I want you to think back to when you were a child. Really young. Maybe about 2 or 3 years old. Could you have picked up a pencil and written a story? Probably not. Could you have written down what your parents were saying? I don’t think so. College Chemistry is very similar. When you first start out, you have no idea what you’re doing. Chemistry is a Language… and it should be learned as one.
In this Article, we will demystify the reason so many college students struggle with the topic of Chemistry. I will be using metaphors to compare the language of Chemistry to that of the English Language. That way you can kind of understand why it’s so common for college students to struggle in chemistry.
Learning Your ABC’s in General Chemistry
The first few weeks of your first General Chemistry class are extremely important. Imagine if you tried to skip learning all of your letters when you were younger. Would you have been able to write sentences the same? Or even spell words properly?
In the first few weeks of General Chemistry, you learn about matter. What it is and the states of matter. Then you learn about some of the basic properties of matter. Furthermore, you begin to define some of the most fundamental terminology, laws of matter, and units of measure. Understanding the difference between an element and compound, or an atom and a molecule is essential for what’s to come. This is like learning the difference between a letter and a word, or a letter and the sound it makes.
Then comes the alphabet itself. The periodic table. However, not only are you learning symbols, but you are also learning how to use the periodic table as a tool. It is important to learn the locations, the layout, and what all the numbers are called. This will all relate later to dimensional analysis calculations, valence shells, electron affinity, and the different energies required for bonding to occur.
Learning to Spell Your Words in the Language of General Chemistry
So, you begin to combine elements to make compounds and atoms to make molecules. You learn the types of compounds and the rules for naming them. Understanding the types of bonding that occurs between the different types of elements is absolutely necessary for someone to successfully progress in the course. Additionally, you learn the basic mathematics of stoichiometry for the reactions they are involved with. The absolute basics of the mole ratio and dimensional analysis. If these fundamentals aren’t solid, understood, and practiced, there’s nothing but struggle from here on out.
Let me ask. If you don’t understand what a letter even is, how can you spell a word? The answer is simple. You can’t. This will be a recurring theme in this article. However, it’s important to understand the extent of which this occurs.
Learning to Write a Complete Sentence in the Language of General Chemistry
Learning a new language is tough, but for some, learning chemistry is even harder. It goes beyond learning a new language. It’s also learning new mathematics and how to apply them to the language. This is very comparable to learning how to be a programmer.
Before we jump into being a programmer, let’s discuss writing sentences. Well, in order to write a complete sentence, you must understand sentence structure, along with a lot of different rules for that structure. You also have to use proper punctuation, capitalization, and more.
Chemistry is no different. There are so many different rules, symbols, reaction types, and formulas. It can be very confusing. Over time, you get to the point where you can use kinetics, quantum mechanics, valence shells, dimensional analysis, and so much more. But how could you do any of this without learning, understanding, and retaining what you’ve previously learned? It would literally be like trying to write a sentence without knowing any words.
Learning to Write a Paragraph in the Language of General Chemistry
By the and of First Semester General Chemistry (often called Gen Chem I), you are at about the equivalent of writing a paragraph in a new language. A simple paragraph that a 5th grader might write. That is, if you understand all of the material.
Well guess what happens when you start Second Semester General Chemistry (Gen Chem 2)? You pretty much start out at the equivalent of writing essays. Again, let me ask. How can you write an essay if you don’t understand how to write a sentence, or even a word? You can’t. You have to go back and figure out how to write a sentence again.
By the end of Gen Chem 2, you are looking at being able to write a small book, using the language of Inorganic Chemistry. Yes, I said Inorganic Chemistry. Here’s why…
So, now that you learned about letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, essays, and books, it’s time to up your game! Remember, these are comparative metaphors.
Learning the Language of Organic Chemistry
When you first get into Organic Chemistry, they begin to change the language a bit. So, let’s say you compared the Language of Inorganic Chemistry to Spanish. Organic Chemistry would be closer to Portuguese. You kind of go back a bit and learn some of your words and sentences in Portuguese, but then, instead of writing essays and books after that, you actually start doing something similar to coding in a programming language. There’s much less math, but there’s a lot of rule-based reactions occurring based on the molecular structure and electron movement. A common question on an exam might be something like “How would you build this compound?” Seriously! Then it shows you a list of compounds and solvents you can use to build it.
Honestly, I really enjoyed Organic Chemistry. I used to call it “Big Boy Legos” because you can literally rearrange carbons and the molecular structure of organic molecules with different reactions. When someone talks about synthesizing a substance, they are talking about building it from other substances.
Conclusion: Chemistry is a Language
The moral of the story is, don’t get behind. It’s not a memorization subject. It’s a logic-based progressive learning subject. If you miss class, make sure you study, learn, and understand the material anyway. If you make a bad grade on your first exam, expect a bad grade on the next exam… unless you go back and improve your understanding of what you got wrong. It is absolutely important to study for chemistry when you are in college. It will be hard to succeed even in General Chemistry without properly studying throughout the semester.
Remember, you can’t write a book without writing a sentence. And you can’t write a sentence without using letters. In my opinion, this is the reason most College Chemistry Students struggle with the topic.