What Happened in Chem 3

It seems like I’m always mentally referring back to the 3rd year of my Chemistry degree for better and worse. I guess with good reason.

If there is perhaps a memory that encapsulates the Chem 3 course it is this. Picture the scene: it’s early December, the days are short, frost is on the ground, the air is biting. We have little more than a week before the first academic semester is up. A group of us are sitting in an organic tutorial group one late Thursday afternoon; instead of working on the coursework problems we are dully recounting the horrors and draining demoralisation of the Physical Lab Reports we’ve had to deal with. The poor tutor can only listen to this monotone release of despair and agree that things seem kinda rough, don’t they? It wasn’t long after that I went to my Director of Studies and wailed: “I’m in need of moral support regarding Chemistry 3!”

Chem 3 was collectively rough. And yet, I think we all pulled through.

***

The background to Chem 3 goes as follows. I was one of about 25 chemists who had gone directly into 2nd year of the Chemistry degree from secondary school. It was the right choice: I’d started off at a level that was suitably challenging but not dauntingly impossible, I’d got a decent-sized social circle of “Chem 2X folk” amidst a 300-strong Chem 2 yeargroup so felt I wasn’t overwhelmed by strangers. I still had enough time to do activities and keep myself happily busy.

I guess the disadvantage of Chem 2X in my case was that I entered the Honours year (3rd year) with the social schedule of someone in their 2nd year of university. I figured I would manage OK to keep things in balance and do well in the academic stuff.

The first blow to collective morale was the Physical Lab Reports. The difficulty here was that half the year-group did the Physical labs and wrote up the lab reports for the experiments before most of the material was covered in the lecture courses. Physical Lab Reports required a lot of theoretical background in them. Thus it felt like we were floundering slightly trying to get the right stuff in. What made matters truly rough was that the Chemistry school was v. strict on submitting the reports in a timely manner…but I only started to get marks & feedback once I’d submitted 50% of my Reports. By then I didn’t have much space to improve things. Physical Lab reports lasted until early December: they consumed a lot of time with software packages and proved hideous things to deal with.

December was the darkest point of Chem 3 for me. It didn’t help that my schedule was still strained to bursting with extra-curriculars. It didn’t help that I was falling behind with writing up lecture notes/sorting out tutorial answers/phasing out in lectures. It didn’t help that there were other issues causing me stress and taking up my time.

I remember being glad to make a trip home for a few days. I sat on the train and watched the scenery roll by; trying to find a reason why it was that I was a chemistry student. It was lucky that I found one, and came back to Edinburgh confident that I was on the right path.

The second blow came around the Easter break time – just before we started revising for exams. I um, actually didn’t understand any of the course material. This was something of a surprise to me, because I honestly thought that I did.

No.

What I’d done was (a) sit in all the lectures copying down all the PowerPoints (b) attend all the tutorials and work through some of the questions and listen to the answers (c) make nice copies of all the lecture notes from which to revise from. None of these truly equated to COMPREHENDING the material. In the last years of secondary school I was able to simply memorise the learning outcomes and get A grades, in Chem 2 I kept steady grades via this approach. Chem 3: no, that wouldn’t work. I needed to actually LEARN and UNDERSTAND the theory.

Thus my Easter was spent in my flat forcing myself to understand Statistical Thermodynamic derivations and the Physical Basis of Organic Reaction Mechanisms. Although I’d left it too little too late to get exceptional grades; I saw clearly that where I’d made the most effort to “re-learn”, my marks were highest.

I was glad to just survive Chem 3. But if I want to merely survive Chem 5MX upon my return to Scotland, I need to up my game considerably.

I’ve come up with the following Learning Outcomes from Chem 3 that I hope I will be smart enough to apply when it’s needed the most.

1. Spent several nights a week at home. Don’t fill your schedule to the brim with extra-curriculars, because then the stuff like lecture notes, tutorial questions and basic comprehension start slipping.

2. Do work BEFORE it’s necessary. I can’t simply go to tutorials and work through the problems there: I need to do the questions beforehand and come to the tutorials with questions and specific issues. I need to read around the lectures before I even view the powerpoints. Else I’ll simply trick myself into thinking I understand stuff when in fact I don’t.

3. Work with an endgame in mind. If you know where you’re going – it is perhaps easier to get there. You need something strong to keep you motivated through the tough stuff.

I don’t think Chem 5MX is going to be any easier than Chem 3. Quite the opposite in fact. I can only hope I’ve learned my lessons before it’s too late.

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