Preparing for Chemistry Exams - Revision Cards

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A-level Chemistry By: Tutor no longer registered
Subject: Chemistry » A-level Chemistry
Last updated: 06/09/2014
Tags: a level chemistry, a level chemistry revise guide

Over the last few years I have noticed that many students do not learn many of the facts that they need for the A-level Chemistry exams. This includes things like mathematical formulae, definitions and chemical reactions. Have a flick through any exam paper and you will find that there are usually at least a grade’s worth of marks on, for example, definitions. This means that by failing to learn your definitions correctly you are looking at losing an entire grade (which a vast number of students do!).

Okay, let’s get a bit more positive - let’s think about what you would need to do to gain a grade by learning these facts properly. Here is some guidance on how you can use revision cards to effectively prepare for you exams:

I will focus here on how you could learn your chemical reactions, but the same principle applies to learning things like definitions and formulae too.
1. Make a list of all of the chemical reactions that you need to know. Revision guides are a good place to look for these, as they do not tend to include extra information beyond what you need to know. Be careful not to include duplicates (i.e. you do not need to know how ethene, propene and butene react with water - you just need to know how alkenes react with water). 
2. Divide the reactions into groups which make sense to you. For example, you might divide the reactions into reactions of alkanes, reactions of alkenes and reactions of alcohols (and don’t forget to have a section for reaction mechanisms if there are any!).
3. Write revision cards. Get some revision cards (i.e. coloured bits of A6 card) and write all of the reactions in a group on one side. On the other side write the title of the group (e.g. Reactions of Alkanes) and the number of reactions in that group.

How to use the revision cards:
1. Read the title and try to write down all of the reactions without looking at them. The important bit here is not to look at the answers - just do what you can from memory. Give yourself a few minutes to write down as much as you can (try to write something down for each reaction, even if you are not sure).
2. Check and correct your answers. Have a look at the answers on the back and rewrite any that you got wrong.
3. Repeat…but not too often. Have a go at each card once a day to start with, and perhaps once a week when you are getting them consistently correct. Do not do them more than once per day!

Why is this such a good way to revise?
Each of the stages achieves something important.

Stage 1 allows you to properly assess how much you actually have to learn and ensures that you do not miss anything important. I very rarely find that a tutee can tell me how many chemical reactions that they need to know for a given module - they almost always overestimate! But think about it; if you don’t know how many reactions you need to know, can you possibly know them all?

Stage 2 is all about finding a way to organise the information in your brain. Everyone thinks differently, so group the information in a way that suits your way of thinking. The human mind connects similar ideas together, so by grouping similar reactions together we make it easier to learn them all.

A very common problem is that people mistake recognition (i.e. being able to write down something that they have just glanced at) for knowledge (i.e. being able to write something down completely from memory). Stage 3 gives you a way to prompt yourself (looking at the group title) without actually looking at the answers, so when you try to write down the equations it really is a test of whether you know them. Writing the number of equations with the title just makes it a bit easier for you to know whether you have got all of the answers or not, so you can keep trying for a little while longer if you are just one answer short.

Stage 4 is essential because it allows you to test yourself and in doing so exercise the area of your brain which is associated with storing this information. The more you exercise this area of the brain, the faster you will be able to recall the answers. But you must not peek as this changes the exercise from using your long-term memory (to recall something that you have not seen for a day or more) to using your short-term memory (to recall something that you saw several seconds ago).

Stage 5 helps you to highlight your mistakes, and in doing so ensures that you replace any incorrect information in your brain with the correct answer. Make sure that you check your answers straight away or you might inadvertently end up learning the wrong answers!

Stage 6 is all about developing your long-term memory. By spreading out your revision over days or weeks you ensure that you are exercising your long-term memory, and should be able to remember the equations for many weeks or months to come. 

A few common mistakes:
• One of the most common mistakes is trying to learn too many or too few reactions. Make sure that you look carefully at your list and remove any reactions which are essentially the same reaction with slightly different reagents. Trying to learn too many reactions will make to task far more difficult. Likewise, it is very important to make sure that you have found all of the different reactions that you need to learn. People often miss out 1 or 2 reactions when doing their revision, but it is not uncommon for there to be 6 marks worth of questions based entirely around a single type of reaction, so not knowing this reaction could cost you a grade.
• Sometimes people feel like they really can’t remember any of the answers on the revision card and are tempted to look at the answers without trying. Unfortunately, this means that the brain never gets the exercise it needs. Make sure that you have a really good go at writing down the answers without looking, even if you can’t remember anything - guess if you have to! This makes your brain more receptive to storing the information when you do finally look at the answers.
• With the exams looming it can be very tempting to practise the revision cards lots of times each day. Unfortunately, this can result in information only being stored in your short-term memory, so you cannot actually recall it a few days later for the exam. Start your revision earlier and do just a little bit each day and you will find that you can remember things for much longer.

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