So you are spending lots of time studying and you are still struggling on exams. What now? First of all, know that you aren’t alone - Some of the best students struggled in chemistry at some point so keep with it!
Learning Chemistry takes time!
Just as you need to take time to practice for sports or learn a foreign language, you need to take time to practice chemistry. We don’t expect you to get everything right away; in fact some of the best students in these courses had to wrestle with the material before really understanding everything. Make sure you allocate enough time to review the course material and practice problem solving on a regular basis.
There is a reason these courses are not directed readings: all the parts – practice problems, reading, lecture, section, labs, office hours, studying on your own or with friends, tutoring– work best when you use them together.
Dig Deep on practice problems.
Just doing lots of practice problems will not necessarily make you a better problem solver. You will never see an exam problem that looks exactly like a practice problem, so doing every problem possible is not a good strategy. Instead, when you work out a practice problem we have given you, make sure that you can explain why and when you would make each step in your solution. Be able to explain
- why certain information is useful to you
- why a piece of information might be unnecessary
- what conversions you need to make so that you can use information correctly
- why you are using a specific formula
- how you can rearrange a formula to find a new parameter
- why you need to consider a particular reaction
- when would you be able to make any assumptions you are making
- what structures are useful to understand
It is easy to fall into the trap of reading through a solution key and thinking it makes sense. But unless you can justify each step with more than a ‘just because’ statement, it will be difficult to apply those skills to another problem.
Do the reading and warm up problems BEFORE lecture.
If you have already had an introduction to the material at your own pace before lecture, then you can use lecture time more productively to solidify and practice these concepts. The more times you hear and practice the material (i.e. problem sets, lecture, section, study time…), the easier it will get.
Lab Sections really do matter.
Sections are constructed to highlight and guide you through particularly important concepts and chemical phenomena. Make sure that you can apply the main concepts of each section before the next exam. A good way to see if you are applying concepts rather than memorizing them is by checking to see if you can explain WHY to every step you’re doing in a problem. Also make sure to finish any extra practice problems offered in section and on the lab-write-ups.
Ask lots and lots of questions!
Scientists ask questions - all the time! Especially WHY! Instructors always appreciate when students ask questions because it shows they are listening and really thinking about the material.
- Ask “what does that really mean?” in each section while you read the chapter.
- Ask “why” of a problem as you decide what it is asking and how to solve it.
Ask questions about the lecture and section material. If you are reviewing material on your own write these questions down. If you can answer them on your own, great! If you are stuck, then take them along with you to office hours or a study group. Then you won’t forget and you’ll make sure you get a more thorough understanding of everything.
Study chemistry when you are awake!
We all tend to put off things that are difficult, but this means that you might end up studying chemistry at the very end of the day when you are already worn out and too tired to think well. And, if you never practice then it will never get easier!
Instead, try setting aside some time each day when you know you will be alert and ready to go. It doesn’t have to be a huge block of time, but that way you will at least get in some quality time to bond with your chemistry.
Study more efficiently – not just more!
- One of the first steps in coming up with an efficient study strategy is to assess what - in all of the things you are doing to study - seems to help you the most? What gave you the most confidence? If there are some things that you are already comfortable with, perhaps spend less time reviewing those and more time on concepts that are still challenging.
- Take some time to assess where are you having difficulty on the exams. When you get an exam back, retry all of the problems you missed (BEFORE looking at the solutions). Do you get farther then you did during the exam? Are you really able to finish them with more time or in a less stressful environment? Do you get stuck on concepts or definitions? on math? on starting the problem?
- Debriefing the exam helps you indentify the conceptual gaps that you need to relearn versus errors that may have resulted from test stress or a misreading of a question.
- If you can start to identify where/how you are struggling with the exam, then you can think about how to make better use of your study time as you prepare for the next one.
Take advantage of study tips from VPTL:
- https://vptl.stanford.edu/students/academic-skills has useful quick tips on exam taking, note taking, study strategies, etc. that might help you to think about how you want to organize your study time more efficiently.
- For instance, when you read through the chapter or lecture notes, constantly ask and answer questions for yourself as you go. This website has a couple good strategies for doing this (see the ‘Reading Efficacy’ pdf or the Cornell note-taking system) that might help you dig deeper into the reading and help you see relationships between new concepts. It might also help you structure your reading or lecture notes in a more useful way. https://vptl.stanford.edu/students/academic-skills/study-tips-resources
- You can also set up a personal Academic coaching session with Adina Glickman, to think about more specific study strategies for you. firstname.lastname@example.org
Use office hours!
Office hours are not just for problem sets--- Questions on anything in the course – lecture, lab section, the book reading, study tips, etc. – are all fair game so please don’t hesitate to come. Office hours are available to help you!
- Keep a running list of questions as you read or work through problems. If you cannot justify a certain step in a solution this is a great question for office hours. Students often get more out of office hours if they come prepared with questions about what they don’t understand.
Use a study group!
Lots of research tells us that students who regularly participate in study groups end up with higher grades.
- When studying with classmates, take advantage of this opportunity to explain and discuss concepts or problem solving strategies with others.
- When you review problem sets together, instead of just understanding how to approach that specific problem, see if you can come up with several different ways we could have asked other questions about that system. Is there a different parameter we could ask you to solve for? How would the problem change under different conditions? This will help you to think about and practice different problem solving strategies.
- Don’t have a study group? Connect with students in office hours, section, piazza, drop-in tutoring, etc!
Organic chemistry is three dimensional!
You will find that nearly all of the study skills developed in general chemistry are just as applicable in organic: you still have to put in the time for concepts to marinate, you have to dig deep in problems, and you have to be on constant vigilance to ask “why”. However, in organic chemistry, there is a new visual component to take into account: it is essential to begin viewing molecules three dimensionally (instead of as two dimensional lines and letters on paper), since the 3D structure greatly impacts the actual chemistry. To start visualizing these structures use a model kit to build molecules every time you do organic chemistry (reading, practice problems, and so on). Bring the model kit to section. Your models will reveal important properties of the molecules, like the spatial relationships between different atoms, or how easily a bond can rotate. Keep the model kit on you at all times and use it!
Above all, keeping trying!! Everyone learns at different speeds and in different ways. There are lots of resources here for you because we know you can do it with the right tools. If you don’t know where to start just ask – meet with one of the course TAs, tutors or professors. We are all here to help YOU SUCCEED!