Strategies for Learning Chemistry
By Judith Poe
The first-year science program is a very demanding one. Do not be discouraged if everything is not quite falling into place yet and do not give up. Here are some strategies to try.
1. Don’t let yourself fall behind. The MAT professors came up with a very good slogan a couple of years ago – “It’s easier to keep up than to catch up.” First-year science is a full time job. If you are working part time or if you have significant family responsibilities, you should not try to carry a full load of five science courses in first year. As a rough guide we suggest that for every ten hours per week that you have committed to things other than your studies, you should carry one fewer full course, i.e. if you work ten hours a week you should probably only take four full courses in first year.
2. Study a bit of chemistry every day, even if you only have time for a little bit on any particular day. Learning new methods and content in chemistry is like learning a new language. The more you practice it, the better you learn. And if you don’t use it for a few days, you quickly begin to forget it. So even if you only have time to do one problem on a particular day, it is worth doing that one in order to keep the concepts in your mind.
3. After each Unit of study, make an outline of the content of the Unit. In the outline, integrate the material from the textbook with that from the lectures.
4. Do the problems. There is no substitute for this. You can go over your notes a hundred times and read the chapter a hundred times and think that you understand. But it is only when you try to do the problems from scratch, on your own, that you discover whether or not you really understand the material. And this part simply takes practice. The only way to really learn how to do problems is to do problems. And, that means doing them with the Solutions Manual CLOSED. If you simply read the solutions in the Solutions Manual, you will think that you understand, but you will still not have learned how to do the problems on your own. The hardest part of any problem is getting started and that means translating from the words of the problem to the chemical and algebraic equations that represent those words. This is the part that requires the most practice.
5. For essay questions and definitions, actually write out the answers even if you think that you know the answers. Make sure that you can express the answer coherently in English. If necessary, read your essay answer aloud to see if it actually says what you intended it to.
6. If all else fails and there are still things that you do not understand, come to office hours to ask for help or clarification. Or, stop by if you just want to chat. The data show that the most successful students are those who regularly take advantage of office hours, both live and virtual.
Judith Poe, Faculty of Chemical and Physical Sciences, University of Toronto (Mississauga), and award-winning 3M National Teaching Fellow.
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