How to Study for Chemistry

General Tips


Many students look at assignments as products they need to produce and grades as a measure of the quality of that product. A teacher, on the other hand, sees assignments as a tool students may use in order to learn concepts or skills. For a teacher, grades are a reflection of the teacher’s judgement about how well a student has learned something. Focus on learning and good grades will come as a consequence of your ability to demonstrate your new knowledge. It’s not about what you do, it’s about what you learned. Do complete your assignments but also take a step back from them and make an effort to figure out what the assignment is trying to teach you.


A tip about reading textbooks and course materials: they are not novels. In a novel you typically read a passage once with full comprehension. The action carries you forward through the text. The materials in this course build sequentially and you will at times need to read a section several times before you can move on to the next section. Be self-aware and check in with yourself: Did I understand that passage? Could I solve problems based on it? What questions do I have about it?

Taking Notes

When you take notes during class you should make sure to write down at least what I write on the board. Also write down things I say that help you to understand. Keep your notes on loose-leaf paper that you can store with your other materials in your binder.

If I go too fast or you don’t understand something raise your hand and ask! Chances are very good that you are not the only one who is confused. If no one asks then I can’t know that you missed something. And trust me, I try to stick only to the things you have to know to pass the quiz!

Working Problems

The point of working the examples and the problems and answering questions is to help you learn new things. They do not test you on things you already know. If you do not know the answers, that is the point. By working on the question until you figure it out you learn something. This process is uncomfortable but is the only way to learn complicated material.

In science we build models that describe how the world works. Usually, these models are mathematical because mathematical models produce quantitative results that it is possible to test by experiment. The math is meant to help us understand concepts. And the concepts are a check on whether the math we have done is correct.

Information vs. Knowledge

There is a difference between information and knowledge. Finding an answer to a question by doing an internet search and then writing down the answer without understanding it is information, not knowledge. Looking through your notes or the text for the lesson and copying something down is information, not knowledge. Information consists of facts or figures, data and statistics. But knowledge consists in understanding those things. What is the context? How does it fit into the bigger picture? What value does this information have? How could I use this information to make a decision or answer a question? Knowledge is not the same thing as memorization. Memorization will serve to find correct answers to many questions but if a question asks you to put things together in a new way then only knowledge will allow you to handle it.


In this course our motto is FIO (an acronym that I leave to the reader: you will figure it out if you think about it for a bit).

It is important that you evaluate yourself frequently as you work to find out what you have learned. Try repeating to yourself the contents of class discussions. Even better, go over the concepts and problem-solving techniques with a study group: communicating something you have learned forces you to organize your thoughts about it. When you do so, you learn it better yourself. This is true also about writing in the course. Your lab reports and the answers to lab questions are learning opportunities. When you explain what you have learned in writing you often find that you have not learned it as well as you thought you did. Go back and learn it properly and your writing will improve.

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Specific Directions

Remember that lessons are not a disconnected set of random facts. The lesson is a cohesive whole. There are often many confusing facts and difficult skills within that whole but keep the overall goal of the lesson in mind.

  1. Find out the purpose of the lesson early on. If your teacher doesn’t tell you the purpose then it is very important that you ask. Try this: “I would like to know how this lesson will help me to understand the subject better. Can you please explain how it fits into a larger context?” Or try this: “What are the specific skills and facts I will be trying to learn in this lesson?”
  2. Read the texts you are given all the way through, underlining or highlighting important information and circling things you don’t understand. Ask about these in class!
  3. Do the exercises while keeping in mind that the point of doing them is learning something. Simple copying information from one place to another does not create knowledge. Do not fall into the trap of finding the answers in the text and copying them down without paying attention to the meaning of what you are writing.
  4. Remember that problems and questions are intended for you to learn something: they are not a test of what you know. If you don’t know the answer it means you need to do some work to figure it out!
  5. How to figure out answers:
    1. Re-read the text and recognize that you may not have fully understood it when you read it the first time.
    2. Study and re-read your class notes.
    3. Ask a classmate for help. Even someone who is not part of the usual group you hang out with in class!
    4. Ask your teacher during class. This benefits everyone in your class and signals to the teacher about what things are going to need further practice and explanation.
    5. Ask your teacher after class, during advisory, or after school. There may be other times your teacher is available to help you outside of class. Find out about these and take advantage of them!
    6. Do use the internet, but use it wisely. Don’t do a search and write down the first thing you find. That’s information, not knowledge. Find an article about the topic in question and read the whole thing. Find a YouTube video which explains the topic in detail. There are many teachers posting lectures and lessons online. There are even specific YouTube channels which provide this kind of instruction. Finally, there are open-source courses whose resources you can use, too.
  6. Do your assignments on time. If you cannot complete them on time, talk to your teacher in advance so you can get help.
  7. Form a study group and meet regularly to help each other to learn the content. The emotional support is helpful but the usefulness of having to explain something to a peer is enormous.
  8. Prepare for quizzes and tests by focusing on those areas that you understand the least.
  9. Constantly evaluate how well you are understanding the material. If you recognize that you don’t understand something then pursue it until you do. You are the only person who has access to information about what you do and do not understand. If you do not communicate that to your teacher then there is nothing he or she can do to help you.
Last updated: May 01, 2017        Home