What They Don’t Tell You in “Teaching Chemistry 101”

FYI: Science and Chemistry are Not a Piece of Cake

Chemistry. This may be a word that stresses many people out. It is an incredibly difficult topic to learn; I can vouch for that. You would think that once you have grasped the main concepts, teaching it would be a breeze, right? Uh, wrong.

Teaching science in general is a very challenging task, but here I will specifically be discussing teaching chemistry. There are many struggles that I have come to learn whether through courses or experience, and I believe addressing these could help others, including myself, when it comes time to be the leader of my own classroom.

Let’s get to it!

The Brains of Our Students

The first time students step into the chemistry classroom, their minds are already full of chemistry knowledge; even if it is inaccurate. Students are not blank slates, and they will have misconceptions regarding:

  • Molecular structure
  • Phase changes
  • Reactions
  • Acids & bases
  • Experimental methods
  • The list goes on and on and on…

These often stem from life itself or their previous science courses. It is likely that all students will hold different misconceptions, and somehow we must address each and every one of them to ensure all of our students understand chemistry, rather than just memorize the answers to questions. This is quite difficult to do, and especially time consuming.

So, what can we do?

Formative assessments are crucial to pinpointing misconceptions in a timely manner. These should be given frequently with new concepts to ensure that we actually know what is going on in those students’ noggins.

The data from formative assessments provides us with information on what we need to discuss to keep moving forward.


You may be thinking, but what if I don’t have time to discuss a misconception, or maybe a student’s question?! I totally get it. We can have all of the plans in the world and sometimes they just don’t go the way we want them to. Take a deep breath, and be flexible:

  • Be ready to shift lessons around.
  • Be ready to breeze over some topics and stay on others for days.
  • Be ready to create backup plans.
  • Be ready to ditch plans.

Taking a Step Back

This is a teaching challenge that I have discovered during my experiences in the chemistry classroom. I would love to hear if anyone else has struggled with this in the past. Comment down below!

Picture this: A student asks a question about why things dissolve. The class is currently learning about intermolecular forces, and the student is confused how an intermolecular force, hydrogen bonding, can override an ionic bond when dissolving salt. Ionic bonds are stronger than hydrogen bonding, so it’s a difficult question. The first thing I want to discuss to help answer that question is the natural preference of entropy in a system.

Guess what, I can’t talk about entropy. I need to take a step back and realize that I cannot use everything I know to explain topics to a student. This student has no idea what entropy is, and may not learn that ever. I cannot teach entropy without Gibbs free energy, and I cannot teach Gibbs free energy without teaching thermochemistry.

In conclusion, I have needed to take a step back many times and realize that I need to explain things in a way that students can actually grasp using the information they already hold. That has been difficult for me at times, and honestly I feel I will only learn to handle these types of questions with experience.

We teach to help students, not to show off what we know!

Microscopic to Macroscopic

Johnstone’s Triangle provides a great visual of the three representation methods of chemistry topics.

Most chemistry is taught at the microscopic (particulate) and symbolic levels. As we know, students cannot actually see anything at these levels, therefore they are not applied to real life in these contexts.

That’s the problem: chemistry can be quite difficult to connect to the macroscopic representational level. Even though it is difficult, it needs to happen so students can make connections between lessons and things they see in everyday life. Connections are key to learning.

Before you finalize your lesson, ask yourself this: If this was new to me, would I be interested in it? Why or why not? If your answer is no, change that by making it macroscopic. For example:

  • Discuss water in Flint, Michigan when discussing aqueous solutions.
  • Bring in bread when discussing the production of gases in chemical reactions. Oh, so that’s why bread is fluffy?!
  • When introducing acids and bases, put up images of foods that are acidic and basic so students can recall how those tasted and make connections to  acid/base traits.
The Microscopic or Particulate Perspective

Make it macro, but never forget to focus on the particulate level as well.

It’s guaranteed you’ll get the following question from students:

So why do I need to learn this?

Macro will tell them why.


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