Introductory Chemistry: A Foundation - Zumdahl S.S., DeCoste D.J. 2019

Chemistry: An Introduction
Learning Chemistry


· To develop successful strategies for learning chemistry.

Chemistry courses have a universal reputation for being difficult. There are some good reasons for this. For one thing, the language of chemistry is unfamiliar in the beginning; many terms and definitions need to be memorized. As with any language, you must know the vocabulary before you can communicate effectively. We will try to help you by pointing out those things that need to be memorized.

But memorization is only the beginning. Don’t stop there or your experience with chemistry will be frustrating. Be willing to do some thinking, and learn to trust yourself to figure things out. To solve a typical chemistry problem, you must sort through the given information and decide what is really crucial.

It is important to realize that chemical systems tend to be complicated—there are typically many components—and we must make approximations in describing them. Therefore, trial and error play a major role in solving chemical problems. In tackling a complicated system, a practicing chemist really does not expect to be right the first time he or she analyzes the problem. The usual practice is to make several simplifying assumptions and then give it a try. If the answer obtained doesn’t make sense, the chemist adjusts the assumptions, using feedback from the first attempt, and tries again. The point is this: in dealing with chemical systems, do not expect to understand immediately everything that is going on. In fact, it is typical (even for an experienced chemist) not to understand at first. Make an attempt to solve the problem and then analyze the feedback. It is no disaster to make a mistake as long as you learn from it.

The only way to develop your confidence as a problem solver is to practice solving problems. To help you, this book contains examples worked out in detail. Follow these through carefully, making sure you understand each step. These examples are usually followed by a similar exercise (called a self-check exercise) that you should try on your own (detailed solutions of the self-check exercises are given at the end of each chapter). Use the self-check exercises to test whether you are understanding the material as you go along.

Chemistry in Focus Chemistry: An Important Component of Your Education

What is the purpose of education? Because you are spending considerable time, energy, and money to pursue an education, this is an important question.

Some people seem to equate education with the storage of facts in the brain. These people apparently believe that education simply means memorizing the answers to all of life’s present and future problems. Although this is clearly unreasonable, many students seem to behave as though this were their guiding principle. These students want to memorize lists of facts and to reproduce them on tests. They regard as unfair any exam questions that require some original thought or some processing of information. Indeed, it might be tempting to reduce education to a simple filling up with facts because that approach can produce short-term satisfaction for both student and teacher. And of course, storing facts in the brain is important. You cannot function without knowing that red means stop, electricity is hazardous, ice is slippery, and so on.

However, mere recall of abstract information, without the ability to process it, makes you little better than a talking encyclopedia. Former students always seem to bring the same message when they return to campus. The characteristics that are most important to their success are a knowledge of the fundamentals of their fields, the ability to recognize and solve problems, and the ability to communicate effectively. They also emphasize the importance of a high level of motivation.

How does studying chemistry help you achieve these characteristics? The fact that chemical systems are complicated is really a blessing, although one that is well disguised. Studying chemistry will not by itself make you a good problem solver, but it can help you develop a positive, aggressive attitude toward problem solving and can help boost your confidence. Learning to “think like a chemist” can be valuable to anyone in any field. In fact, the chemical industry is heavily populated at all levels and in all areas by chemists and chemical engineers. People who were trained as chemical professionals often excel not only in chemical research and production but also in the areas of personnel, marketing, sales, development, finance, and management. The point is that much of what you learn in this course can be applied to any field of endeavor. So be careful not to take too narrow a view of this course. Try to look beyond short-term frustration to long-term benefits. It may not be easy to learn to be a good problem solver, but it’s well worth the effort.

See Problem 1.18

There are questions and problems at the end of each chapter. The questions review the basic concepts of the chapter and give you an opportunity to check whether you properly understand the vocabulary introduced. Some of the problems are really just exercises that are very similar to examples done in the chapter. If you understand the material in the chapter, you should be able to do these exercises in a straightforward way. Other problems require more creativity. These contain a knowledge gap—some unfamiliar territory that you must cross—and call for thought and patience on your part. For this course to be really useful to you, it is important to go beyond the questions and exercises. Life offers us many exercises, routine events that we deal with rather automatically, but the real challenges in life are true problems. This course can help you become a more creative problem solver.

Chemistry: An Important Component of Your Education


Students discussing a chemistry experiment.

As you do homework, be sure to use the problems correctly. If you cannot do a particular problem, do not immediately look at the solution. Review the relevant material in the text, then try the problem again. Don’t be afraid to struggle with a problem. Looking at the solution as soon as you get stuck short-circuits the learning process.

Learning chemistry takes time. Use all the resources available to you, and study on a regular basis. Don’t expect too much of yourself too soon. You may not understand everything at first, and you may not be able to do many of the problems the first time you try them. This is normal. It doesn’t mean you can’t learn chemistry. Just remember to keep working and to keep learning from your mistakes, and you will make steady progress.