How to Pass Chemistry
by Dr. Brenna E. Lorenz
Division of Natural Sciences
University of Guam
Make sure you have the prerequisites!
For an introductory
chemistry course, you need a good, solid, high school level of math proficiency.
In particular, you should already know how to work with fractions, negative
numbers, exponents (including scientific notation), and logarithms, and
how to manipulate and solve algebraic equations.
Have a good attitude!
Recognize from the start that chemistry
is a subject that requires a lot of time and work. Be committed to investing
the time and effort that the course demands. You have to be an active,
aggressive student to do well in chemistry. You cannot afford to be passive
in these courses.
Believe in yourself and your capabilities.
Even though chemistry is difficult for many people, you can understand
it if you work at it.
Decide that you will find something
to enjoy about chemistry. It is easy to say that you hate chemistry, but
if you make this choice, you will find it harder to study and attend class.
Who wants to spend time with something they hate? There is something fun
and interesting in every subject if you allow yourself to see it. Treat
chemistry problems as a challenge or a game; solve them as if they were
a cross-word puzzle or some other activity you enjoy.
Regard chemistry lab as an opportunity
rather than a chore. Lab is your chance to have hands-on experience with
chemicals and equipment. In lab, you can see the stuff you heard about
in class happening before your eyes. Because a chemistry lab is expensive
to build, maintain and operate, these labs may be a once-in-a-lifetime
opportunity for you to experience these things.
Remember that learning chemistry is
your own responsibility. The professor will help you out as much as possible,
but the professor can't learn it for you. It's just like peeing. Someone
can show you to a toilet, but you have to pee for yourself.
Come to class!
Arrive on time and don't leave early.
Don't miss class if you can possibly avoid it.
Sit as close to the front of the classroom
as you can. Old high school habits may dictate that you sit in the back
of the room so that the teacher won't catch you fooling around. But this
is college and you won't be fooling around. If you sit up front, you will
see better, hear better, and generally be more alert.
Ask questions if you don't understand
what the professor just said, or if the professor is going too fast. Your
classmates will not think you stupid; they will be glad you asked, because
they probably didn't understand it either. Many professors will stop and
ask if anyone has any questions. When a professor does this, it is a clue
that the professor thinks that the material just covered was difficult.
The professor is expecting students to have trouble with it. This is an
invitation from the professor to the students to go over the material again,
or in a different way. If the professor gets no feedback at this point,
he or she will proceed to the next topic whether you are ready or not.
So if you don't understand, say so!
Take notes, lots of notes.
Come to class prepared. Always bring
your textbook, your periodic table, your calculator, and your molecular
model kit if your class is using one.
Work the problems!
Paying attention in class is important,
reading the book is important, but nothing is as important as working the
problems. Work as many problems as you can. Practice, practice, practice!
THE NUMBER ONE REASON WHY STUDENTS FAIL CHEMISTRY IS THAT THEY DO NOT WORK
When the professor is working problems
on the board, you may be tempted to think, "Oh, that's easy. I understand
that. I don't need to do those problems." Don't be fooled! Watching the
professor or your tutor or your friends work a problem is not the same
as doing it yourself. Simply watching someone else play the piano or use
a typewriter or play tennis would not enable you to play the piano or type
or play tennis. You have to practice it yourself. Chemistry requires a
lot of practice. YOU HAVE TO DO IT YOURSELF.
Your textbook and study guide will
show you how to work problems step by step. If you can read through the
steps and understand them, that is a good start. But it is not a substitute
for doing the problems yourself.
After you have read the book and the
examples on how to work a kind of problem, try one yourself, without looking
at the book or study guide. After you have finished the problem, check
yourself with the study guide, but be careful not to peek at the answer
to the next problem. Never look at the answer to a problem before you finish
working the problem. Make sure you understand what you did wrong with the
first problem (if anything) before you start the next one of that type.
Be very careful not to lean too heavily on the study guide. Make sure before
you're done that you can do a type of problem from beginning to end without
having to peek at the study guide along the way.
As you work the problem, have a clear
idea of where you are going, what the goal of the problem is. ("I have
to figure out how many of these pills a patient needs.") List what you
are given to start with. (Each pill contains 50 mg. of medication and the
patient needs 75 mg.) Clearly show each step of your calculations or thought
processes. Label units. Then, when you study your work later, you will
have no trouble figuring out how or why you did what you did. If you need
to show your work to someone else, to get help from the professor, for
example, the other person will be able to understand exactly what you did.
After you have figured out how to work
a kind of problem, explain it to someone else. If you can explain it to
someone else so that they understand it, you can feel confident that you
really do understand it yourself.
If you have trouble finding time to
work problems, set up a schedule for yourself. You should set aside at
least one hour every day for working on chemistry. Write your study time
into your weekly schedule as if it were another course.
THE NUMBER ONE REASON WHY STUDENTS
FAIL CHEMISTRY IS THAT THEY DO NOT WORK ENOUGH PROBLEMS.
Make the most of labs
The purpose of labs is to give you
hands-on practical experience with the concepts that you are learning in
lecture. Make the most of the labs. Think about what you are doing. Think
about what is happening. It is very easy to think of a lab manual as a
cookbook, and many of them are written that way, but always think about
the meaning of the phenomena you are witnessing (a color change, a change
in temperature etc.).
Read the lab ahead of time. Read the
theory and read the procedure. Anticipate what is going to happen as you
carry out the procedure. Then, when you actually do it, see if your predictions
Most instructors will require you to
answer and hand in the questions at the end of the lab. Resist the temptation
to copy the answers from someone else. The questions are designed to help
you understand the lab. They generally try to guide you into making connections
between what you saw and did, and the theory behind the lab. You are cheating
yourself out of a valuable learning experience if you just copy someone
else's answers. If you don't understand the labs, then you won't get much
out of them. If you do understand them, they should help you with the rest
of the course.
Sometimes you will just plain get stuck
and need help. Sources of help include: the professor, a tutor, lab teaching
assistants, classmates, books in the library. Your professor has office
hours. The office hours are specifically for students. Don't be afraid
to come see your professor if you are having trouble.
When you come for help, have a specific
problem or list of problems. A professor can't help you much if you come
in with something vague like, "I just don't understand this course" or
"this chapter." The professor will be able to do much more for you if you
say, "I tried to work problem 3.2 and I keep getting an answer of 4.6 but
my study guide says that it's 194. Where am I going wrong?" Or "the book
says I have to take the square root of this but I don't understand why."
Be as specific as you can! After the professor explains, ask if you can
do another problem right there on the spot while the professor watches.
As you do it, explain out loud what you are doing and why, so that the
professor can either confirm your reasoning or correct you as you go along.
Don't be embarrassed about asking for
help. Everyone needs help sometimes. Many people need a lot of help. It's
smarter to get help when you need it than to try to do without it. Your
professor would much rather help you than flunk you. Professors have a
lot of respect for students who care enough about the course to get help
when they need it.
Get help as soon as you start having
trouble with the material. If you wait until the last week of class, come
into the professor's office and say, "I think I'm flunking your course.
What should I do?", then it's too late.
Study effectively for tests!
The best way to study for the tests
and quizzes is to work all the problems as described above, and to ask
for help when you need it. Spread your studying out; do some every day.
Don't expect to be able to learn it all the night before the exam.
Your professor may give frequent quizzes.
The purposes of quizzes are many: they encourage attendance, they keep
the student from lagging behind (putting off all the studying until the
night before the exam), they give the student practice in working types
of problems, they give the student a preview of what will be on the exam,
and they emphasize the kinds of problems the professor feels are important.
Some students blow off quizzes because they don't usually count for many
points. Don't do it! Not only do those points add up, but the quizzes are
actually a valuable study guide.
Anticipate what will be on the exam.
Notice what the professor spends time on in class. If the professor assigns
specific problems, make sure you know how to work every one of those problems
and then more. Make sure you know how to work every problem given on a
quiz. If you miss a quiz problem, make sure you know what you did wrong
so that you will do it right the next time. Some professors give out study
guides. If the study guide says that you need to know a specific concept,
make sure that you do know it. Some professors give out practice tests
or put old exams on reserve in the library. Make sure that you know how
to do every one of the problems on these exams. Sometimes a professor will
even say, "This problem will be on the exam." If a professor says this,
believe it! Know how to work that problem and that type of problem. Most
professors will come right out and tell you almost exactly what will be
on the exam, except for the specific numbers or examples. Pay attention!
Know the vocabulary of chemistry. In
many ways, learning chemistry is like learning another language. Make sure
you are so familiar with terms like "electronegative," "hydroxide," "cation"
etc. that you don't have to spend time worrying about them during the test.
If necessary, for example, when learning nomenclature, make flash cards
of vocabulary words.
Get into a study group with some of
your classmates. It is very helpful to be able to talk and argue about
the material with other people. Make sure that you take an active role
in these discussions. Many people "study" by watching their friends work
problems. You will do much better if you are the one explaining the material
The night before the exam, go to bed
at a reasonable hour and get a good night's sleep. DO NOT STAY UP ALL NIGHT
STUDYING or your brain will be pudding the next day. Eat a good breakfast
before the exam and go easy on the caffeine.
Make sure you bring everything you
are allowed to bring to the exam, like your calculator, for example. If
you have to borrow someone else's calculator, make sure you know how to
When you get an exam back, make sure
you understand what you did wrong. You will need to know how to do it right
next time. Because chemistry builds up from a base of knowledge, everything
you learn at the beginning will be needed later for something more complicated.
If you miss a concept on the first test, you will need to learn that concept
for the next part of the course.
If you start out doing well at the
beginning of the semester, keep it up. Don't try to coast through on one
good grade. One A or B will not counterbalance a string of F's. The professor
cannot grade you on what you are capable of doing, only on what you actually
• thinking that you don't need
DON'T FALL INTO THESE COMMON
• skipping class and getting the
notes from friends;
• showing up for class only on quiz
• showing up for the quiz and then
• copying someone else's work;
• thinking that you can understand
the material without working lots of problems;
• putting off studying until the
night before the exam;
• disappearing from the class after
getting one good grade;
• expecting to be able to catch
up after missing much of the semester;
• expecting to be allowed to do
an extra credit project to salvage a failing grade at the end of the semester;
• expecting the professor not to
count all the quizzes or homework you missed;
• expecting to pass even if you
have all failing grades.
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All contents copyright © 1998 Brenna Lorenz, Megaera
Lorenz, Malachi Pulte. All Rights Reserved.
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