Chemistry might seem like a monster of a subject to study. Topics under physical chemistry usually include a lot of things like calculations (think: ionic equilibria, electrochemistry and energetics). And then topics under organic chemistry are more like solving a puzzle (think: how do I get a carbonyl group to become a carboxylic acid). The skills you need to study for A Levels are indeed many. Hence, this article on How to A Levels will teach you how to study for each topic using different techniques!
Physical Chemistry has the most topics in them – and has great breadth in its requirements for studying. The skills required to practice are split into two main categories: some topics are very calculations heavy – requiring a lot of mathematic work. These topics include Stoichiometry, Gases and Electrochemistry. Other topics are about creating generalisations, knowing trends and memorising certain characteristics. These include topics such as Chemical Bonding, Atomic Structure and Equilibrium. Note that all topics are probably a bit of both, but that these two skills are very important.
To study for physical chemistry, the first thing you should know is what exactly you are weak at, and what exact skills you want to develop. If you’re more towards not being able to answer questions that require patterns or generalisations, I first recommend looking at the learning objectives on SEAB to see what exactly you need to know about these trends. Then, from there create studying sheets of the principles you need to know. When tackling a question that might appear unfamiliar, instead of giving up and looking at it in despair, dissect it to all its relevant topics and the relevant principles and trends that are related to the topic. From there you might be able to know what to write when it comes to answering open-ended questions.
For the mathematical portion, learning objectives might not help as much as practice. Practicing mathematical questions will allow you to handle the numbers without fear. I think a lot of students get scared of the significant figures and endless decimal places. So familiarity can only be built up with practice. Secondly, breaking down the question into portions is highly beneficial. If a question is ever too unwieldy or difficult, break down every single piece of information you have, calculate all the numbers, and then try to connect the dots slowly sentence after sentence.
Organic chemistry requires a bit of everything – drawing, memorising, knowing a few equations (iodoform for example). Hence, for organic chemistry, I recommend that you create your own summary sheets and mind maps to visualise the compounds at each and every stage. The summary sheets should also include things like comparisons and how things differ from one another. For example, this is my hydroxy summary sheet below.
Using Learning Objectives for organic chemistry might not help as much because each compound is unique and probably won’t have a fixed answer in which you can dump an explanation like for chemical bonding or atomic structure. However, they can be used to structure how to create your summary sheets if you are unable to create your own. Use each learning objective as a question to answer and then create a summary guide using the answers to each learning objective.
Since this is very much a VISUAL kind of topic, draw as much as possible and use the drawings to your advantage. Draw out things you do not understand – if a question is asking to compare a chlorobenzene and benzene ring, sometimes drawing the two compounds out will help you compare the both of them. Often enough it is what you can see from the compound that will inform you what to do.
After creating summary sheets and mind maps, I’d recommend creating a Standard of Procedure for tackling any organic chemistry problem. A Standard of Procedure is basically a list of structured steps you go through when you encounter a situation. For synthesis questions, mine was this:
- Identify and name all the relevant groups of the start compound, and be specific (not just alcohol group, a tertiary alcohol group for example)
- Identify and name all the relevant groups of the end compound and be equally specific
- Associate reactions that are relevant to the starting compound, and try to match which group becomes which part of the end compound
This is important because it helps you tackle any question with structure – and makes you think about everything so you won’t miss anything out. Some people might do this subconsciously, but if you’re someone who struggles, then it would be good to have an instruction manual of what to look out for, especially when you are stuck or blank during an exam.
For most Junior College students, inorganic chemistry is something we study…last. It’s the one students study “if you have the time.” A lot of us don’t realise that topics like halogens and transition metals also can carry a lot of weight – worse still it comes out as a relatively simpler question on Paper 3 and by instinct you skip the question.
Once one of my classmates asked, “sir how to memorise inorganic chemistry” to which my teacher replied, “well, um, it helps to be smart lah.” And while…it does help to smart, there are plenty of ways in which you can learn to “memorise” inorganic chemistry.
First form patterns and create your own generalisations to cut down what you actually need to memorise – the good thing about science is that usually there are patterns to follow. Group together the things that can be memorised together, and then memorise the exceptions last. There are also set answers to some kinds of questions, like F being the most electronegative atom or answers to transition metal questions. These kind of explanations can be memorised by breaking down each explanation into several points. So if a “set answer” has five points, then make sure ti account for five points in your answers.
Practicing Questions that Combine Topics
While the above mentioned how to revise for individual topics or sections of chemistry, a lot of the time questions will interweave all sorts of topics. What is nevertheless important is to be able to see what topics are being tested, and what are the usual kind of trends or characteristics of this topic you need to apply. All pieces of information in a question must have some sort of association with a concept you learned within a topic. So don’t look at a question and say oh this electrochemistry and transition metals combined. Think about what specifically is tested on electrochemistry (calculations, for example) and transition metals (changing colours, for example). Then you will be able to see specifically what you will need to do from there.
It is also like building a standard of procedure of sorts for all topics such that when you reach any question you will be able to pull out a checklist to see what skills and knowledge you need to apply for that question.
Tackling An Exam
Lastly, three tips on how to tackle an exam.
- Overcome your fear!! Especially for the papers that let you choose your own questions (this also being applicable to GP, Literature, Bio, doesn’t matter). You might have fear or trauma for certain topics (like ionic equilibrium) but break down how much of each question you don’t actually know. Go in with a clear mind and learning how to remain calm during an exam may be the best asset you have.
- Do not NOT study a topic. In other words, study everything, don’t skip topics. At least have some sort of baseline understanding or what the key principles of each topic are. This is important because you should never “bet” that a certain topic won’t come out, especially during the A level exams.
- Create a way in which you can tackle a question such that you won’t feel stressed if something new comes up. For example, will you skip a question? Or will you immediately dissect it, write down all the things you can understand about the question and have a preliminary shot at it before skipping it? It really depends on you! But make sure you have a way to cope with uncertainty during an exam (to be prepared for anything, essentially).
With this article, hope that Chemistry isn’t as scary as you might think! Happy Studying.