How Do I Learn Chemistry?

Tips and Strategies for Learning Chemistry

Learning chemistry is a matter of believing you can do it and practicing problems.
Learning chemistry is a matter of believing you can do it and practicing problems. Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

How do I learn chemistry? If you have been asking yourself this question, then these tips and strategies are for you! Chemistry has a reputation as being a difficult subject to master, but there are steps you can take to improve your chances of success.

The Hype Versus Reality

You may have heard that chemistry, particularly organic chemistry, is a weed-out or flunk-out course, intended to keep students who aren't serious about their education from going on to the next level. That is not the case at the high school level or for college general chemistry or introductory chemistry. However, chemistry class may be the first time you've had to learn how to memorize or work problems. It is true that you will need to master these skills to proceed with an education in the sciences.

Organic chemistry requires much more memorization. It is considered a weed-out course for pre-med or pre-vet in the sense that you'll need to memorize much more to be successful in those fields than you'll encounter in organic. If you find you truly hate memorization, then those fields of study may not be for you. However, students who are taking organic so that they can become doctors or vets usually feel the memorization that is more directly related to their field of study is more interesting and therefore easier to remember than organic functional groups.

Common Learning Traps

No matter how you learn, these are traps that will make learning chemistry difficult:

  • Assuming the learning style that worked in other classes will work for chemistry. Be flexible and willing to change your approach to learning.
  • Thinking you can cram chemistry the night before the exam. You can't!
  • Assuming understanding a problem means you can work it. This is like assuming you can speak a foreign language based on understanding a conversation.

How to Learn and Understand Chemistry Concepts

The key to learning chemistry is to take responsibility for your own learning. No one can learn chemistry for you.

  1. Read the Text Before Class
    ... or at least skim it. If you know what is going to be covered in class you'll be in a better position to identify trouble spots and ask questions that will help you to understand the material. You do have a text, right? If not, get one! It is possible to learn chemistry on your own, but if you attempt this, you're going to need some sort of written material as a reference.
  2. Work Problems
    Studying problems until you understand them is not the same as being able to work them. If you can't work problems, you don't understand chemistry. It's that simple! Start with example problems. When you think you understand an example, cover it up and work it on paper yourself. Once you have mastered the examples, try other problems. This is potentially the hardest part of chemistry, because it requires time and effort. However, this is the best way to truly learn chemistry.
  3. Do Chemistry Daily
    If you want to be good at something, you have to practice it. This is true of music, sports, video games, science... everything! If you review chemistry every day and work problems every day, you'll find a rhythm that will make it easier to retain the material and learn new concepts. Don't wait until the weekend to review chemistry or allow several days to pass between study sessions. Don't assume class time is sufficient, because it isn't. Make time to practice chemistry outside of class.