Learning to Learn
with special but not exclusive reference to Chemistry

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Learning is not instinctive

Occasionally around about half-term of the first A level term I have heard comments to the effect that "X has not yet sufficiently mastered the techniques of A level study". If I then asked X about the advice that had been offered concerning study technique, as often as not there had been none. Plenty of criticism, perhaps, of the work so far, but usually regarding its content without much concern as to how it had been acquired. The very few who say this have forgotten that the development of solid understanding is not an instinctive process; knowledge does not fall into your head without any effort. Everyone who teaches you has at some time had to go through the process of learning; there is no short-cut.

This page offers a guide as to what you might do. It does not, by any means, cover all that could be said. There are numerous books available to help you, but the core of what you should do is here.

Knowing something…..

is not the same as knowing the name of something. To know something takes time, real physical effort, and a period of assimilation and reflection. To know something you must develop a whole host of techniques; even if you have coped easily so far there will come a stage where the rate at which you are required to obtain knowledge and understanding will tax any informal techniques that you have to their limit. And, perhaps, beyond – to the point where you start to give up or to lose interest.


Knowing something takes time; do not be tempted to short-cut this time. At first you will feel that everything takes too much time, but do not worry. You are increasing your learning efficiency without realising it, and the more you learn the easier it becomes to learn more. Your learning will become much faster and less effort, I promise you.


Habit governs quite a lot of what we do and are. To achieve something fresh you will probably have to change your habits, that is replace the old, weary, useless habits with fresh and profitable ones. Mostly it comes down to two things: planning and self-discipline.

Busy people do not get through all the things that they have to do by luck; they plan. So must you. It will feel odd at first if you are not used to it, but stick with it and it will pay dividends.

The essentials are:

  • plan your week in outline; perhaps use your computer to generate a weekly diary which has regular commitments already inserted.

  • remember that you have to have a life outside your work, so include social or family items in your plan.

  • remember that if something can go wrong, it will. So your plan must have some space in it to allow for ‘emergencies’, where perhaps the work hasn’t gone as well as you expected or more than the usual demands are made on you.

  • carry a small notebook around with you so that you can use small amounts of time well. Perhaps you could have a list of reactions and you could learn a couple in the few minutes you spend in a supermarket queue or waiting for a bus or train. Learning two equations a day will get you into a lot of Chemistry! A friend of mine learnt German vocabulary whilst shaving; another learnt a lot of Modern Greek in the ten minutes walk to and from work every day. I would no more leave my house without a notebook than I would without my keys.

  • if you are doing nothing, make sure that you have planned to do nothing; don’t do nothing as your default state! If you sit down with your friends for coffee for an intended 20 minutes, don’t let it go to 30 minutes or you will have lost an hour every week, or a whole week in an A level course.


Don’t turn into a control freak – but you must exercise some self-discipline if your work is going to go well. Anthony Trollope wrote 40-odd novels as well as being a full-time official of the Post Office. He managed this (as well as a full social life) by writing before breakfast; he wrote on trains, too. He gave an account of his methods, which included detailed planning before he began to write, but also meant that when he sat down to work he worked and made a conscious effort to concentrate. He did not day-dream, or find all sorts of excuses to do peripheral things which amounted to work avoidance.

Concentration requires effort. Make that effort.

Learning Chemistry

Many of the following points apply to any learning, but Chemistry (and other science) texts have particular characteristics that need care in the reading if they are to yield their secrets accurately.

The essential points are, for each learning period:

  • plan to work for about an hour, but not for much longer without a break

  • use the first five minutes to review the material that you did last that is relevant to your present work

  • resolve to concentrate

  • have a particular target in mind for the current period of study; then

  • skim the content of your target material so that you have an idea of the content and any problems that might arise during its study

  • read the material slowly and in detail; this crucial point is elaborated below

  • re-cast the material into different form, e.g. flow charts, diagrams, lists, mind-maps. Do NOT make pretty notes with carefully underlined headings; you want information in your head, not in your files

  • skim the material again to get another overview, this time illuminated with greater knowledge

  • TEST YOURSELF – also elaborated below

  • assess your understanding and go back over the points which have caused difficulty; if you cannot sort them out WRITE DOWN QUESTIONS to ask your teacher. Do not fail to do this; you will forget, otherwise. This is not an opinion; it is true.

  • a few days later skim the material again to reinforce your learning.


All of you can read. How do you read? Slowly? Try to increase your reading speed (there are books to help you do this). At a constant speed? DON’T!

Have a look at the two extracts shown . That on the left  is the opening of Chapter 27 of Anthony Trollope’s ‘The Small House at Allington’; that on the right is part of page 134 of Atkins PW et al, ‘Chemistry: Principles and Applications’, Longman 1988.



allington.gif (10703 bytes)

typical_page_annotated.gif (24348 bytes)

You do not need to be able to read the words; before you read any more of mine, jot down the differences between the two pages and perhaps suggest how they might differ in the way that they are read.

A novel consists of a block of text only. Unless you are reading it for the purposes of literary analysis, your reading speed will be more or less constant, and you will start at the beginning of the page and turn over when you get to the end of it. Chemistry texts must be treated in a totally different way; if your reading speed is constant you will miss most of what the page contains.

This is because the page contains five of the six basic building blocks of any chemistry text; these are

  1. text

  2. chemical equations

  3. graphs

  4. diagrams

  5. mathematical equations

  6. tables.

In addition you will often have photographs, although my all-time favourite text (Kneen, Rogers & Simpson, ‘Chemistry: Facts, Patterns and Principles’. Addison-Wesley, 1972) has none. Nor does it use colour….you see how ascetic I am!

The only one of these five that can even remotely be treated like a novel is the text part. Everything else requires action, physical activity. You cannot read a textbook without paper and pen.


Chemical equations
These are the very stuff of chemical writing; but unless you make a conscious effort to deal with them, you are liable to skim them as though they were text. If you do this you will never learn them. It is not necessary to understand every aspect of them to learn them, so don’t use this as an excuse. Understanding comes from learning and reflection, much of it unconscious. So:

  • write out every equation you come across that is new to you

  • check that it balances for charge and for mass – textbooks aren’t infallible

  • organic reactions should be written so that they balance, and should be written structurally, not as condensed formulae

  • learn the conditions associated with a particular reaction

  • try to see the reaction in your mind’s eye – does it describe liquids, solids, gases? What colours might you see? Are there precipitates?

  • NEVER encounter an equation without learning it. You cannot know too many.

A graph can contain a great deal of information. Sometimes it can be misleading – indeed most political parties will at some time or other use graphs with scales designed to puff up their own performance and denigrate that of their opponents. Hopefully chemistry texts do not do this. But you must extract all the information possible from a graph before leaving it. So:

  • sketch a copy of the graph

  • look carefully at the labels on the axes

  • look carefully at the starting and finishing points of the line; whether it is linear, or is a curve and if it is what special features there are about the curve. How do the slopes change? What do they mean? Where are the points of inflexion, if any? What is their significance?

  • if you cannot answer these questions, ask someone who can. You must understand a graph; it is not enough simply to be able to reproduce it.

Many of the comments concerning graphs apply to diagrams as well.

  • make a copy of the diagram and be clear what sort it is; is it an energy-level diagram or that of a piece of apparatus?

  • note carefully any critical details - a refluxing apparatus, for example, does not have a stopper in the top

  • try to relate the diagrams of apparatus to the function; you should know what each part of the apparatus is for and how it forms part of the whole.


Mathematical equations

Like chemical equations, mathematical equations are very dense in information content. Like chemical equations, they have to be perceived in detail, so:

  • copy the equation

  • try to see what it means; if you cannot do so, ask someone who can.

  • work through the steps of a mathematical argument for yourself and see if you can come to the same conclusion as the textbook. If you can’t, work at it until you can or are convinced that you need help.


Tables contain a great deal of information, and it can be rather dazzling. A table needs to be treated with care; in particular you should

  • look carefully at the column headings - note any units or multiplying factors, for example.

  • look carefully at the row labels, and see if there is a trend in these. For example the table may deal with a particular Periodic Table group, or with a homologous series of alkanes.

  • be prepred to re-cast the information to get the maximum value from it. A fairly obvious way is to plot a sketch graph of whatever part of the data you're considering, this having the advantage of registering in your visual memory. You remember pictures much better than you do tables.


Don't leave a table behind until you're convinced that you have seen all that it has to offer.

Testing, testing...

After you have completed your target work, it's essential that you test yourself. This can be done by seeing if you can write out the main points. Can you write out all the equations? Can you reproduce the diagrams? Can you understand the graphs and reproduce them? You must be able to do all of these things; if you can't, then you haven't learnt the work. Self-testing is very important; do not neglect it.

Writing – homework, assignments . . .

"Easy writing is damned hard reading". I can’t remember who said this, but it is true. There are no easy routes to good written work, but the correct initial approach will make writing much easier and will improve your understanding of chemistry. There are three main features:

  1. planning and researching your work

  2. writing your work

  3. re-reading your work – critically!

In addition you need to think carefully about how you might use IT.

Planning and research
Content is everything. Well, almost everything. You can’t present a piece of writing until

  • you have something to say, and

  • you cannot say anything until you have done some information gathering, and

  • you must arrange this information into a coherent form.

The planning of any written work is actually the largest part of the task. Don’t shirk it. It may be the arrangement of material you know pretty well, but even so you must check at every stage that what you have written is accurate and makes sense.

The planning for this page was done over a period of time, with jottings here and there. The bit of paper that has the plan on my desk as I write is itself a distillation of much else.

Much of a modern chemistry examination requires fairly short answers. This is changing, however, and the latest syllabuses have been drawn up with the (belatedly acquired) realisation that long answers are valuable. They teach the skills of organising ideas. The principle of planning is no different, though, for a 4-mark answer or a 10-mark answer. Think what to say before you start to write; then you won’t repeat the question or get lost, only to find you’ve used up all the space and have still not answered the question. To plan a larger piece of work you have to assemble all your material, and this may have to come from several sources. Research in a library is a pretty physical type of activity; selecting a book, finding the information, noting it, finding another book, and so on. You have to know how to use books.

Using books.
Textbooks are not usually meant to be read continuously from cover to cover. You need to know how to use them; by far the most important part of any textbook is its index. Sadly you are here in the hands of the publisher, who might have paid for an extremely comprehensive index, or who may have short-circuited this most vital part of the task and therefore have left you with a textbook that is very difficult to navigate. In using an index you will need to have not only the main word or idea that you’re looking for, but also have some synonyms or related words. Thus you might be interested in alkanes; you could find them under petroleum, or hydrocarbons, or even paraffins. Develop the skill of finding synonyms, and then list all of the page references. Then look them up, accepting that half of them may be useless for your purpose.

As well as using the index, you should also have an overall picture of what any book that you intend to use repeatedly contains. Scan the contents page, so that you have some background information; have a quick look at the subheadings in the chapter(s) that cover the work you are currently doing. This is not learning, but is part of the background that will surface when you need it.

Notes from books should be concise. Do not copy them out. Graphs and diagrams, and equations, however, do need to be copied with great care. Consider whether a photocopy might be useful of an article or part of a book – but remember copyright restrictions. Extracts from most books can be singly copied for private research, but some (including maps and music) may be excluded from this dispensation.

A feature that distinguishes good chemical writing from the merely competent is that good writing puts quantitative data in. Thus a discussion of the melting temperatures of metals, say, could come up with some vague generalisation; or there could be a table of values culled from the data book. You don't have to learn the values, but it will stop daft statements along the lines of 'potassium is a metal and has a relatively high melting temperature'. Apart from the question of what its melting temperature is related to, its value is actually well below 100oC.

Make a friend of your Data Book! If you haven't got one, get one. The Nuffield Data Book is excellent, as is that by Stark and Wallace.

Using the Internet
Recently I had a letter asking where particular information could be found on the Internet. The writer had spent four hours looking for it. A pity - all of it could have been gleaned from a book in half-an-hour. Use the obvious technology first; the Internet is fine if you want something special or hard-to-get, but run-of-the-mill A level material should be in your textbook. When you do use the net, have a clear idea of what you are after; don't just 'surf'.

I don’t think that examination questions are necessarily very good questions for teaching. Even in chemistry, where extended writing is relatively rare in modern exams, the ability to write concisely and accurately at length is valuable. If you can write long articles crisply, you should be able to do the same for short ones.

The main points:

  1. Have your material assembled well before the deadline for your work

  2. Sketch out a rough draft of what you want to say; this could be as a flowchart, or some other sort of diagram, or as a list

  3. Write – thinking as you do so, so that you have the sentences, diagrams, whatever in your mind before they become crystallised on paper.

  4. If you do not like what you have written or if the meaning is not clear, re-do it! Critical editing is a vital part of all writing.

  5. You must aim for the best possible account that you can manage.

  6. This work must be presented on time. That is part of your professional responsibility to your teachers. Teaching is a two-way process.

There is another point that is very important. Read this carefully.

IT, or not?
Information technology is of course important in all spheres of life. That does not mean it is always appropriate, though, to use the highest technology. The greatest technological invention by far, responsible for the spread of literacy and the advancement of knowledge throughout the world, was……


Pen and paper have been with you ever since you started learning. It amazes me still that so many people have little idea how to use them! The presentation of your work is very important; poor writing is not only an insult to the reader, it is potentially misleading in sciences where words such as alkene and alkane mean completely different things.

Making a mark on paper modifies all of the space around it. Graphic designers are well aware of this; the effective use of space is just as important as typographic design or the use of colour. The same is true of hand-written material. Some writing is easy to read (it may, oddly, not even be very neat) because it is well-spaced on the page. It has adequate margins, and the line width is great enough to allow ascending and descending strokes without them becoming tangled in other lines of writing. Standard ruled papers come in 7mm or 8mm rulings. I strongly believe that no-one has writing that looks good on narrow lined (7mm) paper. Don’t use it.

I have a writing technique that I took from medieval scribes. If you use lined paper try writing between the lines rather than on them. The picture shows the difference (1).

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You should write with an implement with which you feel comfortable. Formal writing should not be done in pencil – apart from anything else it smudges and can be very hard to read because of a lack of contrast. At one time people took the view that ‘proper’ writing was done in fountain pen, a ballpoint being an anathema. Fifty years on from my primary school teaching I still cannot pick up a ball-pen without a brief twinge of guilt! Write in ink; avoid bizarre colours; but choose whatever pen you like best. If your writing is poor, make a conscious effort to improve it. Legible writing generally has a consistent slope and is not excessively ornamented.

So, what about the word-processor? On the whole I prefer that students do not use one for routine work in chemistry, and certainly not for graphs or diagrams. My reasons are these:

  1. chemistry makes heavy use of formulae and structures; good drawing packages for these are very expensive and are time-consuming to use

  2. chemistry makes heavy use of graphs and diagrams, and drawing on a computer is time-consuming

  3. graph plotting is a skill that needs to be learnt; computers are too stupid to do it properly without a lot of fiddling that is very time-consuming.

What I tell you three times is true (2). In other words your own CPU between your ears is much more efficient than your computer in dealing with the complex notational and pictorial material that is chemistry; you will then have more time to do other things, including more chemistry.

When you have completed your work (in time!) you must re-read it critically. This is remarkably difficult, because you tend to read what you intended to write rather than what you did write. Nevertheless time spent on the evaluation of your own work is time well spent; you will have a better overview of the whole, and you should be able to eliminate at least the majority of silly errors.

Plagiarism is stealing other peoples’ ideas and presenting them as your own. Obviously in chemistry we are all dealing with the same universe, so that the quoting of a particular reaction or accepted interpretation of physical law is hardly plagiarism! But do not quote long passages from textbooks; apart from the tedium of doing this, you will not improve your understanding one jot.


Effective learning needs time, planning, effort, time, concentration, time. Follow the advice given here, and you will not only learn chemistry, but will acquire learning ‘skills’ (ghastly word) that will stand you in good stead whatever you choose to do.


(1) The lines are taken from verse LI of the first edition of the ‘translation’ by Edward Fitzgerald (1859) of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.. Khayyam was born in Naishapur, Persia (now Iran) in the latter half of the 12th century. How much of the translation is Khayyam and how much is Fitzgerald is a matter of debate, but it is a wonderful poem and has influenced me greatly. Verse LI is a pretty good exposition of the Second Law of Thermodynamics! The whole of the poem is here on my site.


The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.


(2) In Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ a number of people and animals whose names all begin with B embark on a sea voyage to find the Snark. No-one knows what the Snark is, but the first landfall is viewed optimistically by the leader of the expedition, the Bellman:

‘Just the place for a Snark!’, the Bellman cried,
As he landed his crew with care,
Supporting each man at the top of the tide
With a finger entwined in his hair.

‘Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice;
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark; I have said it thrice.
What I tell you three times is true.’

I thought of this immediately I heard ‘Education, education, education.’ Irony, of course. The Snark turned out to be a Boojum.

Carroll’s more famous offerings concerning Alice have a Westminster link. Alice Liddell was the daughter of Henry Liddell, Head Master of Westminster School in 1852 when Alice was born, subsequently Dean of Christ Church Oxford where Carroll was a mathematics don. Liddell was the co-author of Liddell and Scott, an enormous Greek lexicon still in use; Alice was born in 19 Dean’s Yard, now Liddell’s House, Westminster School.