It’s no coincidence that the mere thought of taking a high school or college chemistry class often produces anxiety and angst among students and parents. The difficult subject material within chemistry has gradually led to a general stigma around the entire subject. Chemistry courses have built a reputation for being among the most challenging in a high school or college curriculum.
Why is this?
Could it be that chemistry is just not relatable to our everyday life? Does it not produce enough excitement among students to hold their attention? Could it be because chemistry involves levels of higher-order thinking that must be practiced and not just taught? Perhaps it’s because chemistry becomes even harder to learn if you fall behind. Additionally, it could also be that the current push toward online learning creates a huge barrier for many students to overcome.
There are several factors that, when combined, make chemistry a challenging course. By recognizing and acknowledging the hardest topics in chemistry, students can begin to approach the subject a little differently and set themselves up for success instead of surprise.
1. Chemistry Involves Concepts That Are Not Easily Observed
One of the most difficult concepts in chemistry for students to grasp is that the entirety of the course is based on the behavior of matter.
We talk about matter typically at the molecular or atomic level not seen without advanced equipment. In fact, even at the microscopic level, we can’t see matter in its ‘atomic’ form. Only through an electron-scanning microscope can we begin to see what’s truly happening at the atomic level. Even then, we still cannot actually observe many of the concepts taught in chemistry.
These concepts are hard to grasp because learning new information is easiest when we have background information or a ‘point of reference,’ and with chemistry, that’s challenging. A seasoned teacher, however, will be able to connect most chemical concepts to a macroscopic, real-world context.
For example, students particularly enjoy the unit on gas laws because they can relate it to aspects of everyday life, such as the weather.
When discussing chemical reactions and intermolecular forces, we can also relate these concepts back to everyday phenomena; for example, we can associate the reason we salt roads in the winter with chemistry concepts by explaining the differences in the melting points of pure water versus salt water. We can relate the concept of limiting reactants to baking or cooking.
Most students can easily grasp that a limiting reactant, or ingredient, is one that will govern the output of the entire product, or recipe, by explaining that you can’t make two batches of cookies if you only have a limited amount of flour. Sometimes simplifying these complex principles into relatable concepts is all it takes for students to start applying their background knowledge to unfamiliar topics in chemistry.
Discovering our ability to relate chemistry’s really tiny atomic concepts to our much larger everyday-life perceptions is what makes chemistry so interesting. Tying chemical concepts into real-world applications will help students take more interest in the subject.
Everything in chemistry can be related to larger real-world phenomenon, and this knowledge increases our ability to learn the concepts.
2. Understanding Chemistry Requires Integrated Brain Skills
Chemistry involves several higher-order brain functions. Often, students will favor either life sciences or physical sciences, but chemistry brings both of those disciplines together. There’s a reason it’s called ‘the central science!’
For the most part, life sciences and physical sciences require different types of thinking.
Learning a life science like biology, at a basic level, involves memorizing a lot of scientific information and applying this material to make sense of the systems and functions of the body.
The process of learning a physical science like physics, on the other hand, requires the use of mathematical equations and relations, logic, and linear thinking.
Students who enjoy math and are quick to pick up mathematical relations typically enjoy physics. There’s a good reason, therefore, teachers refer to physics as ‘applied math.’ If students enjoy math, they tend also to excel in physics. Chemistry, on the other hand, requires the logic and math of physics to be integrated with the more rote learning required of, for example, biology and physiology.
The ability to visualize trends and key patterns of the periodic table, and then to apply these concepts to mathematical patterns, make up a fair amount of chemistry’s content. Not only must students become proficient at memorizing and visualizing a great deal of information, they must also learn to apply this information to simple mathematical equations to discern patterns and trends.
Whew! It’s tough!
A Union Between Physics and Biology
Chemistry is truly a union between disciplines, and the study of chemistry is a true integration of various processes of the brain. These processes by themselves can be difficult for many students, but they are not impossible.
This integrated thinking is something that must be practiced diligently. But, this is also why the study of chemistry is so important! It’s not because we really expect students to remember every single aspect of the periodic table and how to apply this information in real life; it’s that by learning and applying chemistry to real life, we truly learn to think critically by exercising our higher-order brain skills.
Those increased skills will help students succeed later in life, especially in STEM careers.
Unfortunately, however, there are additional aspects of chemistry that make the subject seem more difficult than others.
3. The Study of Chemistry is Linear
Everything in chemistry builds on itself.
For example, students must be able to write proper chemical formulas in order to write correctly balanced equations. If you don’t learn how to write formulas accurately, you can’t properly balance chemical equations and, therefore, stoichiometry (that challenging part of chemistry that deals with the quantitative relationships of combining elements) will be nearly impossible.
A solid foundation in chemistry built on core physical science principles and a fluent understanding of the main concepts, like writing formulas, is key.
If students get behind in chemistry, they typically have great difficulty recovering mid-year. This obstacle is why it’s important that each concept be fully understood and proficiently practiced to be able to apply this knowledge to the next concept.
This is where a chemistry tutor can make the difference in your success. Whether a tutor helps with catch up or allows you to get ahead, direct and personally tailored instruction can often further your understanding of this challenging subject.
4. Chemistry Involves A Lot of Math!
Chemistry involves math, and math itself can be intimidating to students. In an actual math class, word problems are sometimes the most difficult problems for students to tackle. Considering chemistry is like an endless stream of word problems, it’s no surprise that a chemistry course can seem to be exceedingly challenging.
The good news, however, is that the math in high-school chemistry is pre-algebra to algebra level at most.
Chemistry math is not that complicated, but when tied to words and the critical thinking required to process them, it can become overwhelming. As with word problems in math class, the best way to tackle chemistry problems is to identify the information needed from the information given in the problem. With this information, students can then begin to determine which formulas or relationships are best applied to the problem.
In every standardized chemistry test, whether it be AP, IB, or a Chemistry SAT subject exam, a periodic table is given at the very least, and it is often accompanied by a formula sheet or a reference table. Students should not worry so much about memorizing this information as applying the information given within the problem to solve for the unknown.
Learning to apply the plethora of information given on the periodic table, versus just memorizing the periodic table, will work wonders to help students learn the patterns and understand the complexities of this challenging subject.
5. It’s ALL About the Exceptions
There’s a running joke within the chemistry community pertaining to the curriculum and how easy it would be without all the ‘exceptions.’
In math, we learn how to plug in numbers to solve equations that work every time. In chemistry, however, we learn about rules that are “true” but only if conditions X, Y, and Z exist.
Let’s take solubility rules for example. Chlorides are soluble in water UNLESS they’re paired with the ions of silver, lead, or mercury (APH, or Ag+, Pb2+, and Hg2+). Acetate, (C2H3O2–) is completely soluble in water, with no exceptions, UNLESS it’s paired with a hydrogen ion (H+) which would make it a weak acid and, therefore, only partially soluble.
The list of exceptions is endless and is present in just about every unit of chemistry. It’s no wonder students get lost in a sea of doubt and lose hope!
A standard-level chemistry class tries to focus on just the chemistry and the basic rules, but an upper level chemistry course, namely IB, AP, or college and organic chemistry, is pretty much all about the exceptions. For example, Lewis structures are taught in tangent with Lewis exceptions, and ionization energies are taught with the primary focus on the exceptions pertaining to energy levels and filled (or half-filled) orbitals.
If exceptions are taken in stride, however, and we use a step-by-step approach, students can learn the exceptions and logically apply them.
In chemistry, it’s usually easier to apply logic and think through a problem rather than memorize the entire list of exceptions. Then students can truly discern and apply the universal rules, as well as the exceptions, to the entire curriculum.
6. Online Chemistry is Challenging At Best
With so many classes moving to 100% online learning, chemistry classes are becoming increasingly challenging. A traditional chemistry class relies on laboratories and classroom activities to relate chemistry topics to real-world applications. Without in-person activities, students can become confused trying to comprehend unfamiliar topics with little background knowledge.
Further, learning to write and balance chemical equations while simultaneously suffering through formatting issues while trying to discover the formula function in Word is nearly impossible! Even a seasoned teacher and tutor finds typing chemical formulas in Word quite challenging!
Chemistry is best understood and practiced by writing notes and formulas using a pencil and paper
In addition, practicing ‘science’ by using our hands and observing with our eyes helps immensely. The idea that students can easily comprehend a question, translate it legibly from computer screen to paper, work it out flawlessly, then type their answers into an answer box with little or no equation-formatting ability, all while working against the clock, is simply…not practical.
It comes as no surprise, then, that we have seen such a huge increase in the need for chemistry help. Students best learn chemistry in person, interacting with content hands on and not through a screen. Having to learn online is just another aspect adding to the difficulty of learning and proficiently practicing chemistry.
How Can We Overcome These Challenges?
Although chemistry will most likely be one of the most challenging classes you take in high school or college, there will be a fulfilling sense of accomplishment when the light bulb turns on.
I’ve personally witnessed students start chemistry at the beginning of the year believing they are just not good at science in general. When they start to understand the subject, however, and they can consistently write formulas and understand the concepts, their excitement increases, their work ethic improves, and they continue to show up and learn. Before long, they too believe they can pursue a STEM career!
By the end of the year, they’ve changed their entire outlook on their future.
Believe it. Chemistry can do that for students if they commit to learning the material and staying on schedule. It’s the kind of subject that is so challenging but yet so rewarding, when conquered, that it excites students.
Set Yourself Up for Success
The best ways to succeed in this type of class is to be realistic, but optimistic, with your expectations.
Chemistry is best learned with consistent practice and a sufficient amount of time to devote to the subject every week.
Students who have had some sort of physics or physical science class tend to grasp Chemistry concepts well. A solid understanding of algebra is needed before taking chemistry so students don’t get lost in the math concepts.
Chemistry is best practiced with pencil or pen, a periodic table, a calculator, and plenty of scratch paper.
Set yourself up for success every time you practice. Take a picture of your work if you have to submit it; don’t try to battle with formatting on the computer. And finally, celebrate small successes and keep going! Before you know it, your whole mindset toward science in general will change and, with your new-found confidence, you may just find yourself researching Chemistry careers.