I want to be the Usain Bolt of Gen. Chem.: Fast and Flawless
March 8, 2012 7:35 PM   Subscribe

Help me go from good to great in my general chemistry course.

Two related questions: 1) I took a midterm today and despite knowing the material solidly, I didn't finish the last two problems. How do I get faster at working through chemistry problems so that doesn't happen again? 2) Do you have any particularly good books that helped you study and learn chemistry concepts, or that presented them in a novel manner? I have The Cartoon Guide to Chemistry which I love.
posted by ocherdraco to Education (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
It depends, what ""type" of undergraduate chemist are you? Doing it to get a "science" degree or doing it to get into a chemistry graduate program?

Can you remember reactions and delta-G (and stuff)? or are you able to memorize certain specific reactions?

Of course stuff you use eveyday you'll end up memorizing them, but if you aren't signed on to be a chemist, it's pretty damned hard.

But test wise: go ahead and answer with the most straightforward answer. Lots of bright students try too hard and come up with hairbrained schemes. Sometimes these things work out better than expected, but mostly, no.

These undergrad courses, in my experience, tend to be to weed out students who won't go on to be competent industrial chemists, much less successful graduate students.

If you want your grades up, stop being so creative and take great notes from lectures.

To raise your lab written exam grade; IME, remembering dG and pKA values and *why* they were different based on how they looked helped me end the semester with a decent grade.
posted by porpoise at 8:22 PM on March 8, 2012

Re: finishing the last problems, as a general test taking strategy I suggest skipping any more confusing/hard/time consuming problems and coming back to them at the end. Make sure you have time to answer every question you are most likely to get right.

Another general study thing: I get a lot out of doing practice problems. More than I do just re-reading material. So if you can get a book of practice problems, I recommend it.

This thread may be of some use.
posted by latkes at 8:33 PM on March 8, 2012

Chemistry was the only class in which I found recording the lectures useful. Somehow listening to them while reviewing the slides and referring to the textbook really solidified things. I was kind of terrified of chemistry since it had been so long since I took it in high school (from 10th grade to a few years after graduating from college) but this method really helped. I went from getting low to middling grades to doing solidly well to busting the curve on the final. You can do it!

Other helpful things: index cards with things to memorize, carried everywhere. Khan Academy / YouTube videos / the pages of HS teachers (helpful for simplified explanations). Really doing the problem sets in the book and engaging with them, even when not assigned. We also had online problem sets, which were enormously painful (often hundreds of problems a week) but amazing since they didn't let you move on until you got the answers right. Many books come packaged with online things now-- see if yours does too.

Good luck-- MetaFilter is on your side!
posted by charmcityblues at 8:36 PM on March 8, 2012

This is more organic chemistry related, but a friend of mine runs this tutoring site: Mastering Organic Chemistry. He's also made an iPhone app with common reactions. He has a few blog posts on learning methods effective for chemistry that might be worth checking out.
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 8:39 PM on March 8, 2012

When studying do more problems, then do even more. When you first learn a concept and do a few example problems try to figure out the method and reasoning behind it. Then write that down on a "cheat sheet" in your own words. Then try to do more problems, but without looking at the book or at your notes. The more you struggle the better....think of it like working out and lifting weights. You only build muscle or learn when you 'struggle.' Relying too much on your notes, book, teacher is an all too easy crutch. However, when your first learning the method and reasoning behind a concept, do whatever it takes to learn them. Get several books, ask classmates for help, get tutoring, ask the teacher or TA, etc. Also, put in the time. If your not studying several hours or more outside of class per lecture then you probably aren't studying enough.

Do problems as if it was a test like situation. The more you practice like its a test, the better you will do during the actual test. Practice doing the problems quickly, but correctly. Perhaps look into Schaum's Outline for Chemistry, or ask your professor or TA for recommendations on doing problems.

Everyone learns in different ways, auditory, visual, kinesthetic, or a mixture. Find what works for you in terms of studying. Record the lectures and listen a ton to them. Color code your notes and book. Re-write your notes and book in your own words. Draw pictures or diagrams with colors. Whatever works for you.
posted by Mr. Papagiorgio at 8:43 PM on March 8, 2012

I am a mathematician, but when I write tests, I assume students have done enough problems that they know how to do various problem types, so they shouldn't have to spend the 10 minutes it might take to rederive the problem technique from scratch. Rather, they should recognize "what kind" of problem it is and know how to approach that type of problem.

But that means the student needs to have done lots of problems.
posted by leahwrenn at 8:49 PM on March 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Victory is measured in pages of exercises.
posted by phrontist at 8:57 PM on March 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

To answer a few of porpoise's useful questions and comments:

It depends, what ""type" of undergraduate chemist are you? (porpoise)

I'm a post-bac pre-med student. I will be taking two semesters of general chemistry, two of organic chemistry, and possibly one semester of biochemistry before I'm done.

Can you remember reactions and delta-G (and stuff)? or are you able to memorize certain specific reactions? (porpoise)

I don't know—we have not yet gotten to the point where that's necessary. At this point, I can identify types of reactions (combustion, acid/base, oxidation/reduction, etc.) and the chemical properties of 20-30 common compounds. (My school has a January term, which pushes back the start of spring semester to February so we're earlier in the course than other schools might be, I suppose.)

If you want your grades up, stop being so creative (porpoise)

I'm not looking to be creative with my test-taking and preparing-for-test-taking methods; I should add that my question about books is more because I want to read fun books about chemistry because I enjoy doing so, and only secondarily for any positive effect it will have on my grade. I am the kind of learner who benefits from reading that kind of thing; partially because I was a non-fiction book editor before, and I slurp up general audience non-fiction quickly and with relish.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:09 PM on March 8, 2012

Another voice in the chorus for doing lots of practice questions. I still remember the two days of doing practice problems before my organic chemistry final 15 years ago (one day with a massive hangover!)

A lot of science is like this at the undergrad level - doing lots of problems is the best way to drill it into your brain. I still miss the algebra and calculus fluency I had from doing physics problem sets.
posted by pombe at 9:14 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

For organic (and a lot of other flavors of chemistry really) if you can tell where the electrons want to be, you can pretty much answer any question about reactions and mechanisms, even if you entirely blank on the particular reaction you're being asked about.

Every type of mathematical problem in chemistry gets trotted out in four or five different formats based on the unknown de jour and is basically like every eighth grade story problem ever only with less familiar terms. Being able to identify the knowns and unknows, and then set these problems up quickly is the difference between success and pain. Solving them once you've set them up is almost irrelevant (but often how you figure out if you set them up right).
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:25 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Many of the problems in general chemistry depend on knowing certain specific kinds of math. Specifically (from memory, use your problem sets as your guide): scientific notation, operations with scientific notation, manipulating symbolic equations, logarithms and natural logarithms (and the subset of "rate problems" which depend on them), specialized algebra tricks like solving systems of equations, etc. In my memory there were often several types of mathematical operation leading to a single answer, and fudging any step led to an incorrect result.

You need to be fluent enough with the math that your calculator can't trick you when you mistype a digit (by recognizing that it's implausible based on the inputs and try again) and if you do make a mistake you should be able to quickly diagnose it.

In general, there are only a limited number of ways that each concept can be made into a question at the level of chemistry you're studying (for instance, sometimes you could use calculus, but you probably won't), and often there is a quick way to check your answer by plugging it into a slightly modified form. Find them (you'll spot them as you work) and use them. Generally, do enough of each type of problem so that when you see one, you think, ok, I've got this!, and immediately know the steps you need to follow to solve it. Barring PANIC, f you ever don't have fairly rapid mental access to the method you're going to use, you need to practice a little more.

Often the lecture notes plus the text really will contain enough detail for you, and topics covered in the lecture will often show up verbatim on your exams (though this may be less or more true depending on the extent that your department has a uniform test-writing policy). Remember that you are not being trained to be a chemist, you are trying to get grades high enough to qualify for med school (which is often reputed to be two As in two semesters of Organic Chemistry, but med students are full of FUD for their peers). So: be ruthless about what you learn and what you pass over. Chemistry is fascinating but tends to only reward a well-rounded approach similar to what you may have used in the liberal arts insofar far as there is a true & false section at the beginning of the test (that is ~10-15% of your grade with quickly diminishing returns, but ymmv).

On preview, the exception to this is that it is really, really helpful to develop an intuitive sense of how electrons behave in the reactions you're going to learn in organic chemistry. Before you reach this you will need a strong, rote grasp of the basics (naming conventions, the other rules that carbon compounds follow, etc.). The alternative is to commit to memory a truly unreasonable number of named reactions--you will need to do this to an extent regardless--and you will need to retain them to succeed when you take biochemistry and, later, the MCAT.

Looking back, I learned a lot of chemistry taking these classes (I got As in all of them except Analytical Chemistry, in which I got a B), but what I really retain is an excellent grasp of college-level algebra and calculus.

Oh, also:I found The Organic Chem Lab Survival Manual and Organic Chemistry as a Second Language I & II helpful.
posted by pullayup at 9:45 PM on March 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh, and finally: you can do it! I firmly believe that these things are well within the grasp of any smart and dedicated person. Don't ever tell yourself "I'm just not going to be excellent at math/spatial logic/memorizing dumb shit," because those are all things that you will be able to do well enough to get through this, really.
posted by pullayup at 9:49 PM on March 8, 2012

If you're not already, with every problem that isn't out and out equation balancing, use unit factor analysis (aka dimensional analysis, aka factor-label method). Do it until you can't imagine doing a problem without doing it. If you always keep the units in your equations, and you know what units the typical variables you work with should be in, you'll catch 80-90% of your simple transcription/operational errors before you even start proofreading.
posted by solotoro at 11:34 AM on March 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Update: I had my chem final last Friday, and I think I aced it! Like, potentially got a 100 aced it.

Studying under test conditions (time limit, no reference resources) is what made the biggest difference. I used previous years' exams which had been made available to us, and holed up in the laundry room of my apartment building to work through them with minimal distraction (and got a lot of laundry done in the process). For questions I couldn't do, I wrote down the concept being tested in the margin, and in between tests I reviewed those concepts and did practice problems. There were a number of questions that I was able to figure out even though I couldn't recall the equation from memory—that gave me confidence that I could deal with that sort of situation on the exam so long as I knew the fundamentals of the different concepts being tested.

I got through the exam with about 30 minutes left, and had time to review all of my answers, starting with the ones I was least sure of, which was invaluable—I know I'll have a higher score than if I hadn't had that opportunity.

So, now on to applying this same method to Calculus!
posted by ocherdraco at 10:21 AM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

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