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What Makes Chemistry Difficult?

What Makes Chemistry Difficult?

I’ll first start off by admitting I never thought I’d be writing a blog about chemistry. Somehow I always envisioned it would be about art, philosophy, photography or psychology. Over the past year, however, I’ve realized this is necessary because students, and even other tutors, need it. Who knows, this could serve as the foundation for a book someday. After eight years of teaching and tutoring, I’ve found common themes in questions asked by students who need my help.

“Why is this so hard?”

“Why do I have to take this – I’m not getting anything from it?”

“I can’t understand anything my teacher says.”

“This is the most difficult class I have.”

“I hate this class.”

Many times I’ve heard this from some of my brightest students, so what’s happening?

I’m going to be bold by saying chemistry isn’t hard, it’s challenging. Not everyone learns chemistry the same way because not everyone is taking the same class at the same school with the same teacher using the same style and the same book. Additionally, each student has his/her own study habits and skills. Finally, and least discussed, each student, even in the same class, has his/her own unique experience because what’s entering the mind is not reality; rather it his/her own perception of reality.

Typically, chemistry, higher mathematics and philosophy are a student’s first exposure to the process of abstract thinking. We are accustomed to learning “tangibles” until we begin studying these subjects. Knowing “intangibles” requires a natural aptitude, learned ability or associating abstract ideas with tangible representation. In the absence of any learning disorders, here lays the challenge of learning chemistry.

Chemistry isn’t “hard” – it’s challenging because it involves a shift in the cognitive patterns of learning prior to its experience. We learn chemistry, at some level or another, to develop a better understanding of our physical environment. Imagine understanding why a cup of hot tea loses its “hotness” upon standing without some knowledge of thermodynamics. Think of how you would explain to someone why a bucket of water left out in the cold freezes while a bucket of gasoline doesn’t. Even more important, knowledge of household chemicals could indeed save your life one day if you know well enough not to mix them and why.

Humans are audible, visual and tactile creatures. We learn quickly by what we can hear, see and touch. As a matter of fact, our very survival depends upon this. Doesn’t it make sense that the process of learning chemistry may be augmented by utilizing our senses? One way of doing this is through experimentation in the laboratory. Yet another is for a teacher or tutor to provide real-life examples for the principles being learned. For example, burning high sulfur coal leads to expulsion of sulfur dioxide which, upon reaction with atmospheric ozone, is oxidized to sulfur trioxide. This substance combines with moisture in the air to produce sulfuric acid which manifests its nasty presence as “acid rain”. This is highly undesirable because it kills vegetation, albeit not directly, and certain animals such as fish. Additionally, acid rain falling upon your car is like pouring a bottle of Coca-Cola all over it! Not good. To help prevent acid rain, we install sulfur dioxide “scrubbers” in industrial plants that burn coal.

Was the concept of “sulfur dioxide = bad” difficult? Did you understand it? Did you get anything from it? I believe that most people would respond, “No, yes, yes”. Well folks, that’s chemistry! I also believe students who have teachers who take the time to provide VALUE to the concepts being learned will rarely hate the class. As with most things in life, value is everything. Would you pay $600 for an i-Phone if it didn’t have any bells and whistles? No.

Effective scientists must be effective communicators of facts and concepts, however this all too often pertains to communication with other scientists. Likewise, teachers must be effective communicators if they are to reasonably expect their students to learn. They must also understand the topics they teach, and chemistry is indeed a special topic because it introduces abstract principles. The art of interpersonal communication is a requisite skill if we are to succeed in life. Mastery of this skill, in addition to passion for chemistry, is what separates the teachers we understand from those we don’t.

We as educators must develop skills in providing value to our students so they have an incentive to learn challenging subjects. Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “… by leadership we mean the art of getting someone else to do something that you want done because he wants to do it.” It is our duty as educators to get our students to learn by providing value so they want to learn, and perhaps even enjoy it. The only observation that makes me happier than seeing “the light bulb go on” with a student is "feeling" that he/she is beginning to enjoy learning the science.