#14 General Chemistry: How To Do Well

Chemistry… the class that lurks in the streets waiting for the moment you have to confront it. Feared by so many that people will change majors just not to take it. General Chemistry is often the hardest class a college student will take in their freshman year of school. The combination of the amount of material and the complexity of the subject makes it a class feared by many. Well, I am here to say otherwise!! I know, I know, you are saying, “He is one of thoooseee people.” In fact, I am not one of those people. I feared chemistry just as much as the next person. I had a horrible experience in high school chemistry and just didn’t understand the curriculum. Within this post, I will share the ways I managed to get an A in both Chemistry 101 and 102.

Summary Of My Experience

Chemistry 101

On the first day of class, I walked into the science building of Arcadia University, Boyer Hall. It was for my 8:30 class, Chemistry. As I arrived 15 minutes early I roamed the building trying to uncover the location of my class, labeled 102. Turns out it was in the basement, which makes no sense to me but what are you gonna do. The room was dark and cold, just the environment I expected for this class. I sat at the front of the class and laid my belongings on the long lecture table.

As my professor walked in he began talking immediately about chemistry and its difficulty. He explained that the first two weeks of class can be compared to try outs for a sports team. People will be competing to earn scores on exams and assignments that showed you were able to stay in Chemistry 101. If you didn’t make the team you were kicked out of the class and placed into Chemistry 100 and forced to take Chemistry 101 the following semester. The idea of being in Chemistry 100 scared me beyond belief. The idea of having to take an extra semester of chemistry was the last thing I needed. So, for the first two weeks of class, I listened to every single lecture and read every single textbook chapter. I received perfect scores on all of my take-home exams and an A- on the first exam which was the final determinant of staying in 101. After having new people join our class and others be kicked out the following week we began the true journey of chemistry.

The entire first semester of chemistry was fairly simple, especially the first month. Most of the chapters covered basic science principles that were easy to understand, not complex, and didn’t require any mathematics past algebra I. As we moved further into the semester, however, it began to be more complex. Some symbols and equations looked like something out of the movies. One of the equations I remember specifically was the Schrödinger equation (shown below). This equation was a part of the Quantum Mechanics unit and is based on Newton’s second law and Classical Mechanics. Given initial conditions, this equation postulates the physical setting of an atom’s electrons and more.

Throughout the entire semester, I worked extremely hard, redoing equations on whiteboards and reading hundreds of pages from the textbook. In the end, I only managed to get one B on an exam in Chemistry 101 and received an overall A for the class.

Chemistry 102

Chemistry 102 was a completely different class. This class made 101 look like elementary school. Everything is the opposite of what I said about Chemistry 101. The math is difficult, the topics were complex and diverse, and the concepts were difficult to grasp. Throughout the entire semester, you will be expected to know numerous equations and not just know them but understand them. You will have to manipulate them in order to get the answers you need and possibly replaced variables with other equations that are equivalent. This is all after you figure out what is actually happening.

I struggled a lot in Chemistry 102. Luckily there were curves on some of the tests that boosted my grade but I found myself knowing the topics but not understand the topic. YES, THERE IS A DIFFERENCE!! A little more than halfway through the semester, however, Covid hit. We were sent home and required to learn online with a professor that had no experience with virtual learning. I tried to grasp as much as I could during his lectures but ended up having to learn directly from the textbook. I spend hours, sometimes a full day trying to solve problems and understand units.

The final exam was 8 questions and we were given 4 hours to complete it. I have never been so stressed during a final in my life. I used the entire 4 hours to solve each question numerous times and in the end I managed to get a B!! This was one of the highest grades in the class and I was so proud of myself. I ended Chemistry 102 with an A, one of the hardest A’s I have ever worked for.

How To Study

Chemistry can be grouped with mathematics in the way to study. It is not about knowing the material but, it is about understanding the material and yes there is a difference. Knowing the material is great, you will be able to solve elementary problems and manage to complete the course. However, understanding the curriculum will allow you to solve complex problems that require multiple manipulations and an understanding of information outside the topic of interest.

The approach I took to studying was one I used for every single chemistry course including organic chemistry. I would first listen to the lectures and then read the textbook. If you have read my blog about studying for biology (#10 General Biology), this is the total opposite way I study for those courses. The reason for this is that a biology lecture and chemistry lecture are completely different. A chemistry lecture reviews a topic that needs to be explained, not just explained on how to solve the problem but how the problem relates to chemistry. A biology lecture is more about explaining facts or explaining things that are static and have no fluidity (most of the time). So, in biology it is easy to grasp a good understanding of a topic from the textbook but, in chemistry, it is much more difficult.

When listening in class I would often take notes on the major subjects, the big picture that was trying to be shown. I tried to answer questions like “why is this equation being used instead of this one?” or “How does this law of thermodynamics change the way I approach this problem?” When I understood those big picture ideas, I would then read the textbook and grasp all of the more fine details, such as manipulating a problem to solve for a different variable or an exotic use for an equation. From the textbook, I would often make step-by-step notes on how to solve certain problems and explanations for them. This helped me understand the topic instead of memorizing the topic.

What NOT To Do!!

There were many people that I witnessed fall off and begin to struggle with chemistry as the semesters continued. Some even dropped the class halfway through the semester. The first thing you should not do, and I feel like this goes without saying, is to not panic!! This is what so many people tell you not to do but dozens of people do it every semester during chemistry and the worst comes after. When you panic during chemistry you begin to make things harder for yourself. Your emotions start getting the best of you and things begin to not make sense. You feel lost and helpless, like nothing on this planet can even come close to saving you. Instead of panicking take a step back, relax, take a deep breath, and find a solution. I don’t mean the solution to the question either. A solution to the problem of why you aren’t solving it. Like I said, take a deep breath and relax. Take the time to revisit the topic in the textbook or review your notes. Look to see if you didn’t understand something to the fullest. Go and ask some friends for help or even email the professor on the troubled area. There are so many resources around you in today’s day in age that the question is never unsolvable. You just need to find the resource to help you first.

The second thing you should never do is get comfortable. Just when you get comfortable with chemistry is when you fall behind and realize you messed up. It has happened to me and every person I know that has taken chemistry. Often, someone that is doing really well is putting in an extreme amount of effort. Studying for hours a day and reviewing notes constantly. Doing this is extremely draining and with such success in the class, you often think it is ok to study less. NOOOO, DON’T DO IT!! Keep chugging along, I wish I did. This simple mistake that happens at the end of the semester is one of the easiest things to avoid and is often the difference between someone that gets an A and an A-.

Chemistry is hard and everyone knows that, including the professors. The last thing I will tell you not to do is say you aren’t smart enough to do it. Every person is smart enough to do it, but the moment you say you aren’t is the moment you lose all confidence in yourself. And if you have no confidence in yourself, no one else is going to have confidence in you either. People that say they aren’t smart enough to take chemistry are the people that end up failing chemistry.

Published by pensmenger

I am a Biology Major attending Arcadia University. I started the company My Biology Experience in hopes to connect the Biology community on a closer level.

2 thoughts on “#14 General Chemistry: How To Do Well

  1. I have a little story to tell about a Chemistry class I took on 1975 or so:

    “I had the same Prof for Chemistry as I had for Zoology. He was smart, kind, and knew his stuff. I always knew I’d learn a lot in his classes. I knew he liked me as a student, and that made it all the more comfortable.

    Chemistry was boring—I yawned a lot—until he began discussing E=MC2 one day—silly little equation.

    All of a sudden, things I had already learned smashed together. I raised my shaky hand and squeaked out my question.

    “Is E=MC2 an exception to the Law of Conservation of Mass?”

    “Yes, “ he said, his eyes bright. [It was a good question that showed I actually listened.] “There are many exceptions.”

    My mind banged into this and that and this again, and I can only describe the event as an intellectual orgasm. It took all my strength not to get up and leave the class—and all the while, that damned Prof smirked at my inner conniptions. Deep breath—class was over—I could go. My mind smoldered until the next day.

    Soon after, I diverted into psychology, searching for answers for my son. But there was always a hole in my heart for not being able to follow my dreams. I had envisioned a life locked up in a lab experiencing many such epiphanies. Human behavior taught me things I could not even envision changing—more like being stuck in categorizing. But it did help my son, and I, somehow, pulled him out of many behaviors. I haven’t a clue how I did it. [He was bad enough that he was engaging in elopement.]

    The one thing I could never change for him was his inability to connect. He knows he cannot connect, and it bothers him. But in his eyes, no matter how much time I spent or what I did to help him, I am the enemy. There’s nothing more I can do.

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