Chemistry is often considered a "weed out" course where the professors are out to get you.
We promise, that's not the case in our program. However, we do want to challenge you and make sure that you leave our program with a sound foundation to help you succeed in your future studies.
The biggest difference between our courses and what you may have experienced in high school is the emphasis on conceptual understanding. We aren't asking you simply to memorize information. Rather, we want you to understand it. We don't want you to memorize--we want you to learn it. The fact that we allow you to use a crib sheet for each exam exemplifies our philosophy. We want you to be able to use the information.
Use of information you're learning is where the "contact sport" aspect of chemistry comes into play. We want you to be able to apply concepts and information in problem solving. The ability to pair concepts with problem-solving skills is the earmark of success in our program.
So how to you achieve this? Unfortunately, there is no all-purpose approach since everyone has different learning styles and natural affinities. However, there are general strategies and approaches that tend to work for many students.
Prepare for class
- This is a BIG difference between college and high school. But it can make a huge difference in what you get out of class.
- Start by reviewing the material from the last class. Read over the lecture notes and make a list of questions and topics on which you need further clarification. Go back and review the textbook material regarding those topics.
- Read the textbook sections that pertain to the material to be covered the next class period. You don't have to memorize it or even understand it all. Just use this as a brief introduction to the topics, so that your brain has a bit of advanced warning and isn't caught completely off guard and has to play "catch up" in lecture.
- Be present in the classroom.
First, go to class regularly.
- In this program, we often post annotated lecture notes. Students sometimes think this means there's no reason to go to class, but there's a big difference between reading the notes and hearing the material presented.
- But don't just go to class. Be actively engaged in class.
- Don't work on homework (not even for this class), don't text, don't check websites on your phone. Keep in mind that you only have an expert paid to explain this material to you for 150 minutes per week. Take advantage of that. You can do all those other things some other time.
- Find the right place to sit. It varies by person, and it may take some experimenting. It's okay not to sit in the very front, but if you find that sitting in the back makes it easier for you to lose attention or be tempted to leave early then make an effort to sit closer to the front. If your best friend is in the class, but he won't stop talking to you then it's probably a bad idea to sit right next to him. Do what you need to do to make sure you can focus.
- Be as well-rested as possible. Again, going to class doesn't do you any good if you sleep through it or spend the whole time fighting sleep. If you get super sleepy in the middle of class, then try massaging your earlobe or the fleshy part of your hand between the thumb and forefinger. The increased circulation can help make you feel more alert. If you can step outside without disturbing the class to do a quick set of jumping jacks or jog up and down the hall, then it might be worth missing the few minutes of class to get your blood moving and wake up.
- When given time to work problems in groups or to answer clicker questions, actually do it. Don't just wait for the answer to be posted. Make the most of your time in class by trying to work the problem on your own or with a neighbor.
- In between each class session, review the material you just learned. Using the preview, class, review method ensures that you see all the material at least three times. This is huge since repeated exposure is a key to learning.
- Work the homework problems pertaining to the material you just learned rather than waiting to do the whole set at a later date.
- Review after class
Go to recitation
- Recitation is an invaluable part of our courses. You get the perspective of a different expert (your TA) AND more practice with problem solving with a built in support group.
- As with lecture, make the most of recitation by actively participating.
- Problem solving
As previously mentioned, chemistry is a "contact sport." The vast majority of people do not learn chemistry well just by reading it or looking a problems others have solved (if you're one of the lucky few who do, then the rest of us are jealous). Instead, you need to practice problems for yourself. Luckily, you have LOTS of opportunities to do this:
Homework (WebAssign or OWL)
- Of course, doing the homework earns you daily points, but you should really do it even if it's after the due date. We select these problems specifically because we think they are of value and test the concepts we feel are important.
- Write down the problems. Many students have the habit of doing all of their homework directly in their calculators and will do an entire homework set without writing down a single formula or number. There is scientific evidence that the physical act of writing helps you learn the material. Additionally, writing things down gives you a reference for when you go back to study for exams. It's also extremely valuable when you seek out help. Seeing what you've already done will help your professor, TA, or tutor more quickly determine your level of knowledge and where you went wrong.
- Recitation worksheets
- See the above notes, and again, write it down. We never post the solutions to recitation worksheets, so it's up to you to utilize your group to make sure you understand the problems.
- Your particular text does a great job of providing very good worked examples with fantastic explanations. Most people skip right over these when reading the text, but they contain some of the most valuable information in the whole book.
- Answers to self-tests are also provided so you know if you're on the right track. And since they immediately follow the worked examples, it should be pretty clear what the topic is and how to approach it.
- These are an enormously under-utilized resource. We often hear complaints that they aren't like the homework or exam questions, but here's a little secret: the WebAssign/OWL problems are the end of chapter problems! Furthermore, figuring out which problems at the end of the chapter are pertinent to what we discussed in class is actually a huge step toward understanding the main concepts. And if you're unsure, just ask your professor.
- Worked examples and self-tests in your textbook
- End of chapter problems in your textbook
- Homework (WebAssign or OWL)
- Don't work problems with the solutions right in front of you.
- You won't have that crutch on an exam, so learning how to struggle through an unfamiliar problem is of utmost importance.
- Make yourself wrestle with the problem, but don't turn it into a four hour event. You want to challenge yourself yet be efficient.
Problem-solving should become part of your daily study routine!
Reading the textbook
- Sitting down and reading an entire chapter of a science textbook in one go is not an effective use of time for most students. It's too much information to process, and it's too easy for your mind to wander.
- Instead, focus on sections. Read the sections pertinent to your next class before class. Don't worry about understanding everything. Just use it as a preview.
- Re-read those sections after each class. Now is the time to focus on details and specifics.
- DON'T skip the worked problems. Read them, and make sure you understand why each step was done.
- DON'T skip the figures —some of the best information in the book is in the figure captions, and learning to interpret graphs and molecular level images is an invaluable skill.
- Practice Exams
NEVER begin studying for an exam by looking at the practice exam.
- Yep, we really mean that. Practice exams are not intended to be carbon-copies of the exams themselves. They are merely intended to be guides to help you identify holes in your knowledge base. By beginning with the practice exam, you put yourself at high risk for missing key concepts and topics.
So where do you start? A general review of your lecture notes is the best place.
- Triage: As you review the notes, make yourself a list of topics about which you 1) feel good; 2) feel will be fine after a bit of additional review; 3) baffle you and potentially make you want to cry and/or break out into hives. This will help you prioritize your study time.
- Next, spend some time with those topics that you feel pretty good about. Read (hopefully, this is re-reading) the textbook sections about this material, and do the practice problems. Review the homework problems for these topics as well as recitation worksheets until you feel confident.
- Now tackle those topics about which you're confused. Re-read the lecture notes in concert with the textbook and try to piece things together. Work problems, and go get help if you need it.
- Now, take the practice exam.
- Do this about two days out from the exam. Time yourself and use nothing but a periodic table and your crib sheet. Do NOT have the key in front of you. Make it as real a test taking experience as possible.
- When you’re finished, use your results to triage again and use the next couple of days to follow up on problem areas.
- Study regularly
We've alluded to it several times above, but we can't emphasize enough the importance of getting into a regular study pattern.
- You should be studying an average of nine hours per week per three credit hour course. Studying 27 hours two days before an exam is NOT the same as studying 9 hours per week for the three weeks before it.
- You can be successful on a given exam by studying a couple of days before it, but you will NOT learn the material as well as if you study regularly.
- We've outlined strategies to fill these hours above. If you read, review, and work problems regularly, you will be on the right track.
- Study harder, not longer
Make the most of your study time.
- Find a place where you can focus and not be distracted.
- Take brief breaks to stay fresh, but make sure they don't last longer than the actual study time!
- Log out of Facebook, your email, Skype, etc. For the Mac users among you, check out this nifty little website.
Get help when you need it!
- There are a ton of resources for getting help with freshman chemistry courses, so take advantage of them. Check out the "Tutoring Resources" tab at the top of this page.
- Don't put it off —the longer you wait, the harder it is to get caught up!