Why Is Chemistry So Hard?

A lot of my students always wonder.  Why is Chemistry so hard?  Why is Chemistry important?
A teacher that I look up to once told me there is no higher road to learning.  There is no way around learning science other than practice, practice, practice.  Make sure that you are employing problem solving skills.  When you approach a problem, one technique that I always use is to write down all the information that I can gather from the text body of the problem.  And then write down what the question is asking for.  This will always give you a hint as to which formula to use.  This works with Chemistry, Physics, Math and a innumerous other scientific subjects.
Is Chemistry really hard?  Yes it is.  It is a narrow road that Medical Schools and the like use to "weed out" their students.  Why Chemistry, you say?  The problem-solving technique that you use to approach Chemistry problems is the same problem-solving technique you use to make prognoses.  You gather all the information you have, you go back to your database, and you make links to help you identify disease.  Is Chemistry important in Medical School and Nursing School?  Yes it is.  How else would you know how drugs interact, why pH is important, why principals of osmosis are important, and the list goes on.  Almost everything goes back to Chemistry.  Your body runs on the principals of Chemistry.  It is the science of life.


Hi Riham,
Very nice post.  I teach that problem-solving method, too, and it makes all the difference, especially with word problems.  I've seen students struggling with a problem and making false starts, I think because they don't want to take the time to deconstruct the problem.  Then I show them my approach and the right formula or equation jumps right out at them.  (It helps to be a little OCD!)
Bruce F.
There are many possible answers to this question.  As they say, it depends . . .
I'll add a few points that I concluded after 5 years teaching Chemistry in high school after 33 years of industrial R&D.  
1.  The level of material in today's high school chemistry books surprised me.  The was some material that I had not seen until I was in graduate school when I got my PhD in 1975.  Why do high school students really need to learn electron configurations and quantum numbers?  I love these areas, so it was fun for me, but too abstract for them.  I sense that in our race to get ahead of the rest of the world, we have made high school chemistry unnecessarily difficult.  It needs to focus on some of the more interesting topics at this level and stop assuming that getting ahead means moving science material down grades.
2.  Students struggle in math.  I had a high school senior, very bright, ask how one calculates a percentage score when he got 125 points out of a total of 130 points.  They are too dependent on their calculators.  None of them have the ability to think through what the answer might look like (greater than 1?, negative?, really small number?, etc.).  They go with whatever number the calculator tells them.  How many molecules in a half mole of NaCl?  They'll write -3.6 x 10^-3, if that is what the calculator says, without thinking does it make sense that you have a negative number or that it is less than one.
3.  Which brings up the next point.  Students hate using units.  If they had written molecules behind the numerical answer above, and thought about it, they would have seen the problem.  But they don't.  Units have saved my bacon when teaching physics.  Keeping the class under control sometimes distracts from what I'm doing and I need to see the units to put me back on track.  Conversion factors are critical to chemistry and should be taught more thoroughly in math classes.  Grades should depend on correct usage.
4.  I agree totally with Bruce's observation about word problems.  I preach against false starts, also.  But I'll confess that sometimes I even find myself getting out my calculator before really understanding what the problem is asking.  Understand the question first.  Write down the units of the requested answer.  Don't assume you need a calculator to answer every question.  I love the moans after students see the correct answer for "How many molecules in 1 mole of H2SO4?"  Many will start calculating the molecular weight before understanding the question.
5.  It goes without saying that fun is the cornerstone of making chemistry easier.  I tutor science and math for a living now, and find nothing more rewarding than "cool" when involuntarily uttered by a student during difficult thermodynamics or mole calculations.  Fun is a combination of exciting lessons and a feeling of success by the student.
I agree with your point number 2. I was shocked and floored by very similar observations.  I can't figure out whether it's the education that's to blame or whether it's the responsibility of the student themselves to understand these things. 
You already noticed that I have a whole post on point number 3.
Thanks for your comments!
I think the main reason chem. is so hard is because students go into it believing it's hard. The expectations they have become parameters to their own perceptive state during class. They don't go into it in a positive mine set. This positive feeling we have is a reward for your brain being in optimum state, no matter the situation. If students go into in a bad mood, having expectations of failure, then not only are they going to pay less attention (we all know what that leads to) but literately be using a lower part of their mind. Even when they do try, they get frustrated and give up. I guess the goal here is to somehow change their expectations.
Hello Riham,
I found this interesting. I definitely agree with Bob's #2. I've found that the chemistry concepts alone are hard to grasp and if a student is weak or not confident in their math, then that really compounds the problem. In my state, a lot of students don't take algebra in high school, but middle school. When they get to chemistry, it's been a really long time since they've taken basic algebra and you're usually lucky if they remember some of it. 
It feels like there's a rush to have students have the opportunity to take as many AP exams as possible and so there is an impetus to get their basic classes out of the way. I one time had a student who was a freshman in geometry, but he could not isolate one variable of PV=nRT. It definitely makes tutoring chemistry harder when you find that a lot of the problems are due to a lack of math skills. 
Hi Christine,
That's how I went from tutoring Chemistry alone to tutoring Algebra and other Math subjects! I found that I could not get around helping students with Chemistry without first solidifying their math foundations.
My only criticism of this article is that it doesn't really explain why chemistry is difficult. It really only explains why students might need to study it, and some benefit of using the same critical thinking skills to apply to other things.
But it doesn't really say 'why' chemistry is difficult. 
Is it difficult because of equations? Is it difficult because it's hard to visualize a molecule and figure out how different elements will interact with each other?  Why is chemistry difficult?


Riham P.

Help with Math, Science and Test Prep

700+ hours
if (isMyPost) { }