General Chemistry is one of those subjects that many students fear. Before they ever even start the class, the fear is already there. This is because they’ve already heard the fear from so many other students. This begs the question, is General Chemistry hard?
Yes. Simply put, General Chemistry is hard compared to most other subjects. There are a few reasons for this. General Chemistry is both logical and abstract. Which is somewhat rare. Much of the math is the same as Algebra, yet some of it is completely unique to Chemistry. However, the most important thing is that General Chemistry is a “Progressive” subject. If you don’t understand the material at the beginning, you can’t understand the later Chemistry topics.
In this article, we will have a detailed look at why General Chemistry is hard, and what you can do about it.
Why is General Chemistry So Hard?
General Chemistry is so hard because it’s very different from most other classes and subjects.
The primary reason chemistry is so hard is because of the topic progression. You really have to fully understand several topics before you can fully understand other topics.
It’s important to keep in mind, memorization isn’t the key here. There’s a certain element of memorization. But most of it is problem solving, logic, reasoning, and math.
General Chemistry is Progressive, Like Learning a Language
Think back to when you were a child, learning your ABCs. You weren’t able to write a college level paper were you?
No… You weren’t.
It goes like this. You learn the alphabet, then you learn to spell words. After that, you learn to write these words.
Next, you practice spelling words and learning what they mean. Eventually, you learn sentence structure and punctuation.
By the time you’re in the 3rd grade, you can put thoughts together as sentences on paper. In time, you can write a full essay on a topic.
Pay attention… This is important.
General Chemistry is the exact same way. The stuff you learn in the beginning is used over and over again in the future.
If you never learned the full alphabet, or how to properly write, you will completely fail at writing words, sentences, or essays.
General Chemistry is Both Logical and Abstract
General chemistry is one of the only science topics that is both logical and abstract. Let me explain.
You will use a lot of math and algebra. So, you will need to understand that.
However, you will also have to learn about electrons, what they do, and how they will likely act. You will have to try to grasp what valence shells and orbitals are, and why they exist the way they do.
There’s new symbols that you will only see in chemistry. Additionally, chemistry has types of math that are only used in chemistry.
If you don’t fully understand what I’m talking about, you will when you get further into the subject. There are a lot of abstract concepts.
The Easiest Way to Learn General Chemistry
Let’s talk about the easiest way to learn General Chemistry. Of course, this is just my opinion and I’m going to assume that you are taking the class or about to.
Here’s what you need to do if you want to make learning chemistry easier.
1. Do Well in The Beginning
As I said before, Chemistry is a progressive subject. Anything you learn in the beginning of General Chemistry, will be used later in General Chemistry.
So, you need to really pay attention and understand. Especially in the beginning.
The topics and material you learn before your first Chemistry Exam, you will see again over and over in the topics throughout the course.
This means, hit it hard in the beginning, and don’t get behind.
If you feel the need to slack off at all or take a break, do it near the end of the semester.
It’s best if you make A’s at the beginning. Believe me… it’s easy at the beginning compared to the rest of the course.
2. Learn from Khan Academy Before Your Class
Khan Academy has great (and FREE) learning videos for General Chemistry. The topics cover exactly what you will cover in class and break down the topic to make it simple to understand.
Here’s what you need to do…
Stay ahead of your class lectures in the videos. Look at your syllabus (or ask your professor) and figure out the schedule of topics.
Learn the topic by watching a short Khan Academy video the night before your lecture on the same topic.
For example, if your class tomorrow is covering Dimensional Analysis, watch the General Chemistry video from Khan Academy about Dimensional Analysis tonight.
This is an amazing learning method. I call it Pre-Learning.
If you use it, when you go to class, you will always have a basic understanding of the topic before you cover it in lecture.
This type of repetition learning is great for increasing your understanding and retention of the topic. This method works miracles in General Chemistry.
3. Attend Every Class
If you aren’t going to every single class, you aren’t trying hard enough to learn General Chemistry. If you have to prioritize your classes, any Chemistry class will always be top priority.
If you have to miss a class, be sure to learn the material you missed that day. Due to Chemistry being a progressive topic, missing one class can affect your grades and understanding for the rest of the semester. Possibly even future classes.
4. Study in a Small Group with Others
There are so many benefits to studying with others. When you study in a small group, you have a lot of learning opportunities.
For example, if you are struggling with a specific topic in General Chemistry, someone in the group might be able to help you understand it better and tutor you through it.
On the other hand, if you understand a topic really well, you can help others that don’t understand it.
Research shows that studying in small groups, or even helping to teach someone else, enhances your ability to understand and retain knowledge.
Remember, the key here is to actually understand the topics of General Chemistry. Especially early on in the beginning.
5. If You Struggle on a Test, Go Back and Learn the Material
In most subjects, if you do really bad on one test, you just study hard for the next one. Most people do this and it sounds like it makes sense.
Do NOT do this in General Chemistry!
If you miss ANYTHING on a test, go back and learn that exact material until you master it. Do this before moving on much further in the class.
See, you will probably need that exact knowledge or skill for future material.
For example, let’s say you take your first General Chemistry exam and miss all of the Dimensional Analysis questions. You just don’t understand it.
If you don’t go back and master it, you will fail General Chemistry… Guaranteed.
You will use Dimensional Analysis for most of your calculations in Gen Chem 1 and 2.
6. Understand Electron Behavior
Here we go. This right here is gold.
If you can understand how electrons behave, in regard to your General Chemistry material, you will have an advantage over almost everyone else.
So many students come out of Gen Chem still clueless about electrons.
Remember, this entire article is about understanding. Understanding is the key to success.
If you clearly understand how electrons work, you will have a better understanding of how reactions, atoms, ions, valence, orbitals, acids, bases… pretty much everything.
So, go study some reactions, electron affinity, stoichiometry, and valence shells. Then pay close attention to the electrons and their behavior.
7. Difficult Does Not Always Mean Important
Difficult does not always mean important. You have to know the difference between difficult and important material.
Yes… There are a lot of topics in Chemistry that are difficult. Calculations and word problems too.
However, it is incredibly important to remember that not everything that’s difficult is important.
Let me explain.
Back when I used to teach, I would always have a handful of students that would get hung up on ONE SINGLE PROBLEM. They would go find the hardest problem in their homework, and dissect it for hours.
Sometimes, they would bring me a problem and say, “I’ve spent hours on this problem and keep getting the wrong answer.”
They would want me to solve the problem in front of them and other students.
I would tell them, “Look, you’ve spent too much valuable time on this one problem. You need to move on and practice the other topics.”
I would often have students get angry. But I wasn’t going to spend 30 minutes of a study session working out the most complicated problems in front of all the students.
Because they wouldn’t learn much. Yes, I can solve the problem. If I do it at my speed, nobody will learn anything. If I spend 30 minutes working out the most complicated problem, people tend to get frustrated and in some ways give up.
We don’t need people to give up. It’s just one problem.
Remember, difficult doesn’t always mean important.
If you get hung up on one problem for too long. Just move on.
On the other hand, if you get hung up on every single problem in a topic, you need to learn that material better. Go watch a few videos on the topic and try again.
Final Thoughts: Is Chemistry Hard?
Chemistry is considered very hard. In fact, Chemistry is considered one of the most difficult subjects in College. Some of the more advanced chemistry courses (like Physical Chemistry) have been determined to be the hardest classes in College. Period.
Ask any Chemical Engineer. They will tell you that Chemistry is harder than Physics.
That being said, there are steps you can take to make your General Chemistry courses easier. Learn topics in advance (or Pre-Learn as I call it). Be sure to fully understand new concepts before moving on in the course. Never miss class. Finally, study and practice daily.