Chemistry is generally considered to be a hard subject.
And sure — chemistry does require you to wrap your head around some pretty tricky concepts (eg electrolysis), have solid math skills (eg to balance chemical equations and undertake titrations), AND to be able to discuss concepts and processes in a clear, logical and concise manner. Hmmmm.
So yes, chemistry is not really a subject that you can just ‘wing’ on the day.
With that in mind, here are our 5 top tips for studying chemistry at high school:
1. Start by thinking about concepts at a high level
Example: There’s no point in trying to answer a question about electrolysis if you don’t actually understand what electrolysis is. This might sound obvious, but hear us out.
You might recall from class (or perhaps not if you’re a parent…) that electrolysis has something to do with ions and the separation of an aqueous fluid… and there’s something about a cathode and an anode in there somewhere…
But if you couldn’t explain what electrolysis is to yourself or another person, then that’s a good indication that you don’t understand it well enough.
So before you try and answer any practice questions or write too many study notes, take a step back and look at the topic (eg electrolysis) as a whole. What does it involve? What’s the jist of what’s happening? If you could sum it up in a couple of sentences what would that summary be? A quick Google search for an overview of any topic should help immensely with this.
Once you can verbalize a brief summary of a topic it means you at least have a strong foundational understanding of what you’re studying, upon which you can build up your knowledge and come to understand more of the details.
2. Write study notes and draw your own diagrams
For most students there’s nothing as effective for the processing, understanding and retention of information as writing study notes.
The physical act of writing forces us to come to terms with information in a way that is harder to achieve by simply reading. This is why writing study notes is going to be HUGELY helpful for your understanding of chemistry and all of its crazy concepts.
To be truly effective for your understanding and memory retention, your study notes should be written in your own words as much as possible.
And if there’s one thing the human brain finds easiest to process and remember, it’s a diagram, which is why drawing your own diagrams is such a fantastic way to come to grips with concepts and processes and to REMEMBER what they are when you’re in an exam.
Whether it’s a chemical structure or a chemical process, you should be able to represent most chemistry concepts/topics in a diagram. For instance, the chemical structure of an organic compound or the process of hydrolysis is going to be a LOT easier to remember with the help of a visual representation! Also — using color can be a great way of highlighting different parts of your diagram to make it even more memorable.
Your diagrams do not have to be works of art. No one is going to see your diagrams but you, so do whatever works for you! And remember — study notes can be written by hand, on a computer or a mixture of both. It’s all about figuring out what study techniques are best for YOU.
3. Practice equation-based questions as if it were math
As we’ve discussed, the key to good grades in math is repetition and practice. Students who get good grades in math have solved so many practice problems that they can basically do them without thinking too much (while concentrating of course).
This exact same idea should be applied to chemistry questions that involve math.
For instance, balancing a chemical equation is basically a math problem, and so the majority of your study time on chemical equations should be spent smashing out as many equations as it takes for you to feel really comfortable with the process.
As discussed above, it will also help you if you have a think about what the purpose and reason for balancing a chemical equation is (simply put, so you have the ability to know exactly how many molecules of reactants are required to make how many molecules of products).
When it comes to your exam, you should see a question that asks you to balance an equation and without hesitation or fear think — ‘Aha! I know exactly how to do this’. That’s the level of understanding you’re striving for.
4. Ask yourself — do I get the fundamentals of chemistry?
Clare once tutored a high school student in chemistry and math, and it become apparent very quickly that the student in question needed to get the basics sorted before there was any point in looking at what she was supposed to be learning in class.
For instance, one of the topics she was learning in class was Acids and Bases, a common Chemistry topic. However, this poor girl was quite far behind and had no idea what an atom even was.
For those of you who haven’t done Chemistry this century, because atoms are the units of matter, it’s really important to have an understanding of what an atom is and to be familiar with at least a proportion of the elements of the periodic table before you can hope to properly understand anything in chemistry.
How can you hope to understand how different substances react together if you don’t know what an atom is?! It would be like trying to solve an algebraic equation without being able to add, subtract, multiply and divide.
So if you’re finding that you’re struggling to understand a topic, perhaps it’s because you don’t understand one or more of its underlying concepts. Take 15 minutes to look up the underlying concept you’re confused about, and the main topic you’re trying to study will be MUCH easier to wrap your head around.
5. Attempt past or practice exams
Chemistry is very much a topic that requires you to APPLY what you’ve studied. It won’t be enough that you can regurgitate information. You’ll have to understand what the question is asking of you (and the question might not make it obvious) and apply what you’ve studied to fit the specific question and answer it exactly.
Of course the only way to get good at applying what you’ve studied to questions, is to practice doing this. So get a hold of as many practice questions and practice or past exam papers as you can and work your way through them. Our recommendation is that you make doing this a priority, especially in the week leading up to an exam. Your time and effort put into answering practice questions will without a doubt be rewarded.
Simple strategies for a hard subject
As with all of our study advice, our tips for getting the best possible grades in chemistry are simple. Doing well in chemistry does not need to be the sole domain of the top academic students at your or your teen’s school. You simply need to take a breath, take a step back, take a look at the big picture, and then launch in one step at a time.
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