Study Strategies for Chemistry

Students often ask for advice about how to study chemistry. There is no single best method for studying, but here are a few suggestions. These suggestions were developed with organic chemistry in mind, but they apply equally well to all types of chemistry courses.

Before lecture:

Scan the assigned reading for that unit.  Read the first page of the chapter(s), as well as the first few sentences of each section.  These usually introduce or summarize key concepts for the chapter.

During lecture:

  • Take copious notes.
  • Do not focus solely on what is written on the board.  Listen and copy down key verbal points as well.

After lecture:

  • Carefully read the assigned textbook reading on concepts you need further understanding for.
  • Expand and clarify your lecture notes based on the text reading.  Discuss points that are unclear with your study group.
  • Do the example problems in the book and write down the solution to each problem as it is encountered, even if you know it well.  Writing an answer helps you remember the concept.
  • Make flash cards for new vocabulary words, reactions, etc. as encountered.
  • Do all of the problems of the problem-set and textbook as soon as you are able to and as early as possible. That way, if you have any questions, you have plenty of time to go to your professor’s office hours or ask a tutor.
  • Go through the stack of flash cards.
  • Make copious use of office hours and discussion.

On Using the Textbook and Working Problems

  • Read the text for concepts that don’t make sense.  Really understand the text, do not just skim the words.  Think about the text.  Challenge what it says.
  • Do the text problems as you come to them.  These are placed so as to enhance your understanding and learning of the particular topic they accompany.
  • Do not look at the answer key unless you have an answer or you are totally stumped.  Ask a study buddy for a clue first if you can.
  • If you get a problem wrong, work through the answer on paper until you can reproduce it, and until your understand why each step occurs the way it does. Then try another problem of the same type right away!

Other Useful Study Tips
Genius requires dedication (i.e. work ethic). Enlightenment is not instantaneous.

  • Study chemistry for at least one hour of every day of the week that ends in -day. An hour every day is much better than ten hours on Saturday alone.
  • Start studying early (i.e., the first day of the semester). Seek help early (i.e., as soon as the question occurs, not a week later.)
  • Do not try to write down every word spoken during the lectures. Get the high points, and fill in the details later (see the next point).
  • Rework your notes after each lecture. Work through the notes carefully, and make sure that you understand each concept. Redraw all of the structures. Have the text open and expand upon each point covered in the lecture. Fill in blank spaces or abbreviated material in your notes. Make sure you understand all the material from every lecture. Expand and organize your notes. Making a fresh but neater copy of your notes without adding anything new is a waste of your valuable study time.
  • Focus on really understanding the mechanisms and reactions of organic chemistry. Do not simply memorize everything—this will not work and you will get overwhelmed. Understand the WHY behind reactions and it will make organic chemistry a lot easier. Organize the material that must be memorized. Make flash cards summarizing essential memory bank material, especially reactions. The goal is to minimize memorization.
  • Work lots and lots of problems. You should try to do every problem in every chapter. Get another text or other source of problems if you can. (Ex: Organic Chemistry as a Second Language).
  • Do not scurry to another student, TA, or instructor immediately after deciding that you cannot solve a given problem. Find an appropriate section of the text and read through it carefully. Getting the 'right answer' is not the main point of working the problems; becoming more intimately familiar with chemical concepts is. It is more important to focus on concepts and developing thought processes.
  • Do not spend more than 15 minutes on any one problem. If you haven't solved the problem by that this time, you are probably missing something and further effort is a waste of valuable study time. A review of the text, your lecture notes, or another source of material is called for. Go on to other problems, and return to these difficult ones when you have had a bit more practice.
  • Do ALL the problems associated with the assigned reading, even if they seem irrelevant or basic.  
  • Form study groups. A small groups of students working together often exchange ideas and concepts to the benefit of everyone. Teaching each other is an ideal way to learn chemistry.
  • Think molecules. That is, think about what is happening on the molecular level. “Be the molecule.” Consider where the electrons are, what they are doing, and why they are doing it. Chemistry is much more than equations. You will find this course difficult if you ignore this way of thinking.


Accessed August 2, 2016. 

Used with permission from Steven Hardinger Organic Chem Professor at UCLA.