Learningto Learn…with specific information for chemistry learners.



Learning is not instinctive


Knowledge does not fall into your head without any effort.Everyone who teaches has at some time had to go through the process oflearning; there is no short-cut.


This page offers a guide as to what you might do to become abetter learner. It does not, by any means, cover all that could be said. Thereare numerous books available to help you, but the core of what you should do ishere.




Knowing something…..


is not the same as knowing the name ofsomething. To know something takes time, real physical effort, and a period ofassimilation and reflection. To know something you must develop a wholehost of techniques; even if you have coped easily so far there will come astage where the rate at which you are required to obtain knowledge andunderstanding will tax any informal techniques that you have to their limit.And, perhaps, beyond – to the point where you start to give up or to loseinterest.




Knowing something takes time; do not betempted to short-cut this time. At first you will feel that everything takestoo much time, but do not worry. You are increasing your learning efficiencywithout realizing it, and the more you learn the easier it becomes to learnmore. Your learning will become much faster and less effort, I promise you.




Habit governs quite a lot of what we do and are. To achievesomething fresh you will probably have to change your habits, that is replacethe old, weary, useless habits with fresh and profitable ones. Mostly it comesdown to two things:

*       planning

*       self-discipline





Busy people do not get through all the things that they have to doby luck; they plan. So must you. It will feel odd at first if you are not usedto it, but stick with it and it will pay dividends.


The essentials are:



*       planyour week in outline; perhaps use your computer to generate a weekly diarywhich has regular commitments already inserted.

*       rememberthat you have to have a life outside your work, so include social or familyitems in your plan.

*       rememberthat if something can go wrong, it will. So your plan must have some space init to allow for ‘emergencies’, where perhaps the work hasn’t gone as well asyou expected or more than the usual demands are made on you.

*       carrya small notebook around with you so that you can use small amounts of timewell. Perhaps you could have a list of reactions and you could learn a couplein the few minutes you spend in a supermarket queue or waiting for a bus ortrain. Learning two equations a day will get you into a lot of Chemistry! Afriend of mine learnt German vocabulary whilst shaving; another learnt a lot ofModern Greek in the ten minutes walk to and from work every day.

*       ifyou are doing nothing, make sure that you have planned to donothing; don’t do nothing as your default state! If you sit down with yourfriends for coffee for an intended 20 minutes, don’t let it go to 30 minutes oryou will have lost an hour every week, or a whole week in an A level course.








This sounds awful, doesn’t it! Don’t turn into a control freak –but you must exercise some self-discipline if your work is going to go well.Anthony Trollope wrote 40-odd novels as well as being a full-time official ofthe Post Office. He managed this (as well as a full social life) by writingbefore breakfast; he wrote on trains, too. He gave an account of his methods,which included detailed planning before he began to write, but also meant that whenhe sat down to work he worked and made a conscious effort to concentrate. He did notday-dream, or find all sorts of excuses to do peripheral things which amountedto work avoidance.


Concentration requires effort. Make that effort.




Learning Chemistry


Many of the following points apply to any learning, but Chemistry(and other science) texts have particular characteristics that need care in thereading if they are to yield their secrets accurately.


The essential points are, for each learning period:



*       planto work for about an hour, but not for much longer without a break

*       usethe first five minutes to review the material that you did last that isrelevant to your present work

*       resolve toconcentrate

*       havea particular target in mind for the current period of study; then

*       skimthe content of your target material so that you have an idea of the content andany problems that might arise during its study

*       readthe material slowly and in detail; this crucial point is elaborated below

*       re-castthe material into different form, e.g. flow charts, diagrams, lists, mind-maps.Do NOT make pretty notes with carefully underlined headings; you wantinformation in your head, not in your files

*       skimthe material again to get another overview, this time illuminated with greaterknowledge

*       TESTYOURSELF – also elaborated below

*       assessyour understanding and go back over the points which have caused difficulty; ifyou cannot sort them out WRITE DOWN QUESTIONS to ask your teacher. Do not failto do this; you will forget, otherwise. This is not an opinion; it is true.

*       afew days later skim the material again to reinforce your learning.








All of you can read. How do you read? Do you read fast? Slow? Thespeed is not as important as the understanding that is conveyed between whatyou read. You should vary your reading speed depending upon the content andcontext.


Have a look at the two extracts shown .

The image on the top is and essay from page 3 of “EverydayAssessment in the Science Classroom,” NSTA Press, 2003. The article offersquick reading on “how people learn,” and, actually is quite relevant to thisdocument. But the purpose of this example is to show how a “normal” book wouldread and words would quickly pass through to understanding.


The image below is page 540 from Chemistry, Brown,LeMay, Bursten 9th Edition (the last edition of the AP Chemistrytextbook).






Do not attempt to read all the words in either document. Stopreading and jot down the differences between the two pages and perhaps suggesthow they might differ in the way that they are read.



Notice that the essay on learning consists of a block of textonly. Unless you are reading it for the purposes of deep comprehension, yourreading speed will be more or less constant, and you will start at thebeginning of the page and turn over when you get to the end of it. Chemistrytexts must be treated in a totally different way; if yourreading speed is constant you will miss most of what the page contains.


This is because the page contains five of the six basic buildingblocks of any chemistry text; these are



1.      text

2.      chemicalequations and sample problems

3.      graphs

4.      diagrams

5.      mathematicalequations and sample problems

6.      tables.



In addition you will often have photographs….

The only one of these six that can even remotely be treated likean essay is the text part. Everything else requires action, physical activity.You cannot read a textbook without paper and pen.



Chemical equations.



These are the very stuff of chemical writing; but unless you makea conscious effort to deal with them, you are liable to skim them as thoughthey were text. If you do this you will never learn them. It is not necessaryto understand every aspect of them to learn them, so don’t use this as anexcuse. Understanding comes from learning and reflection, much of itunconscious. So:



*       writeout every equation you come across that is new to you

*       checkthat it balances for charge and for mass – textbooks aren’t infallible

*       organicreactions should be written so that they balance, and should be writtenstructurally, not as condensed formulae

*       learnthe conditions associated with a particular reaction

*       tryto see the reaction in your mind’s eye – does it describe liquids,solids, gases? What colors might you see? Are there precipitates?

*       NEVERencounter an equation without learning it. You cannot know too many.








A graph can contain a great deal of information. Sometimes it canbe misleading – indeed most political parties will at some time or other usegraphs with scales designed to puff up their own performance and denigrate thatof their opponents. Hopefully chemistry texts do not do this. But you mustextract all the information possible from a graph before leaving it. So:



*       sketcha copy of the graph

*       lookcarefully at the labels on the axes

*       lookcarefully at the starting and finishing points of the line; whether it islinear, or is a curve and if it is what special features there are about thecurve. How do the slopes change? What do they mean? Where are the points ofinflexion, if any? What is their significance?

*       ifyou cannot answer these questions, ask someone who can. You must understand a graph; itis not enough simply to be able to reproduce it.








Many of the comments concerning graphs apply to diagrams as well.



*       makea copy of the diagram and be clear what sort it is; is it an energy-leveldiagram or that of a piece of apparatus?

*       notecarefully any critical details - a refluxing apparatus, for example, does nothave a stopper in the top

*       tryto relate the diagrams of apparatus to the function; you should know what eachpart of the apparatus is for and how it forms part of the whole.






Mathematical equations in sample problems


Like chemical equations, mathematical equations are very dense ininformation content. Like chemical equations, they have to be perceived indetail, so:



*       copythe equation

*       tryto see what it means; if you cannot do so, ask someone who can.

*       workthrough the steps of a mathematical argument for yourself and see if you cancome to the same conclusion as the textbook. If you can’t, work at it until youcan or are convinced that you need help.

*       onceyou have concluded the same as the text, work the problem on your own piece ofpaper. Try the problem without referring to the text example and see if you canmodel the problem solving strategies used by the textbook.






Tables contain a great deal of information, and it can be ratherdazzling. A table needs to be treated with care; in particular you should


*       lookcarefully at the column headings - note any units or multiplying factors, forexample.

*       lookcarefully at the row labels, and see if there is a trend in these. For examplethe table may deal with a particular Periodic Table group, or with a homologousseries of alkanes.

*       beprepared to re-cast the information to get the maximum value from it. A fairlyobvious way is to plot a sketch graph of whatever part of the data you'reconsidering, this having the advantage of registering in your visual memory.You remember pictures much better than you do tables.



Don't leave a table behind until you're convinced that you haveseen all that it has to offer.




Testing, testing...


After you have completed your target work, it's essential that youtest yourself. This can be done by seeing if you can write out the main points.Can you write out all the equations? Can you reproduce the diagrams? Can youunderstand the graphs and reproduce them? You must be able to do all of thesethings; if you can't, then you haven't learned the work. Self-testing is veryimportant; do not neglect it.




Working Problems – homework, assignments


Three main points make homework assignments much easier and muchhigher quality for learning.


1.      attemptingthe sample problems along with the text soon after the material is presented inclass

2.      referringto sample problems from the textbook as you work the problems

3.      checkingyour work and re-checking your work in class the next class period followingthe assignment


Daily problems are assigned to make you THINK about what you areto learn. Problems are assigned to guide you through understanding thesometimes challenging concepts that are presented in class and read outside ofclass.


Attack problems like you would a reading assignment.

Many times it is valuable to read portions of the text whileattempting the problems. It is always advisable to use sample problems in thetext to guide your homework problems. Your text offers side-by-sideexplanations of “how to do a problem” in an example box….use it!


Partners and work groups.

It is often advantageous to work with a study partner whileattempting homework problems. In today’s digital world this can be accomplishedvia telephone, online or via videophone. But, I believe it is most valuable tophysically work in the same room at the same time on the same problems. Make a“work-together” pact with someone. Do not move on to another problem until bothof you understand and agree upon answers to a problem. If you both work hardand eventually “get stuck,” write down your questions and contact yourinstructor before the next class session.








Effective learning needs time, planning, effort, time,concentration, time. Follow the advice given here, and you will not only learnchemistry, but will acquire learning ‘skills’ (ghastly word) that will standyou in good stead whatever you choose to do.




Adopted from:

Dr RodBeavon    17 Dean’s Yard     London SW1P 3PB









An additional article for those who may have developed “badhabits” throughout years of schooling.





Bad Habits


Are you underachieving? Do you have little motivation in school?Do you have difficulty getting organized? Have you decided, "This is me.This is who I am. I’m not a good student."


I attended a funeral of a young man who had virtually killedhimself with liquor. I was talking to a relative of his who also drank much toomuch and I recall suggesting that maybe this was a sign that he should cut downon his drinking. His response startled me. "I’m not going to stopdrinking. I’m not going to change who I am." It was a time of grief and wedidn’t discuss it any further. But is this really who he is or rather is itjust a bad habit that’s preventing him from being the person he might be?


I meet some students, mostly, but not exclusively, teenage boys,who have developed some bad habits. I don’t mean drinking. I mean the studentwho has gotten lost  in his own education and has the bad habit of notdoing homework. Why is this a habit? I don't think this attitude is a sensibleone. I don't believe it was well thought out. I think it is an attitude thatone gets used to. Children usually begin school with pretty sensible attitudes.We don't always do a very good job of helping students to realize that the mostimportant person in your education is you. The problem is that many teenagersarrive in high school either motivated for the wrong reasons or not motivatedat all. A person who works hard and gets good grades for one's parents or inorder to do what is right or some other external reason is motivated for thewrong reasons. External motivation is fine when you are in the 3rd grade. It'stime to recognize that your education is, in a very selfish and personal sense,perhaps the most valuable possession you have. Your education will, to a verygreat extent, determine who and what you will be. Once you realize this, youwill be internally motivated. You will work hard, not for others, but foryourself. 


So how is it possible that don't know this? Well, we make itextremely difficult for you to understand this. If you are not doing well in aclass, we are likely to threaten you with "I'll have to notify yourparents" or "How will you get into a good college"? In otherwords, we tend not to say "You can't be very happy with your performance.How can we help you?" We treat you as if you are and should be working forothers and not for yourself. After years of that, with a few disciplineincidents tossed in, it's easy to understand why some high school students areunmotivated and most are externally motivated. For the most selfish of reasons,you should definitely try to become internally motivated. It makes the clearestsense that you should work hard on your studies, learn as much as you possiblycan about many different subjects, and mold yourself into the most interestedand most interesting person possible. The rewards of this approach cannotescape you. 


A good teacher is one who makes it easy for you to want to becomemotivated to learn the coursework. Good teachers do not necessarily make goodstudents, although these students may "appear" to be good students inthat class. A good student is one who is motivated to find what is valuableabout the subject matter despite the teacher. A good student knows that thesubject, whatever it is, is potentially fascinating and valuable. A goodstudent will not let a poor teacher diminish his future. A good student willturn a potentially poor classroom situation in a valuable one. Do you owe it toyourself to become a good student?


So here you are, a pretty nice person, relatively unmotivated byschool, not likely to do much homework, still trying to do what's right bytrying to get decent grades without actually learning anything. Not doinghomework might just be a bad habit, formed at an age when you were too young tothink it through. "My friends and I don’t really care about schoolwork. That’s just who we are." Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe it’s justsomething you got used to. You can become a very much better student almostovernight. I've seen it happen again and again. You can become motivated. Or,you can continue to define yourself by a few bad habits that really are no moreyou than the habit of taking a drink or smoking a cigarette.


Fortunately for you, in this school, teachers really want you tosucceed and they’ll help you a lot. That’s mostly what we talk about. I know.You’ve fallen behind and it’s more difficult for you to keep up with manyothers right away. You’re not used to disciplining yourself every day. But ifyou want to, you can succeed here. You really can. It’s 90% your mindset. Therest will come with a little effort. Subjects only become interesting when youget involved in them. Get involved and they will all become interesting. Schoolwill become more pleasurable and a lot easier. You can leave high school havinglearned a lot, and you can be prepared to do really well in college orelsewhere. Or you can leave knowing pretty much what you knew when you enteredhigh school. It’s up to you. It really is.


Every year, a few students make the leap to another kind of life.Others just keep drifting. Is this your year? If you want my help, I’d considerit a privilege to help you to become the person you want to become.