Michael Mombourquette


There tends to be a large disparity from student to student in first-year Chemistry as to what material a student calls “new” (often quoted to me as “I’ve never seen that before”) and material which is already known (“We took that in high-school”).  You will find throughout the course that students will respond to the material in different ways, depending on their background.  Many will find first-year Chemistry to be largely a repeat of high-school with just a bit of new stuff thrown in while others will find themselves drowning in a sea of new material.

No matter where you find yourselves in this range of experiences, your only way to get a good mark in this course is to keep up daily.  Do the course work as it is assigned and never let yourself get behind by even a few days.  The students who get top marks at the end of the year are not those who came into this course with an “A” since almost all of you did.  The successes will be the ones who keep up for the duration; and by their practice, develop a deep and intimate knowledge of the material, not just the face-value aspects but all the layers of interconnectedness.

Think of learning Chemistry like learning a language.  In language courses, some students will memorize vocabulary and grammar rules and will succeed to a middling grade.  Others will take the language to heart, internalizing nuances and connections to the point that the memorized aspects are second nature and they will be able to go beyond what the prof has taught.  These latter students will have the greatest success.  The same holds in Chemistry.  We want you to do more than just learn a few equations and how to use them.  We want you to be able to answer questions in ways you’ve never seen before.  We want you to be fluent in the language of chemistry.

You will find that topics are often strongly inter-related in this course. If you fail to learn a key concept early in the course, you will find it to be that much harder to grasp a dependent concept later on.  Many students have done well in high school by cramming at the end of the year.  In courses where you simply have to memorize relatively unrelated material. That method may work for you.  In first-year university chemistry, you will face questions on your exams that force you to pull together concepts in ways you’ve never quite seen before in the course.  Without a thorough understanding of why and how each concept works and how multiple concepts are connected, you’ll never be able to pull together the necessary ideas on your exam and you will find yourself “drawing a blank” on your exams far more often than you think possible right now.  In my experience, ‘drawing a blank’ is code for ‘didn’t practice this enough’.


It’s important to remember a few ideas when considering your workload and homework scheduling this year.

  1. You should never let yourself get behind by more than a day or two.
  2. You must always try to get the understanding of why certain methods work, rather than simply memorizing the method.
  3. Do not rely on last minute cramming.  That is a recipe for disaster.  Your final studying for an exam should be a “review” of concepts you already have worked on and a working out of those concepts you are not so sure on.

Here are a few suggestions as to how you can achieve the high results we expect from you as students.

  1. Create your own complete set of notes for the course.
    1. Write out a ‘text-book’ like set of notes for yourself
    2. Make cross-references within the notes you create so that you can better learn the interconnectedness of topics.
    3. Create a glossary of terms in a separate document and keep adding to these terms as you progress in your studies.
  2. When doing the assigned homework problems or practice problems, do more than just ‘solve’ the problem.
    1. For each problem you solve, prepare a set of instructions that you can use to teach someone how to solve the problem.  What assumptions did you make?  What connections to concepts in alternate areas in the course did you need to use?
    2. Use the logic of your answer to prove to yourself that you are correct.  Sometimes, the answer in the text just might be wrong.  You should be able to satisfy yourself that you are correct and the book is wrong if your logic is correct and you have taken no ‘short-cuts’.
    3. These extra paragraphs or explanations will help you immensely when you go back over the material at study time.  You won’t just be looking at a pages of math wondering what you did a few weeks ago to solve that.
  3.  Learning is done better if you engage all your senses.
    1. Read: these notes, the text book and any other material you can find that is helpful.
    2. Write: doing the notes and completing the homework as described above will satisfy much of that but you can also write answers to other students’ queries as you get the chance.
    3. Speak: teach the material to your friends, your kid brother or sister, your pet cat… anything.
    4. Listen: to your Prof, have your friends teach you, listen to the different ways that they might explain something see if you agree or not.
    5. Touch, taste and smell will be reserved for other courses.  Experiencing these, especially the last two are not always a good idea in chemistry.
  4. Work with a group of students, in person if possible but at least through on-line facilities.  Exchanging ideas, taking turns teaching each other, explaining concepts and learning from each other, are all part of the best means of cementing the concepts and interconnections in this (and any) course.

Working Through This Course

These course notes will provide you with a good summary of the content that we will be covering in this course.  All topics that are examinable will be covered in these course notes. There are many sources that contain more detailed information on these topics.  Most textbooks also contain quite a lot of content that we do not cover at all.  Use these notes as your guide through the material and always seek multiple sources to fill in the details when you’re confused or to offer you an alternate explanation for the topics.

The best way to proceed through the course is to work on each module in turn.  Each module will contain several key features:

  1. A set of generalized learning goals.  These will guide you in your thinking as you work through the material.
  2. A set of course notes:  these notes will replace the ‘lecture’ content of a more traditional on-campus course you might attend in person.  Just as you would take and make your own set of notes in a more traditional lecture, you should make a set of notes in your own words.  While making your own notes, you can largely follow the content herein but you will probably need to look for alternate sources of information, such as corresponding text book chapters, other books and papers, and even personal discussions with Profs, TAs and Fellow students.
  3. A set of practice questions designed to help you decide if you have mastered the content.  These questions will have worked answers available in a separate document.  Please try to resist the temptation to look at the answers until you have struggled your way through the problems.

Your brain is a multimedia device.  To best organize and later locate information, it is best if you use as many of your senses as possible.

  1. Listen/Speak:
    1. Find fellow students with whom you can communicate orally.  Take turns ‘teaching’ each other.
    2. Speak concepts out loud if you cannot find a study partner.  ‘Teach’ your shadow or your pet – just speak and listen regularly as part of your learning process..
  2. See:
    1. read your own notes.
    2. read these course notes.
    3. read the textbook.
    4. re-read your homework.
  3. Feel:  do the hand work.
    1. create your own notes
    2. work through the problems on paper and write out explanations of each problem as you do this. (examples of this will be given in the worked problem answers for end of module questions)
  4. We’ll pass on smelling and tasting as good methods of learning chemistry even though at one time even those methods were taught as good important methods.  Now-a-days, we recognize that safety takes a higher priority than we once did.



Michael Mombourquette

If you have any questions, please contact the teaching team from the OnQ homepage.



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