Chemistry/general studying resources?
November 13, 2015 6:23 AM   Subscribe

My niece isn't doing so well in chemistry (read, a point away from an F) and I need to help her. However, it's been a long time since I've done chemistry, and I can't exactly hop back in. Does anyone have any resources for chemistry that would help me learn and help me explain things to her? Also, general studying resources appreciated as well. She has no skills, and it's now or never!

Also, I think she has undiagnosed ADD - we're working on getting that diagnosed, but until then, she has trouble focusing on things, and isn't a self starter at all.

Things we have tried -
1. Talking to the teacher - the teacher's teaching style and my niece don't mesh well. Some of it is general teenage dislike for authority, some of it seems to be triggering her anxiety, and some of it seems to be a genuine teaching style issue. Because of this, tutoring from the teacher after hours is not truly an option.
2. Getting her a tutor - we can get her a peer tutor from the NHS once a week - she has an introductory meeting on Monday. Hopefully this will help a little.
3. Asking my niece what she doesn't understand, so we can help her with specific things. **She cannot express what she doesn't understand - says that she thinks she understands all of it until the test.
4. Sitting down with her and going over vocabulary cards at night, having her take notes on the chapter, and going through the study guide and questions in the chapter with her (as suggested by her teacher). This seems to be working okay (who knows until we get the next test back, right?), however, it's killing me. It's an hour a night, with a subject I do not understand. Add this on top of the other house stuff I have to do, plus working a 50 hour week at work, and I feel like I'm breaking. This is also hard because in order to know if she has the right answers, I also have to go through the chapters, and I do not understand what she's doing.
I have just been pointed at Sparknotes, which helps.
5. Gone onto the Glencoe website to do the practice quizzes for each section, where it will give you hints and tell you if you've gotten the correct answer or not. This seemed to work pretty well.

Things I am thinking of trying -
1. Have her write flash cards with the word on one side and definition on the other, so she can go over them herself daily, and with me a couple times a week. Currently, she's writing it all on the same side. This is simple, but it's what I mean by she has no studying skills.
2. Have her do the study guide and questions, and write the page, etc, that she took her answers from, so that I can double check them easily, instead of working with her to find the answers.
3. Reaching out to the local area and seeing if there is an inexpensive tutor around. The last time we had her tutored helped (math), but it was incredibly expensive. Honestly, we don't have the cash to throw at it, and I would prefer not to add more debt.

I cannot get a teachers guide or answer key, as those are for sale to teachers only. I did order a solutions book from Amazon (secondhand) for her edition, and should have that in a week or so. I am hopeful that will have answers to some of the chapter questions, which would help to know if she is getting them right or not.
posted by needlegrrl to Education (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
What about something like Khan Academy? That's just one course, they have a lot of other Chemistry classes.
posted by clone boulevard at 6:29 AM on November 13, 2015

N-thing Khan Academy
posted by drthom at 6:31 AM on November 13, 2015

Response by poster: And I just logged back in to say that I downloaded the Khan Academy app on my phone this morning, to see if it would help as well! :)
posted by needlegrrl at 6:31 AM on November 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Is it specifically Chemistry that she's failing? Is this her first time taking Chemistry (ie is this an introductory course) or is it an advanced level where she's struggling to make the leap from Intro Chem to Organic Chemistry? Chemistry is a big topic so it really depends on what she is trying to learn right now.

Is she passing/doing well in all her other subjects? If there are other subjects she is doing well in, perhaps the method of understanding Chemistry needs to be adapted to a style that suits her learning approach.

Vocabulary seems to be an odd thing to focus on. Certainly, Chemistry has a set of jargon but just memorising the meaning of the words is not going to help her. From what I remember (which was years ago and I remember loving this subject) it's more about the theory and application of principles. I believe Chemistry is a lot about equations (based on what kind of principle you were trying to apply), which again vocabulary isn't going to really help with. I mean, she can memorise who Avogadro was and even what the number is, but unless she understands how to use it, when and why, she won't pass.
posted by like_neon at 6:35 AM on November 13, 2015 [4 favorites]

Is she working from a textbook? This sounds simple, but it's really important that you work from the same book. I was a chemistry major, but when I was helping my cousin through Chemistry, I worked strictly from her book so that we were using the same vocabulary.

In intro chemistry, a lot of the description is really metaphor, so using different metaphors than the ones used in the text, and by the teacher, can be really confusing.

I think that practice quizzes, and then going over the answers, is probably the best strategy.
posted by mercredi at 6:42 AM on November 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think you need to teach her better study skills and then let her study on her own. You don't say how old your niece is, but it sounds like high school, so it's definitely old enough for her to develop study skills which will help her in college too. Keep in mind that different people end up studying in different ways, so part of the process would be encouraging her to figure out a way that works for her. For example, I've always disliked flashcards, because for me a big part of the studying process was understanding how everything fit together in a structure. Once I had that structure in mind, everything would snap into place a whole lot easier. I feel that flashcards sometimes make it tough to find that underlying structure, as they can encourage you to see the material as a series of unconnected facts, especially when out of order. I agree that vocabulary cards seems a strange thing to focus on. I really don't think you need to sit next to her and work with her on everything - encourage her to do independent work, check in on her to make sure she's continuing to work, but there's no reason you need to learn chemistry with her. I learned much more advanced chemistry in high school that either of my parents had encountered. Emphasize that a lot of people find this stuff hard - it's not supposed to be easy - and that working at it will eventually get her to competence.

Like like_neon I would also like to know what flavor of chemistry we're talking about here. Physical chemistry tends to be all about equations and problems, while organic chemistry (which I had a year of struggling with before I really got it) has a lot more memorization of different reaction schemes up front but then suddenly coalesces into a coherent whole.
posted by peacheater at 6:45 AM on November 13, 2015

The Cartoon Guide to Chemistry.

I'm not kidding. Gonick's books are amazingly good.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:08 AM on November 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: She's in 10th grade. She is doing Chemistry:Matter and Change, and we are working from the same textbook - right now, she's learning about the periodic table, elements, electronegativity, etc. Flashcards currently are to get her to learn terms - law of octaves, octet rule, john newlands vs mendeleev etc and their contributions to the periodic table, what types of elements have what characteristics, where they are in the periodic table, etc. I think she is still learning the basic terms needed to lay the foundation for equations. The tests do ask her to identify terms from definitions.

It is her first time taking chemistry, and it is only chemistry that she is failing. She seems to like her other subjects, and is better at them.

The cartoon guide to chemistry looks awesome - it will help me if not her! :)
posted by needlegrrl at 7:17 AM on November 13, 2015

My daughter is very bright and persistent, and last year her 10th grade Chemistry class was also very hard. The first few weeks/months there are a TON of new concepts and words to absorb, and we spent at least half an hour per night reviewing that stuff.

I was an English major but I remember lots of high school material (thank you, Mr. Kaminsky!), so I grabbed her textbook and I came up with vivid, simple mental images to understand and retain the ideas. But the words and names we just practiced a lot.

There are a ton of programs for flashcards that run on iPhones (etc.), and my daughter used those sometimes. I am not sure whether the effort to create the flash card decks was useful reinforcement or not. *shrug* Later she switched to paper cards, crossing out the previous chapter's words and writing small so they could be used over and over. :7)

Her chemistry teacher kind of sucked, and the course was taught as an AP course (but without any AP credit -- thanks so much!), so most of the students in her class pretty much tanked. This year I am helping her tackle AP Psychology and also also re-learning biology, and we are taking the same approach. I find that she asks for help only two or three nights per week, which I am happy to provide.

But yeah, sometimes it feels like a new job.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:05 AM on November 13, 2015

She's at the point where memorization is important. All the usual tricks for retention are going to help, flash cards, drills, repetitions.

For the periodic table in particular, here's a fun thing to do: get her to make up a mnemonic for the first 20 elements (through Calcium). That's the basic "times" table she needs to learn through most of high school chemistry. My experience is that students learn the names quicker this way and retain them better if they make up their own aid rather than be forced to learn one.
posted by bonehead at 8:56 AM on November 13, 2015

Best answer: I was your niece: undiagnosed ADHD, no study skills, a chemistry teacher with a bad teaching style*. I pulled Cs and Ds in that class, which was a huge change for me, because I normally got As and Bs with little to no studying.

Memorization was the #1 thing that would have helped me--memorizing the periodic table, the equations, things like that. Thoroughly understanding the equations and working through them so that I understood what it was I was looking for and how I was getting it was the #2 thing.

The only section of that class I did well in was nuclear chemistry because for some reason it engaged my interest. I got an A on that test and actually felt like I learned more during the test than during the rest of the class because somehow the questions on the text made me think through the concepts and make connections I hadn't had before. Alas, all the other sections (except for the Halloween lab, in which the teacher blew up a gummy bear to illustrate how much energy sugar contained) were boring as shit and put me to sleep. Someone riding herd on me and teaching me how to pack those facts and equations into my head would have been game-changing, but as it was all I did was reread the sections in the book multiple times, until they lost what little meaning they had for me.

* She wrote the entire lecture longhand on overhead sheets, projected them, read them as fast as possible to get all of the day's lecture in, and then got angry with us when we asked her to slow down because we couldn't take notes that fast.
posted by telophase at 10:06 AM on November 13, 2015

Oh! One more thing--I figured out at the very end of grad school that I also tended to learn better when involving a kinesthetic sense. Typing out my answers on a study sheet got them into my head in a way that reading them and using flash cards never did.

My mother taught me that (too late! why didn't she tell me in high school?). She typed out all her lecture notes when in school, and that helped her learn. We're much the same when it comes to undiagnosed ADHD--she taught school for many years and kept herself focused by standing up during all her lectures. That might be another thing to try with your niece--adding a physical component like standing up or deliberate fidgeting during the study session.
posted by telophase at 10:10 AM on November 13, 2015

Best answer: I am a real-life high school chemistry teacher.

For the most part, flash cards, reading, and watching videos are things that are low return-on-time-investment activities for chemistry; their value is better as a "wait, how did this work?" kind of reference than as a study tool. This leads to a lot of frustration as students feel like they're studying a lot, and getting nowhere. I see many students who can, with enough effort, memorize lots of facts, but feel utterly helpless when they get to the quiz. Exactly the situation you're describing.

The answer is doing problems. Book problems. Googled problems (many of the college ones are just fine too, and more likely to be online with answer keys). Problems from the teacher (if the teacher won't give you some extra ones to work through, smack them upside the head from me). Anything she can't work out where the answer came from, that's where to get help or look up videos on that specific topic. While the teacher may not mesh well with her, she'll get a lot more mileage out of showing up with a page full of work and asking "where did I go wrong with numbers 3 and 5?"

I tell my students all the time that if they aren't studying by writing out problems on a blank piece of paper, they might as well not bother and should go play video games instead. Some take it to heart.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 5:38 PM on November 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think a what's missing in this is class notes. If your niece's class notes look more like Ron Weasley's than Hermione Granger's then perhaps she could look at/ make photo copies of a classmate's notes.

I suggest that your niece read over the assigned textbook section before class to "prime her brain" on what is coming. She would make a list of bolded terms/ key concepts on the assigned reading before class. During class she would mark off the terms that are covered (or add any onto on her list). Ideally, she would get definitions too, but if that's not possible she can fill that back in later with the information from the textbook. In her class notes, encourage her to at least get the problem and the solution.

If I recall correctly chemistry is a very cumulative subject. It might very well be the case that the new material is challenging since she hasn't sufficiently mastered the old. It might be helpful to set aside a few hours this weekend to discuss the old material.
posted by oceano at 11:20 PM on November 13, 2015

Best answer: I don't teach chemistry or high school, but I do teach college students doing similar kinds of work, often for the first time.

Dr.Enormous' advice above is fantastic. The physical sciences (and math) at the high school and college level really are different from all other kinds of learning. The first time any of us encounter it, it's deeply frustrating. I know very few working scientists who didn't seriously wonder if perhaps they just weren't cut out for science after failing their first few real math or chemistry tests. Then they learned how to study science. That your daughter thinks she understand everything until the test is a very strong indicator that she's fallen into the same trap.

The difference between people who do well in the sciences and those who don't largely boils down to how early they recognize that working problems is the only way to learn the material. Reading textbooks, reading notes, watching lectures, talking about concepts, memorizing flash cards, etc. can be rewarding and enjoyable, but they won't have any significant impact on actual mastery of the material or test scores. The only way to learn the material is to work problems until they're done or your absolutely stumped, then look at solutions or ask for help, and then go back and work a related problem.

Asking someone what they don't understand is an obvious temptation, but it's not actually something most (any?) people are capable of answering. The way to determine whether she understands a thing is to give her a realistic test-like problem and see if she can solve it. And, the way to get better at solving it is to keep on doing it until she doesn't get them wrong any longer.

Find a few good textbooks or collections of problem sets. Check out the online courses for brand name universities and look for chemistry classes designed for non-chem majors that have solutions to problem sets. (Trying the smallest numbered courses first is a good place to start.) Used bookstores often have previous-edition college texts for pennies.

If you can, hire a tutor who knows the subject well to meet with her to go over the solutions to her problems after she's spent significant time on them. Local college students are an obvious choice when looking for tutors; but you're still probably looking at several 10s of dollars per hour. (Freelance tutors who advertise on chemistry building bulletin boards will be cheaper than companies with names and websites.) But, the key is to to use the tutor to show her the mistakes in her solutions to the problems that she's already spent real effort on. Watching someone solve a problem before you've tried to solve it yourself is a waste of everyone's time. If the tutor insists on doing something else, find another tutor.

There also may be free drop-in tutoring services in your town that could be useful. It's worth a quick web search, or a chat with a few of the science teachers / administrators / college councilors at the high school. If you're following the "use a tutor to review solved problems" model, a drop-in service works just fine.

Good luck! (And, don't forget, even if she doesn't pull it together, one failed class isn't the end of the world. This is something worth solving, but not a life-ruining crisis.)
posted by eotvos at 11:18 AM on November 14, 2015

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