Thoughts on How To Learn Chemistry

You have probably heard horror stories about this class. About how organic is the hardest course, the flunk-out course, etc. You may feel overwhelmed by the number of compounds, names, reactions, and mechanisms that confront you. My suggestion to you is to read these pages and take the suggestions to heart.

Personally, I think organic chemistry is a great lot of fun. I want you to enjoy this class as much as I do, but I can't learn the material for you. Sorry.

If you are to be a successful student of organic chemistry, you must discover for yourself how to learn chemistry. Different people learn, take in, process, and integrate information, differently. What works for you will not always work for someone else. An explanation that clarifies for one person will simply add more confusion for another. Try lots of things until you find the ones that work for you.

Important Rules to Live By If You Wish to Succeed in CHEM211

1. Work the Problems
2. Don't Get Behind

You ignore these rules at your peril.

On Studying:

Organic chemistry cannot be learned the night before the exam.

Don't even try.


Learning chemistry, or any subject, involves practice. Far too many students attempt to prepare for an exam by spending hours and hours in the day and a half before the test, shoving loose pieces of random information at their heads. No wonder many folks are frustrated by their performance in the class.


One analogy that works for me is that learning organic chemistry is like learning to play the piano. (Okay, so I'm a pianist, shoot me.) You do not sit down in front of the keyboard the evening before the recital and attempt to learn the A minor 2-Part Invention by Bach. In order to play at all, you need to practice every day in the preceeding weeks and months (and years).


Organic chemistry cannot be learned the night before the exam. Don't even try. You must practice every day - read, listen, work problems, re-read, take notes, re-organize ideas, ask questions.


Your Basic Four

1 Read the Text; Think

Read the text or at the very least skim it BEFORE CLASS. This allows you to review material you might already know. You will also have an idea about what material is coming. You will know what information is in the book - and you won't have to write it all down in class. You may even be able to generate a few questions. You can pay special attention to any unclear parts during lecture.


2 Attend Lecture; Listen; Think

It is a well know fact that the people that struggle the most with this course are the ones that show up at lecture the least. Inverse correlation. Think about it.


Occasionally during class, I will ask you to pull out a piece of paper and write down a mechanism or work a problem or something. I will then collect your creations. These will not be graded, so relax. What good are they, you ask?? They allow me to take attendance rather easily. They allow me to see whether you've read the assignment for the day, where you are with the material, what's confusing and what you've got a handle on.


3 Take Notes; Think

Listen in lecture and take notes. Note that I put LISTENING first and note taking second! If you have skimmed the text, you will know what material appears in the book, such as which mechanisms are drawn out etc. That way, you have to write less. Make a note about things you did not understand then ask about it, either during class, after class, or later in my office.


Too many people develop the bad habit of trying to write down everything the professor says/writes/shows during class. This would not be bad in itself, except that many folks turn OFF their brains while doing it. They do not attempt to understand what they are writing. Then, when they attempt to use those notes later in working problems and stuyding, they have no idea what the notes mean. Solution: think more, write less, use the textbook as a backup.


Your lecture notes should not be a simple rote copying of whatever appears from my mouth or from my pen or piece of chalk. Your notes allow you to begin to process, organize, highlight, and identify concepts in a way that is useful TO YOU. Some students have found it helpful to bring ink pens of different colors to class so that they can organize the notes by color as they go. You may discover another method that works for you.


4 Work Problems; Think

Work problems, do them many times. Work lots of problems. Do the ones assigned until you understand them. Then do them again. Do the ones that weren't assigned. Generate lots of paper for the recycle bins. Problems ask you to use the material in ways other that the text or lecture can do. Problems give you the opportunity to discover which concepts and ideas are clear and unclear. Problems can be fun.


Study by working the problems, NOT only by reading your notes and the text. Your best measure of your facility with the material is whether you can work problems.


Working problems is essential to success. Work some more problems.

More Survival Tips