How to Succeed in Chemistry

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A-level Chemistry By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: Chemistry » A-level Chemistry
Last updated: 11/04/2017
Tags: study tips for chemistry, succeed in chemitry

Chemistry is a very REAL world subject. It encapsulates the concepts and principles of this exciting and vibrant discipline.

Chemistry should be FUN; it should not just be a conglomeration of facts which you then regurgitate for the purposes of the examination at the end of your study.

Chemistry is all around you; the colour dye used to make your iPhone to the latest discovery of using graphene to purify water for potable use.

However, having said the above, it must be remembered, that you need a lot of ground work and hard memorization of some facts to come to grips with this subject: just like learning German, if you do not know the Germanic Alphabet, you will have many problems speaking the language. And so is the case in chemistry: you must know the chemical symbols, be able to write equations and the heart of most chemistry is the mole and its constituent calculations.

It is important to make connections with the subject areas within chemistry that you are studying to be able to understand the applications of that part of chemistry in a real-world approach. For example, when studying functional groups in organic chemistry, it is important to understand how the transformations from one functional group to another for a pharmaceutical drug to be synthesised; the production of the wrong optical isomer may result in either death for the patient or extremely deleterious effects on the new-born as was the case with Thalidomide.

During the initial months of studying advanced chemistry it is very important to get the basics right. Repetition is the key here. Making mistakes is good. But you must learn from your mistakes and over a period you will gain in confidence in the approach and logic behind the calculations. Try not to just apply a formula to a problem. Understand how the formula applies to the problem and its derivations. An example here would be the use of moles in calculations. The underlining theme for simple mole calculations (solid/solid) or moles in solution or molar volumes of gases or electrolysis problems with the Faraday constant all can be easily accomplished by understanding moles, moles ratios and linking the equations to the problem. Do NOT fall for the trap and learn a formula for one situation. Another formula for another etc, etc. So confusing!

Make chemistry FUN: that is the one tenant I always employ in my lessons. Do this and the hard slog of chemistry becomes tolerable and to many of my students, enjoyable!

Lots of questions to re-inforce the concepts just covered; this also help tutors pick up problems with language, signs, units, and construction of the answers using a compare and contrast approach. The other important concept I encourage is remembering the three most important letters in the alphabet: R.T.Q. – Read The Question!

Past paper questions are vitally important: here we can integrate the concepts and principles we have covered and use these in a unifying way. Learning examination skills and giving the types of answers the examiners expect is vitally important. It is where we can boost our grades with very little effort.

NO teacher, NO tutor is perfect. A student needs to read around the subject: many study guides lack the basic ingredients to be used during the course. They are however, a good summary to be used in the run up to the finals: that is why they are study guides!

My recommendations for this aspect are as follows: Jim Clark’s website (www.chemguide.co.uk) is absolutely brilliant. There are many websites available, but they pale into mediocrity when compared to Clark and his inciteful knowledge of chemistry and the necessary information and experience he brings to chemistry. He also has, for example, specific sections on say CIE for A-level that covers only the peculiar sections of the specification that is covered in the CIE specification; for example, the permanganate reactions with alkenes. To compliment this, his calculations book: Calculations in AS/A Level Chemistry is a vital supplement to any student for a clear and concise approach to gaining confidence in the many types of problems encountered during the A-level course.

So, to summarise (aka – study tips):

  • Enjoy the wonderful world of chemistry
  • See how it fits into the real world
  • Learn the basics, like chemical symbols, chemical equations, recognise functional groups
  • Attempt many different types of calculations – do not be afraid of getting them wrong in the early stages
  • Do not get behind in your studies: chemistry is a hierarchal subject – like a pyramid. The early material is needed and a good understanding is necessary to be able to progress onto more difficult topics further up the pyramid
  • During progress tests/end-of-topic tests do not be discouraged by poor scores: be positive and analyse your results and see what you know and what you do not know
  • As the examinations are getting closer start to do a lot of past papers and cross reference these with the mark schemes and learn the necessary wordings/phrases you must use to get the marks: this is where the teacher/tutor is irreplaceable. They are impartial and can quickly point out to you your errors. Often, I see students who have marked their own work and gave themselves credit for an answer, when in fact they would have scored no marks at all. Close enough is not good enough. For example, saying, the chlorine was attracted to the positive electrode will score no marks: the correct wording is the chloride ion is attracted to/goes to the positive electrode!

I hope I have given you a glimpse into my philosophy of teaching/tutoring chemistry. The tutor has a slightly different role to the teacher. Over a period of time the student and the tutor should gain mutual respect for each other. The student no longer feels threatened or made to feel a fool, by asking questions in class.

But my last word is: Tutors are not magicians. They do not have a magic wand and do not work at Hogwart’s School. Tutors can only guide, suggest, give direction to the student. In between private lessons the student must complete some work themselves: ACTION is the key to success. 


Dr Noel J. Dickson A-level Chemistry Tutor (Harrow)

About The Author

I am Dr Dickson and I am an experienced chemistry teacher. I am Head of Chemistry at a 6th form college in London. I am a senior examiner with OCR and an examiner with Edexcel. I make chemistry interesting. So, try my approach and succeed.




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