Subject Spotlight: Chemistry

What is the hardest subject in high school? Some would say Calculus. Others would throw out AP World History or AP Spanish Language and Culture. In all honesty, it depends. Some subjects are harder than others because of the teacher or personal preferences. However, we encourage students to develop a growth mindset, meaning that any subject can be mastered with the right system. We are here to give students the tips, tactics, and systems they need to master anything. Let’s start with Chemistry!

Chemistry is one of the most daunting subjects that many students will face throughout their time in high school. This math-science hybrid can be tricky for even the brightest students but fear not. The following strategies and tips will help streamline any student’s efforts in order to get the biggest return on time spent studying.

Memorize the Important Items and Master the Basics

Learning chemistry is like learning a foreign language. Just like vocabulary is the key to progressing in Spanish class, elements and ions are the building blocks for Chemistry. Master the basics early. Chemistry students are asked to memorize a large list of vocabulary and abbreviations from day one. While it would be nice to be able to skate by without taking the time to memorize the periodic table of elements, it is not a feasible strategy for someone looking to be successful in a Chemistry class. Time spent at the forefront learning the abbreviations for common elements, polyatomic ions, and nomenclature rules is time well spent! There will be an early exam on these items, and despite the seemingly large volume of the material, it will be one of the easiest tests to ace. Even after the first test has past and the material becomes more advanced, if a student is unable to name elements or decipher chemical formulas, he or she will be unable to apply gas laws, predict molecular geometry, or calculate acid/base titrations. Think about it this way. Without the alphabet, a student cannot form words, sentences, or essays. Without elements and ions, students cannot unleash their inner chemist.

Learn Units and Conversions

Students can get ahead and stay ahead when it comes time for equations and formulas in Chemistry if they are well versed in units and conversions. Dimensional analysis and stoichiometry are two of the largest components during the first semester, and both of these topics are heavily dependent upon the ability to convert materials from one unit of measurement to another. Understanding which units account for which measurements can help students to recall formulas, to predict the direction of a problem, and to pick up as many points as possible on all computation problems. For example, if a student knows that weight is given in Newtons (force), and that one newton is equivalent to one kilogram-meter/second2, that mass is given in kilograms, and acceleration in meter/second2, it is relatively simple to work backwards to arrive at Newtons second law of motion:

                                    1 N = 1 kg * meter/second2

                                    (force) = (mass) * (acceleration) à F=ma

Chemistry can often seem like an entirely new set of rules for math, but it isn’t. By mastering units of measurement early, students can turn seemingly complex chemistry problems into relatively simple algebra problems.

Do not Memorize Everything

Yes, memory is important, but trying to memorize everything for a chemistry class is a recipe for disaster. The combination of the first two tips makes it critical to say, “Students do not need to memorize every single conversion factor!” If a student masters dimensional analysis and metric-metric and imperial-imperial conversions, he/she only really needs to memorize one conversion from metric to imperial for each of the base units. For example, if a student knows that 2.54 cm = 1 in, they do not also have to know that 1.609 km = 1 mile, or 9.144 decimeters = 1 yard, or that 1 mm = 6.213 x 10-7 miles. The key to learning is to slowly turn new material into stuff you can do autopilot. In other words, divide and concur. Learn a concept well-enough so that you don’t have to memorize the process each week. With most chemistry concepts, strive for mastery, not memory.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Lastly, practice identifying the givens and working problems. There are generally only a handful of ways that the problems can be asked for any given set of material. If a student has practiced each of these ways a few times, there should never be any surprise questions on an exam. Teachers make an effort to preview the types of problems that students will be tested on in lecture, homework assignments, and quizzes prior to each exam. Students are sure to succeed if they pay attention to the clues that teachers give and then practice what they have learned. Sometimes there is no substitute for practice. You cannot learn to ride a bike by reading a book, you cannot learn to swim without getting in the water, and you cannot truly learn how to do some chemistry problems without putting pen to paper. Too many students assume they know how to do certain problems without ever actually testing themselves. Don’t make this mistake. Students should always put themselves in a test scenario before the teachers utters the words, “Clear off your desk of any notes and take out a #2 pencil.”

At the end of the day, chemistry is a class like any other. With the right system, it can be easy. If your student struggles with chemistry, let us know. We have a plethora of capable chemists on our team who can not only teach executive functioning skills like organization and time management, but also pass along their chemistry tips and tricks. For more information, visit our services page.

Evan Weinberger


Staying Ahead of the Game offers unique academic coaching & tutoring services to help good students achieve greatness.

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