If you’ve ever struggled while doing your chemistry homework on your own, you’re not alone. Chemistry is a subject that few people understand and even fewer enjoy studying in school. As if to make matters more difficult on students, chemistry textbooks tend to be written in a style that only a chemist could love or make sense of, and chemistry tutors tend to be harder to find than many other types of tutors. What’s a diligent but baffled student who needs help on homework to do if no help is available? Following these four steps can help you to make sense of most types of chemistry problems.
1. Identify the key concepts involved in the problem.
Most chapters in chemistry textbooks cover certain key concepts, and the homework problems associated with each chapter mostly involve these. Your book may even have a list of key concepts at the front or back of the chapter, which makes this part easier. For example, the problem might be one dealing with unit conversions, molar mass, acidity, chemical equations, and so on. Narrowing down the key concepts involved in the problem allows you to direct your attention to the right place when looking for a solution.
2. Identify the problem by type.
The way basic chemistry is taught in most schools is like a bag of tricks. The way typical textbooks are laid out is with a set of unique types of problems for each section or chapter, accompanied by a set of unique tricks to solve them. If you keep this in mind it will make acing the class a lot easier. For example, if the problem involves chemical equations that you are supposed to balance, then you would need to find a certain type of trick for balancing chemical equations (which would be the problem type).
3. Find a sample problem.
Most chemistry textbooks have sample problems interspersed throughout each section that demonstrate how to work different types of problems. So once you’ve identified the type of problem you’re facing, your best bet is to find a sample problem of that type, which will probably be somewhere in the chapter, and try to follow the same steps in the same order.
4. Write out your reasoning.
When you have identified an appropriate sample problem, be meticulous about writing out every step of your reasoning process, even if it feels like you don’t have to. Resist the temptation to skip steps or work things out in your head. Getting comfortable using the exact steps in the exact order presented helps to ensure that you will not balk at more complicated problems of the same type when you encounter them later.
Most of the tricks you will learn in a basic chemistry class are very simple; it’s trying to keep track of them all at once is the real challenge. But, as in any science class, what’s more important than memorizing all of the tricks is, of course, becoming comfortable with the language and the ideas. If you keep a clear mind and follow the four steps above, you will not only optimize your study time, you will also be well prepared to ask for and receive help, either from your teacher or from a private tutor, whenever it is available.