5 ways to improve your confidence in chemical calculations

A Level chemistry includes a lot of calculations. As one of my students put it to me in a recent lesson ‘Ugh! Science maths is the worst maths, because there’s so much else going on!’

It’s not surprising, therefore, that many students get anxious when faced with challenging chemical calculations. Throughout April I’ll be focusing on calculations tips for A Level chemistry students – this post starts with some strategies for how to revise and practice calculations questions to avoid anxiety.

Stay in your challenge zone

You might be familiar with the idea of ‘zones’ of working – comfort, challenge and stress. We should also know that the best learning happens in the challenge zone – we need to try things we can’t do rather than repeating easy tasks. However, what do we do if the difficulty of the work sends us into the ‘stress’ zone? That’s not an effective way of working, and the response of many students is to step down the difficulty of the questions. However, this means you’ll never get to practise the things you need to.

The best learning happens in your challenge zone – it’s uncomfortable, but not so stressful that you can’t focus.

Instead of giving up on difficult questions and swapping them for easier tasks, change the conditions under which you try the harder questions so that they are less stressful. You could try tackling them with a classmate, teacher or tutor there for support. Use a whiteboard so you can rub out mistakes. Try to describe how you would step through the question rather than trying to immediately get to the answer. Alternatively, you could look up the final answer in a mark scheme so that you know what you are working towards, and try to see how you would get there.

Practice calculations and video answers can be found on my website here.

Want some more support to take you out of your comfort zone? You can attend my free live lesson on calculations from experiments on Monday 6th November at 6.30pm – sign up here!

Try ‘open goal’ questions

An open goal question is where you simply take some information and see how many different things you can work out. You can use the start of any calculation question and just ignore what it’s asking you to calculate – see how many things you can calculate. You can also start just with any balanced equation and put in a random value. For example, you could take the following equation:

CaCO₃ + 2HCl → CaCl₂ + H₂O + CO₂

Starting with 18 grams of calcium carbonate and a 1 mol dm¯³ solution of acid, what other numbers can you work out? (Examples could be moles, massses, gas volumes, concentration and volume of solutions, number of particles, pH…)

There are two ways this helps you with revision. Firstly, it takes away the stress of trying to come up with a single final ‘right’ answer. Secondly, it gets you in the habit of working out what you do know, and what you could work out from the information provided.

Make notes on how you solve calculation problems

While it’s true that doing calculations is one of the best ways to revise, it doesn’t mean that you should skip out the note-making process entirely. Try writing out methods for solving equations like you would notes on anything else. Use example videos on YouTube and try to make the notes so that they make sense to you. Include diagrams or images – particularly if the question involves experimental measurements.

Looking for the best YouTube channels for A Level chemistry? Check out my post here.

Do a range of practice questions under timed conditions

You shouldn’t ever feel like you’ve run out of calculation questions – for one thing, doing the same questions again doesn’t matter as it’s highly unlikely you’ll remember the final answers! When you have built up your confidence using the strategies above, now is the time to try a range of questions under timed conditions. Only add this pressure once you’ve given yourself time and space to practice, otherwise you’ll go right back into stress mode! You can then extend your repertoire by trying calculation questions from different exam boards – there are very few differences between specifications when it comes to the content of calculation questions.

Practice calculations and video answers can be found on my website here.

Be aware of emotional responses

Being aware of potentially negative emotions is a powerful tool. You don’t need to try to change anything – no one is expecting you to magically generate some great positive feelings about a titration calculation! But simply by stopping and making yourself aware of any thoughts or feelings that come up during revision, you’re allowing yourself to be less controlled by them. Also take time to remind yourself how far you’ve come. 

Don’t try to force stress or anxiety away – this rarely works. Acknowledge the way you are feeling and carry on – you’ll realise you can actually survive the task!

Try looking back on something that you found challenging initially, but are now confident in. Remind yourself that there were times you thought you would never be able to achieve something, but that you did achieve it. This exercise doesn’t even have to be about calculations – it works in any area of life to help you feel more confident and capable of making progress.

Want some more support to take you out of your comfort zone? You can attend my free live lesson on calculations from experiments on Monday 6th November at 6.30pm – sign up here!

Claire Costello-Kelly

Claire Costello-Kelly

Related Post