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Why students struggle with chemistry

I have been tutoring general chemistry I and II for over a year now. Unfortunately, a surprisingly high number of students in my experience are having difficulties with chemistry. Even in my general chemistry classes at Rice University, it seemed like a lot of generally "math-sciency" people were struggling with the subject matter. After helping a number of students in chemistry, I find that the most common reason students have difficulty with the class lies in the origins and applications of the material. Chemistry at its core - atoms, molecules, interactions and reactions between them is not normally the things we deal on a daily basis. Whereas, subjects like physics and math are generally more applicable to our lives. I feel that chemistry requires developing a new, microscopic, way of thinking - basically, a new mindset. It sometimes may take a while to adjust to that thinking style, but it becomes a great asset after getting used to it. So, "How do I start thinking like that", you ask. As I sometimes tell my students, try "thinking like an atom". It my sound bizzare, but it works, I promise! Start by asking yourself questions: "What kind of atom am I? Am I a noble gas, a metal, a halogen? Why do I form bonds? Do I just want to get rid of an extra electron or do I want to share mine? Or do I want to be selfish and take away somebody else's electron?". Try it and it might work for you! Just "Think like an atom!".

Comments

Great observations! May I add a few more? "Where do you START with a topic so broad as Chemisty?" My successes with teaching Chemistry are a result of starting with the following: 1. Taking periodic table print-outs, I teach what a period is and what a group is. 2. Then I have the student write the group names on the top of each group, then add key properties at the bottom of that group. From alkali metals across to noble gases. (For the properties: metals are good conductors of heat and electricity: due to their ability to easily move the electrons in the outer shells of metal atoms.) 3. Then I explain: Periodic relationships including atomic radii, ionization energies, electron affinities, oxidation states, and physical size, etc. a. With tables that show molecular size and electron affinities, I then explain how to determine respective isotope state, ionization energies and electron affinities. (I like to use Flourine (the electron-grabbing, little atom (and it's isotope form) as an example and base my comparisons to that element and group). b. I then use graphs of ionization energies and electron affinities versus atomic number to show how the values vary within a group AND across a period. 4. Once the student understands this, a periodic table with the electron energy levels and atomic orbitals act as a visual reference so that these topics can be explained in relation to the chemical's location on the periodic table. You can move forward from there! I hope this helps you as an option for where to begin.
That's a great insight! Thanks so much for sharing your method! I will start putting it to use with my students. :) Thanks again!