Why Chemistry is Hard

I am preparing for a year of teaching all chemistry to sophomores in high school. A lot of people believe that chemistry is a difficult subject yet I always found it to be most fun. Wondering about that I began searching around for why it might be that some people find chemistry difficult to master. This post is about what I found.

  • Chemistry involves higher order thinking skills.

  • Chemistry requires practice.

  • Chemistry is abstract.

Explaining this to the students will - hopefully - aid them in understanding what they need to do to be successful.


fnoschese said...

While I agree with you on your points about why chemistry is hard, I don't see how telling this to students will help them be more successful.

I am a physics teacher and my students face the same challenges. I used to tell them the same points you wrote about. But it didn't work.

Once I began looking into Physics Education Research (PER), I acquired the tools to help my students succeed. I highly recommend Randy Knight's book Five Easy Lessons: Strategies for Successful Physics Teaching. This first half of the book which explains the 5 lessons are valuable to any science teacher:

1. Keep students actively engaged and provide rapid feedback.
2. Focus on phenomena rather than abstractions.
3. Deal explicitly with student's alternative conceptions.
4. Teach and use explicit problem-solving skills and strategies.
5. Write homework and exam problems that go beyond symbol manipulation and engage students in the qualitative and conceptual analysis of physical phenomena.

Reflections of a Science Teacher said...

Really appreciate your comment. Hmmm, so it didn't work. This is the first time I have been so explicit with them so I do not have enough data to know whether or not it works for my students.

I agree totally with those five points - I am going to look into the library obtaining that book as it sounds like a valuable read. I've found also that "rapid feedback" is critical. and am happy that new technological tools help me do this. Students submit their work electronically, I comment and send back. With an electronic submittal I always have their work with me on my itouch.

Boris said...

I simply disagree that chemistry is inherently harder than any other intellectual pursuit. I think that the reason why math and science are often viewed as "hard" subjects is simply because you can't bullshit your way out as you can in, say, an English class. In chemistry, if your answers on the test are wrong, you get an F. In English, if you wrote a crappy essay, you get a C or even a B- as long as the length is appropriate and the pile of words is somewhat relevant to the topic. If an English teacher were to apply higher standards, English would be considered a much harder subject. You can teach the algorithms of basic exercise-solving easily if you are a competent teacher - but to make a lousy writer into a good one is much harder, I think.
So: I would stress not the fact the chem is hard but focus on what aspects of it make it challenging and make the kids believe that you (and they) are well equipped to deal with those challenges. I also agree with the previous poster (a fellow physics teacher) about some useful approaches in class.

Reflections of a Science Teacher said...

Boris, you have something there. Anything we are not interested in and do not invest the needed time into will seem harder than a subject where we gladly spend hours exploring. My point to my high school students was more about how their previous science classes involved more memorization (the kingdoms, parts of an insect, geological terms) than about synthesizing and making predictions.

Reflections of a Science Teacher said...

fnoschese, too true that science teachers need to focus on phenomena and observations.

Boris, I think it is obvious from my blog posts that I am more scientist than writer, lol.

Gregory Louie said...

Hi Sandra,

Like you, I worked as a professional scientist before becoming a high school and now I am a middle school teacher.

Don't let anyone fool you, middle school students are the best!

Why is chemistry hard?

1. Students who struggled with fractions in 3rd or 4th grade tend to struggle with proportional reasoning, which is critical for both chemistry and physics.

So I suggest you join the PER listserv that Frank, Boris and I belong to. It's called PHYSLRNR at http://listserv.boisestate.edu/archives/physlrnr.html

As a scientist, you'll appreciate the research orientation of the discussions. Use the search engine to find threads on proportional reasoning. I happen to like Jerry Epstein's posts on this topic the most.

2. Multiple representations of atoms, molecules and bonding patterns confuse chemistry students.

So I suggest using two 21st century learning tools to inspire students with the beauty of the molecular world and get them used to seeing in a different way.

1) Videos related to molecular biology as teens are interesting in anything cool and gross about the body. You may see my list of top ten molecular visualizations on the Synapse Ning at: http://thesynapse.ning.com/group/biotechnologyscientificvisualizations Be prepared to say, WOW!

2) Molecular Workbench - an open-source Java-based molecular dynamics simulation tool on your desktop. Besides animations, students can easily switch between ball and stick, van der Waals and other representations of molecules in motion.

Once you load it up, direct your students to the Activity Center, where there is a well-thought out sequence of activities based on Robert Tinker's idea that there are definite visual stepping stones to molecular literacy.

You'll find the software at: http://mw.concord.org/modeler/ You're going to love it!

One last thing, hands-on activities related to proportional reasoning can be crafted from a challenge to optimize a two component soap bubble formula from soap and water. I have my students optimize for maximal soap bubble lifetime. They have to vary the ratio between soap and water in order to be successful.

Of course, the data has a lot of scatter, but my math colleague teaches them how to perform a statistical analysis to obtain a five number summary through the use of a box plot of the data.

If you mix lemonade mix (citric acid) and baking soda in "just the right" amounts, kids can make a fizzy mix. If baking soda is in excess it tastes bad! So the goal is to find "just the right" amount. Which of course is a hands-on introduction to the foundational ideas that support proportional reasoning and hopefully transfers to stoichiometery, titration and beyond to pharmceutical formulations and engineering disciplines.

BTW: Transfer and application of knowledge from domain to another is a mystery to me and to many others, despite the years of education research. So despite providing fun and educational proportional reasoning labs, be prepared to acknowledge that individual brain development is one variable that you may have little or no effect on.

I hope this long comment was useful to you.

All the best,


Reflections of a Science Teacher said...


Thank you so much for your well-thought comment. I appreciate it and am honored that my short post got the attention of you, Boris and Frank.

I have used the molecular workbench myself and have it on my home computer. I have not tried asking students to give it a whirl, though; that is something to think about.

I look forward to future conversations with you all. :D

Shangkorong Khaling said...

@ Gregory
Sir I wholeheartedly appreciate your comment on
Why is chemistry hard?
1. Students who struggled with fractions in 3rd or 4th grade tend to struggle with proportional
reasoning, which is critical for both chemistry and physics.
2. Multiple representations of atoms, molecules and bonding patterns confuse chemistry students.
this two points are exactly those I faced......m still having a lot of trouble in chemistry...... m 12th passed and m going to appear all India engineering entrance exam soon...... but m still worried about chemistry...... if u have any suggestions for me...... my gmail I'd is "lalakhaling@gmail.com" thank you

Shangkorong Khaling said...

Thank you for all the suggestions...... :)
i'll try all d above steps.... If u have any more suggestions..... Please mail me... Gmail: lalakhaling@gmail.com
M finding chemistry very very......hard from my 10th standard....