geeky chem study tips

Dear Colleagues:
Wondering if anyone has any geeky study tips for inorganic. My stack of index/flash cards has gotten to be a mile high, but I still don’t feel like the big picture is coming together for me. The time that it takes me to solve homework problems is also monstrous. I am a big verbal/audio learner, which is supposed to be an advantage in the traditional lecture format classes, but I think that perhaps the evil twin of hyper-literacy is “innumeracy”. I just have no intuitive number sense. Hence, chemistry and physics have both been a real slog for me. Lately I’ve started using marbles to make ad hoc molecular structures while working on problems, which has helped some with getting a more hands-on feel for the reactions. Also trying to do some “concept mapping” to bring the big picture into focus. Does anyone have tips on study strategies, or perhaps websites with practice exercises/tutorials that they have found helpful? Mnemonics? Diagrams? I’m open to all suggestions! I’ve still got 3 more semesters of chemistry to tackle, and I’m worried that if I don’t find some “aha!” moments soon, it will be like pulling teeth (or worse yet, academic suicide) to get through the next three courses. Your insights are, as always, appreciated.
RMG, Dr. 2B

The only thing that worked well for me in general chemistry was working the homework problems REPEATEDLY. Yup, the SAME HOMEWORK PROBLEMS, over and over. You develop a certain flow to the way the problem is solved, and when you see similar problems on an exam, your “flow” kind of takes over. Don’t think of it as having a sense of numbers. That helps you see whether your answer is in the ballpark, but it doesn’t help you get the answers. Think of it is finding the flow of the problem solving. If it doesn’t come to you naturally, just wear a groove into your brain with repetition.
I think you’ll probably do great in organic chem, with the way your mind works.

Hey, I am with ya totally, I actually posted about the same think a week ago on here and got some great advice.

I suck at chemistry…lol Right now in my gen chem 1 and I am not doing so great. Any type of bio-type classes (micro, anatomy, physio, biologym, etc) I have made straight A’s so I know I am not stupid, just have no number sense at all.

This next test will be the deciding factor between me making a B or a C

What I have decided to do, besides work problems over and over and over again, is put on index cards the “set up” for each problem. If I can get the general set up, the math is easy really if you think about (add, divide, multiply)…it’s just I forget what step comes next, what do I divide by now, which formula do I use, etc

My teacher also on top of problems, has a lot of multiple choice problems that no one seems to be able to know how to study for. I do not have a good teacher at all and I know that just makes things worse, but I don’t use it as an exuse because there are a few people in my class who are making A’s and strong B’s.

Anyways, good luck and PM or email me anytime! Like someone told me, I guess you can’t be great at everything. I do have a feeling I will do better with Organic Chem so I just have to get through this class and then Chem 2 (scared to death of that one!!), Physics also scares me because of all the math.


Thanks for your post… it is good to know I am not the only one with this dilemma! What was the subject line for your previous post? I’d love to have a look at what kind of responses you got. I am also a straight A person in anatomy, physiology, etc., but trying to convince myself that I’m not an academic failure (struggling in a measly undergrad chem class) has practically become a part time job! My teacher is very anti-procedures (rarely tells us how to “set up” a problem consistently), and has put the fear of god into us about learning “procedures” for problem solving. But I agree that this is probably what I would feel most comfortable with. Good luck with your finals, and feel free to vent anytime! I’m a sympathetic ear.
By the way, if you’re concerned about physics I highly recommend
… it helped me to see the bigger picture of how the concepts relate to each other. Great review for tests. Check it out!
RMG, Dr. 2B

Thanks for the encouragement re: Orgo. I have to have some light at the end of the tunnel! I will try your gen chem suggestion re: work, re-work, then re-re-work. Maybe this will wear some kind of groove into my neural pathways! By the way, what do you perceive to be the major differences (other than more hydrocarbons) between Organic and Inorganic? I went to one lecture for Organic this semester for kicks, and it seems a little more conceptual/less computational. Would you agree?
RMG, Dr. 2B

Orgo is substantially less computational. You need to understand how the reaction mechanisms work, how acidity affects reactivity, and you have to memorize the actions of a bunch of reagents. If you hit the sweet spot of balancing memorization with conceptual understanding, you’re in tall clover.
I’ll let you know in a month or so if I managed it.

Thanks for that physics site, I bookmarked it for the fall. Do you find it easier than Chemistry or no?

Well I looked and I can’t find my post about chemistry, I also posted about it on and it did make me feel better hearing some of the accepted med students were also terrible at chemistry and only got C’s yet still got into medical school…so it totally gives me hope This is the only subject I am bad at so I guess it’s not a total loss…lol I hope organic chem I will be able to understand better than this.

But I am taking everyone’s advice and I am working one of each type of problem over and over and over again until I get it down and that is taking up a lot of time to do but I hope it will help. My problem is I am bad at setting up equation’s and knowing what step comes after what and do I need to find moles and then convert that to what, etc.

Anways, feel free to email me anytime


I’m right there with you guys…I’m struggling through Chem II (Quantitative)… we had an exam today and I don’t know how I did on it…
Anyway… working lots of problems is helpful…
with Physics I, that’s exactly what I did… it ended up helping me tremendously… I aced the last test in the class and the final… went from getting Ds/Cs in that class to getting a B+… which was a pretty big jump.
Physical sciences are NOT my bag…I just hope that I can get this Chem grade up in the very little time that’s left.
good luck to all.
2 weeks left.
oh, btw… for Physics, pick up a copy of Schaum’s outlines for physics… totally indispensible.
I have one for chem… but it hasn’t been as useful so far.

Here’s my two cents on how to study chem:
1. As has already been mentioned, do the same problems multiple times, until the process is burned into your brain.
2. Make sure you know how scientific notation works, and can do it in your sleep. Same for logs and natural log. If you are struggling with that part of the math, you’ll lose time on every problem. Get to the point where you can calculate pH without thinking, can intuitively convert between ln and log, and know what log plots are and why they’re used. It takes practice, but then you are SET!
3. Same goes for computing weighted averages. When I was in gen chem one, a lot of problems just boggled me that would have seemed easy if I’d already taken statistics. Stuff like fractional isotopic masses and things. If that stuff is hard for you, you can check out an intro level statistics book, and go over averages. Then see if you can apply the concepts by analogy to chemistry.
4. Be sure not just that you understand the concepts when someone else brings them up, but that you can LIST what all the concepts in your course so far are. If a certain concept (say oxidation) doesn’t jive with you, go over it until it does. A lot of it is repetition.
Ok, that’s enough of my lecturing. As far as organic vs. gen chem, yeah, I think most people tend to prefer one or the other. The thing from gen chem that seems to come up the most in orgo is electronegativity.
I think it’s important to have a different mindset when you’re taking chem and physics than what you’d have going into an anatomy or physiology class. There’s more theory in chem and physics, and more math. Just expect that every day will bring a new concept, and make sure to try to learn it as best you can. Try to compare the chemistry concepts to things in everyday life, like cooking (for stoichiometry) or filling rooms in a hotel (for electron orbitals). Cheezy stuff liked that helped me a lot!
Good luck! Before you know it, you will be all done with chemistry and on to other things.

Wow, thanks for the very thorough run down! This helps a lot. I am taking statistics right now, and I agree that some of the material does cross over, for me mostly just in terms of thinking in numbers. Stats seems a lot more intuitive for me, but then again, it is not brand new material to me either. Re: your reference to weighted averages… where do you see this concept fitting into chem? I hadn’t thought of it in those terms before… maybe with respect to LeChatelier/equilibrium, e.g. determining which reactants/products are going to have a greater effect on shifting the direction of reaction (e.g. higher stoichiometric coefficient, greater “weight”)? I am encouraged to hear that there is such a thing as calculating pH “without thinking”. . . perhaps persistence will pay off yet! For some reason I am having a really hard time with that unit. Can’t seem to visualize the processes. This troubles me because I know this is where a lot of interesting concepts regarding biological processes come into play. Still hoping I can master that before the semester runs out. Thanks too for the insights about electronegativity in orgo… I will be sure to pay special attention to that section. I appreciate your feedback!
RMG, Dr. 2B

Re: your question about is physics easier than chem.? I thought so. But then again I have an MS in Kinesiology, and so I already had to do a lot of work with biomechanics. So mechanical physics (the first semester of physics) was much easier for me. The thing that frustrated me about it most was that nobody explained very well how what you were learning early on (say linear kinematics) would apply later (in angular kinematics). That is what I found the Hyperphysics site so good for… making those connections, so you don’t feel like every single lecture you’re reinventing the wheel. Another thing I just remembered… I picked up a book recently called The Periodic Kingdom. It is a rather fanciful (yet factually accurate) book that analogizes the periodic table as a “continent”, and visualizes chemical properties in terms of geographic features. I find it a pleasant read in between homework and lab prep to keep me engaged with chemistry, but in more of a creative, relaxing way. You might want to check it out.
RMG, Dr. 2B

"your reference to weighted averages… where do you see this concept fitting into chem?"
I guess mainly for things like when you’re asked what the average atomic mass is for a certain element, and you’re given the fractional isotopic masses (like 30 percent weigh this much and 40 that much, or you have 1 percent carbon 13 and all the rest is C-12). Also, Dalton’s Law of Partial Pressures, vapor pressure in a solution, and Raoult’s Law maybe. It’s also important in physics, when you’re looking at center of mass, moment of inertia, torque, and other things.
But I wouldn’t use this as a guide for Le Chatelier’s principle. If you add reactants, you push the reaction to the right; if you add product, you push it to the left–as far as quantifying the change I think you’d use the equilibrium constant, not an average.
I must really be a geek, since I like these kind of questions…

Well for the past 2 days I have taken about 2 hours each day and just spent time working the same problems over and over again for this chapter and omg what a difference that has made to not just my speed but somehow some undestanding of “what” I was doing snuck in there!!!
It’s really a shame though because it has taken me the last 2 tests to learn how to study chemistry and I bombed the first 2 tests (one low C and one D) so I am just hoping with all hope I can still squeek by with a B in this class (right now I have a middle/high C average because lab is 20% of our grade–I have to at least have some hope right? LOL)
Well, I guess even if I do get a C at least I know what it will take (for me it will ovioulsy take a lot of time put in doing problems over and over and over again) to get a A/B when I take Chem 2 next semester.

I will be taking general chemistry starting in May. I’m trying to get my brain revved up, since I’ve been stuck in the study of literature and liberal arts. So the one tip I’m seeing here is doing the homework problems OVER and OVER. Anything else? Oh, 2ndDave suggests knowing your scientific notation and logs cold. I’m trying to brush up on my math right now and I have a college textbook that I’m reviewing…it’s a little hard to know what to focus on…so now I know I should check out logs, scientific notation…anything else of math I need to focus on for a proper foundation in general chemistry? Parabolas or graphing? Thanks this really eases my anxiety!

Simple algebra. You need to be able to just solve simple algebraic equations at some speed. You need to be able to set up equations based on word problems, to get practice on getting the information you do need and discarding the information you don’t need.
It might be wise to get a scientific calculator (though you might need to wait since some profs limit how much function you can have) and get to know it intimately: how does it handle scientific notation? How does the memory function work? Where’s the precious, beloved reciprocal key? Is there a special mode for scientific notation, and if so, how do you get into and out of it? TI makes one that’s approved for the GED that should meet your needs.
You could also spend a LITTLE time on conversion of units between metric and English, since some chemistry books start out with this (for no good reason that I can see).
In terms of knowing logs and scientific notation, I would say you need to know the little rules about how adding the exponent is like multiplying the base, etc–how to move things around from the exponent to the base to the result–again algebra–only the special rules for algebra with logs.
If you have a DECENT grasp of logs (not even enough to do the hard problems at the end of the math book chapter) you’ll be fine.

Since I originally started this thread, it’s finally time for a follow-up now that I’ve got an A in Gen Chem under my belt! FYI, I turned this grade around from what probably would have been a C last semester. I was totally under-prepared last semester (despite what the placement tests claimed) and so I withdrew from the course so as not to jeopardize my hard-won 3.92. I wish I’d known then what I know now. Hoping that this will be of help to others, here are my bona fide geeky gen chem tips:
1) I suggest that you get copies of a couple of chemistry textbooks by different authors. This has saved my life! Check a couple out from the university library so you don’t have to buy them. With two textbooks, if you don’t understand something you are reading in the text assigned by your prof, you can refer to another source immediately. It often turns out that the concept is fairly easy to understand, but was just stated in a way that didn’t “click” with you in one particular text. Going to a second source often remedies this problem. Also you will have more sample problems to practice on if you have a second text to work from.
2) It may seem like stating the obvious, but memorize the main group elements sooner rather than later. Do it by groups (from top to bottom), and try to work the group number and oxidation number into your mnemonic device too if you can. At the same time, get to know the left-to-right order of what I think of as the “heads of families” (Li, Be, B, C, N, O, F, Ne). The sooner you can recall this information quickly and without looking at a periodic table, the closer you will be to evolving that mysterious “chemical intuition” that good chemists appear to be born with. . . at least it’s a start.
3) Get one of those bang whizmo scientific calculators (I use TI-86) and enter the atomic weights for the main group elements and transition metals into it as stored variables under their chemical symbols. It will take you maybe 40 minutes to do this, but it’s well worth it. Saves a lot of time on exams when minutes count, and also takes some of the pain and drudgery out of those routine homework-solving chores! Also you will never fear a quadratic equation again once you know how to use your calculator’s poly solver. (Disclaimer: these gizmo’s aren’t allowed on the MCAT, so don’t become addicted).
4) Make up stupid songs and rhymes to use as mnemonics. My current favorite is the Clausius-Clapeyron equation set to the tune of “Green Acres”. Don’t feel bad… brilliant anatomists have been doing this sort of thing for hundreds of years (a huge stockpile of ribald rhymes litters the pages of medical history)! You’ll certainly be using these sorts of mnemonics when you go to cram all of that anatomical terminology into your cranium, so you might as well get used to it!
5) Lastly, if you’re an audio learner, dictate onto micro cassette your most often used and most often confused concepts and formulae. It will come in handy as quick review for MCAT study later.
So, that’s the short version of my study tips so far. I’ve still got Gen Chem II. and both orgos yet to go, so let me know if anybody else out there has any tips to share.
RMG, Dr. 2B

Wow, this is such great advice I almost wish I was taking chemistry again! Ok, not quite, but…
The only thing I have to add is that if you’ll be taking physics or calculus at any point, go ahead and buy the TI-89 calculator. I started on a TI-83, which wasn’t bad but it had its limitations. I ended up having to buy the TI-89 on top of that. Over $220 altogether. Just wish I’d bought the one…

RMG, nice tips. I’m 2/3 through a summer chemistry course that I’m loving and hating. Loving because I am getting it pretty well and enjoying being back in school, hating it because I’m probably going to get a B and I hate that I have to care so much about the damn grade. I’ve always been grade-ist. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake and all that.
It’s taken me about 4 weeks out of the total of 7 to figure out how to study and how to take an exam, something I haven’t really had to do in over 15 years. I guess there’s no easy way around this; ya gotta start somewhere and the medical path is about exams and studying if it’s about anything. My exams sucked so far, but I’m hoping to turn it around and go out with a bang, if not an A.
I wrote a little program for my Palm that calculates molecular weight as you key in the formula. It is smart enough to handle parens! (Since then I’ve heard of commercial apps that do this but mine’s simple and free!!!) This has saved me hours of time, though I had already spent hours reading the table before I finally wrote the program. I have to admit however that doing it the old way was a good exercise and forced me to memorize lots of atoms, which I might not’ve done using a computer.
I like the Green Acres idea and will try to set Clausius-Clap to it this weekend. There’s also the Elements song by Tom Lehrer for the truly insane!

Hi There,
Were you allowed to use the TI-89 on tests?
Every math class I took, everything but the TI-89 was allowable. I use a TI-86 and love it.
Just wondering. . . .

I also purchased Schaum’s outline of College Chemistry. It has additional worked examples and a simple and straightforward summary of key concepts. The other advice I would offer is to work each test twice if there is time. Every time I did this, I saved myself anywhere from 5 to 15 points in careless errors. At the very least, peruse your answers for correct sig. fig., units, completion, etc.
Finally, make contact with your colleagues in the class. Share email addresses. Having direct email access to a small network of peers is a great way to reinforce concepts (through helping others) or get quick help when you get stumped on something.