterward as you can. Cognitive studies show that people remember better when the information is fresh in mind.
- Determine which study methods are best for you.
- Shape your lifestyle around the requirements of the course.
- Study with others if it helps you. Choose study partners who are serious about learning.
Back to the beginning of Heuristics.
PROBLEM SOLVING SKILLS IN CHEMISTRY
In general, ACCURACY needs to increase rather than speed. Any
technical literature is concentrated, and any form of "speed reading" is a waste of time on informationally dense material. Instead, devices to increase comprehension are necessary, such as mental models, finger counting, lip movement, or figure drawing. If you don't learn how to slow down and learn the material, reading the textbook is a waste of time. Some other ways to slow down and carefully consider the words include reading aloud to yourself, reading or explaining to another person, or writing the information. If you write the information, don't just copy it. Put it into your own words and go back to see if it makes sense.
Intelligence may be defined as the ability to do abstract
reasoning. Weaker students jumble abstract reasoning from lack
of ability to grasp the entire problem at "one shot." The
next step for a weaker student is to give up for lack of a way to
even get started. The best students support abstraction with
concrete ideas. It is not the ability of the better student to
fully grasp the complete abstraction that sets them apart, BUT
THE ABILITY TO ORGANIZE A PROBLEM SO THAT NO PART OF IT IS TOO
DIFFICULT. The idea behind the abstraction becomes more apparent
as the idea is used. Another way to put that is that the better
student does not usually have more efficient mental "hardware"
but better "software."
One tool for the development of better methods of problem
solving is to take a short standard intelligence test and later
analyze the results. The number of correct answers is not the
most important data, but the analysis of how to "concrete" each
question and how to spot potential errors on a case-by-case
basis can help students see some ways to improve their
personal analytical reasoning ability.
The use of a standardized test will give an ability to see a
broad general group of problems that are each "informationally
neutral", that is, having no need for a body of background
information other than the very rudimentary, such as the number
system, the alphabet, and the ability to define words. Indeed, on
any IQ test some questions require just word definition
knowledge. In coursework, though, a body of knowledge is needed
to interpret the questions. In chemistry some of this
material may have to be known by rote in order to most
efficiently perform on tests. Some examples of material that
should be know by rote are the symbols of elements, polyatomic
ions, some valences, measurements and the conversion
factors among them, dimensions and the symbols for them, and some
common names for materials. There are several
ways to learn rote material, to include flashcards, pair
quizzing, mnemonic devices, and reading aloud.
Class time is poorly spent on rote material, but it is the teacher's
responsibility to point out which material is a candidate for rote
learning. There is, unfortunately, no way to "pour" this
information into a student. That basic maturity of recognizing
something that must be done and DOING it is necessary as a prerequisite.
We say that the math is difficult for the students, but they
can do the arithmetic very well on the calculators they have. The
real stumbling blocks are difficulties organizing the problem and
a lack of background rote information. The
problem-solving technique needs to be practiced first with
trivial problems and then with increasingly difficult problems.
"Practice makes perfect" seems to be true; the best way to
learn what can go wrong in a problem is to make the mistake
yourself, find the mistake, and learn from your mistake. Again,
from the initial observations, any problem that can not be
thought out completely in the head needs an overall "mental
roadmap" toward a solution and an orderly implementation of the
pathway in which each step is demonstrable. For some good ideas
on solving problems that are not the "formal" type of
chemistry homework problem, see George Polya's book, "How to Solve
It." For chemistry problems involving a formula, one
pathway is the W5P method to be introduced later. For most
conversion problems (many of the chemistry problems), the
Dimensional Analysis system, also to be introduced later, is a
splendid framework. The point is that with a good
framework in which to think of the problem, a complicated problem
is merely a series of simple problems.
Back to the beginning of Heuristics.
SOME POSSIBLY USEFUL POINTERS ON PROBLEM SOLVING:
- Read the problem carefully, moving your lips if necessary.
- Find the best way to think of the problem in the most concrete terms.
- Draw the problem, if possible.
- In chemistry example problems list the important information items in the problem. Show
GIVEN, the information you know about the problem labeled with its units
and symbols and FIND, what you need to find in the problem.
FIND: D (density)
GIVEN: V = 46.9 mL m = 127.1 g (V is volume and m is mass.)
Show the formula from the symbols in GIVEN and FIND.
D = m/V
- Know the background material for the problems.
- Follow the problem-solving method your teacher gives you, if one is given.
- Understand and use the units of quantities.
- Know your own weakest points so you can be wary of them.
- Go back and check your work. Use the units of the measurements to check your work. If the answer does not make sense, something is wrong.
Back to the beginning of Heuristics.
Numbers and Math
Units and Measures
States of Matter
Mols, Stoichiometry, and Percents
Oxidation and Reduction Reactions
Acids and bases
At this point in my teaching career, most of my students are not traditional college students. Most of them have jobs, and most of them have family to consider. I tell them that if they have a spouse or child over ten years old, TEACH THEM TO COOK. Any way you can clear out some time for your studies is fair game.
A mnemonic device is a memory trick for memorizing
information, such as HOMES as a memory jogger for the Great
Lakes; Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. Medical
students use mnemonic devices to remember the cranial nerves such
as, "On Old Olympus' Towering Tops A Finn And German Viewed Some
Hops," and some other less likely and more scatological sayings.
There was a cartoon in the New Yorker magazine some years back
in which a neurosurgeon had a patient on the operating table with
the top of the head off. The surgeon was stepping back pensively
reciting the, "On Old Olympus'....." mnemonic device, with the
obvious caution that there is a limit to the utility of such
mnemonic devices. There comes a time when the information must be
a little more fluent.
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