Ten first-year chemistry student studying misconceptions


Undergraduate chemistry students the world over are commonly taught by attending laboratories, tutorials and lectures. At the University of Toronto, most first-year life science students are required to take two introductory courses which deal with physical principles and organic chemistry respectively.1,2 These “team-taught” offerings have multiple class sections so that the maximum lecture size is between 400 and 500 students. For several years some non-mandatory “study-tip” sessions have been offered during September as part of first-year chemistry courses. In these, instructors interactively explore common misconceptions with students and seek to instill some ideas about good study practices. Ten of the common misconceptions that undergraduates have about studying chemistry are presented here, with a short description of the underlying issues associated with each one. It is hoped that high school teachers can help dispel some of the myths surrounding science study techniques and help first-year students maximise their potential at university.

The ten misconceptions

1. “It is important that I study as much and in the same way as my friends.”

In first year, students often feel pressure to study as much and in the same way as their peers. However, different students have different backgrounds and different learning styles. Some students may not have taken chemistry in a while (possibly years) and will require extensive review at the beginning to keep up with the lecture material and to ensure they do not fall increasingly behind. Each student needs to figure out what works best for him or her. For instance, some students find reading the textbook intensively increases their understanding while others might find that they cannot absorb the material in that way and that their time is better spent reviewing the lecture notes, with the textbook used to clarify certain points. In chemistry, all students will need to spend a significant fraction of their study time doing problems as this is an integral part of all physical science courses.

2. “I don’t need to prepare for lectures.”

As the saying goes: “fail to prepare, prepare to fail”. Does this mean that students should prepare slavishly before each chemistry lecture? No (there isn’t time!), but a little studying goes a long way towards receiving maximum benefit from class hours. Students are presented with a detailed syllabus at the beginning of each term that outlines what topics (often textbook chapters) will be covered and in what order. A review of new chapter material before it is discussed in class (to become familiar with new terminology, equations, principles, etc.) has huge impact on understanding during lecture. A useful tip is to read the end-of-chapter summary as a starting point to get an overview of the major concepts.

3. “I don’t need to make any notes in class... it’s much better if I just listen.”

Going to lecture is not like going to the local movie theatre. Until about fifteen years ago, undergraduates had to write material down as the internet was still in its infancy as a course delivery mechanism. Most instructors used a “chalk and talk” approach to teaching where the evolution of a scientific story was apparent in each class. Nowadays, some students claim they are “unable to write and listen at the same time”, and watch lectures unfold as if viewing television. This is the same generation of multi-taskers who simultaneously use Facebook, Skype and listen to music via iTunes! Fun-damentally, making notes in class lays the foundation for further study outside the classroom. Failing to do it severely impacts the in-class and subsequent out-of-class learning experiences.

4. “Lectures cover everything I need to know for test purposes.”

Attending classes and merely memorizing their content is a very ineffective study technique. University chemistry instructors do not ask test questions of the type, “Write down all you know about Le Chatelier’s Principle”. It is far more likely to have to problem-solve during examinations by applying ideas and theories to situations (e.g., reactions) they have not encountered before. How do students become proficient at problem-solving? By initially being shown worked examples in lecture, and then by “getting their hands dirty”— studying in groups, talking about foreign concepts, referring to the assigned textbook and working through new problems.

5. “I have to record what my professor says... there’s plenty of time later to go through them and make detailed notes.”

There is little doubt that listening to lecture recordings can be beneficial, but doing this should not be perceived as a substitute for making good notes whilst in lecture. Listening to an instructor talking whilst riding the subway home at night is not the same as being engaged with the material in class. In addition, it can take a LOT of time to sit down and transcribe three hours of recorded material every week... especially as a student has to contend with lecture preparation (see 2. above), upcoming laboratory preparation, writing laboratory reports for completed experiments, etc., etc...

6. “I should ask questions in class the minute I don’t understand something.”

Chemistry is a fundamentally challenging subject. It is highly unlikely that every student in every class will understand every new concept the first time it is formally presented. Whilst asking a lecture question is to be encouraged, one along the lines of “I didn’t understand what you just said” is not so helpful. When students look at subject material after class they will often get to grips with it quite quickly... and think of good questions to ask in the next lecture!

7. “There is no point asking for help in a large class.”

Part of the difficulty of first-year life is adapting to new circumstances such as larger classes, more independence and different expectations. Students can sometimes feel alone, without help, and surrounded by large numbers of peers. However, many resources are available and should be taken advantage of. In every class, the instructor will have office hours, which are times set aside to help students, so they should not feel shy or uncomfortable asking questions during these times. As well, most chemistry courses will have teaching assistants for tutorials or laboratories who are also available to answer questions. Some campuses will also have peer tutoring available. For students with concerns beyond chemistry class, there are also services on campus (such as writing help, math aid, and learning/time management workshops) to make the adjustment to university life smoother. Most importantly, help is available to every student willing to take advantage of the available resources.

8. “If I understand the answers in the solutions manual, I am ready for the term test.”

Improper use of a textbook solutions manual can give a false sense of security in terms of preparedness for term tests. Chemistry is a problem-solving discipline and involves both practice and a thorough understanding of concepts. Reading through answers in the solutions manual and being able to follow the steps does not give the required practice or understanding, which can lead to students thinking they know the material better than they actually do. When students do an assigned problem and get stuck, it is much better to use the lecture notes and textbook to learn the concepts involved in the problem and then attempt the problem again, rather than going directly to the solutions manual. Ultimately, students need to learn the concepts behind the problems, not the mechanics of a particular problem.

9.   “As long as I can do some of the assigned tutorial problems,   I am ready for the term test.”

In chemistry classes, a range of questions are usually assigned to help students learn the concepts and hone their problem-solving skills. While it is tempting to skip the more challenging problems and focus on the more straightforward ones, it is important to become proficient in all of the problems. Many of the easier problems are assigned to remind students of high school material and to ease students into the more difficult tasks that are at university level and more representative of the questions on term tests.

10.  “The term tests are harder than the assigned problems.”

Every year student evaluations show that students believe the assigned problems are easier than the term test problems, even if very challenging problems are covered in the tutorial questions. Two things lead to this perception. The first is that students are, understandably, nervous during term tests (especially the first ones). The second is that students no longer have the resources that they used while doing the practice problems, including the solutions manual, friends, teaching assistants, lecture notes and textbook. To be fully prepared for tests, it is important to try some problems under controlled conditions — both to assess preparedness and to gain the confidence needed to optimally write tests.

Literature cited

  1. CHM 139H (Chemistry: Physical Principles) course information: http://calendar.artsci.utoronto.ca/crs_chm.htm#CHM135H1
  2. CHM 138H (Introductory Organic Chemistry I) course information: http://calendar.artsci.utoronto.ca/crs_chm.htm#CHM136H1