Chemistry ‘O’ Levels: Understanding the Fundamentals

As a topic of study, chemistry is one of the more challenging subjects for students to master. For one, much of chemistry is rather abstract when taught to the novice. Unlike the other topics in the triumvirate of science taught in schools, it is tough for students to relate to such concepts that they can’t observe. Physics, for example, can be explained through phenomena and by connecting new concepts to what students might see. Biology is similarly relatable when scientific specimens can be discussed in detail during class time, allowing students to associate terms with what they see.

Aside from the obvious importance of chemistry as part of the scoring system for GCSE “O” and “A” level examinations, a strong mastery in the topic builds towards understanding complex yet abstract concepts in the future. The goal is then, to not teach by rote memorisation, but rather imparting skills to students to help understand the core concepts underpinning chemistry.

What steps can you take to grasp chemistry concepts?

Build up a strong foundation of concepts

One of the steps that can be taken to help students grasp chemistry concepts would be to place greater emphasis on the core chemistry topics that comprise the syllabus. A chemical equation, when written down with respective symbols, might be frustrating for a student to solve unless the latter fully understands what each symbol stands for and how they interact. Rather than constant repetition as a way to learn chemical equations, more attention should be paid towards laying the foundations for understanding the respective thesis behind each concept.

To further endeavour for success in chemistry, students should also know the periodic table and be able to read it comfortably. Memorisation is not necessary in this regard, but a baseline level of understanding is definitely crucial.

Understanding the link between topics

Understanding core concepts is just the first step towards success. In the context of examination and assessment, multiple questions will require students to combine and analyse topics within the syllabus concurrently. Building upon foundational comprehension of each individual topic, students must then understand how various concepts interact in relation to each other.

For example, a question might test a student’s knowledge about elements, compounds, and mixtures, and how the processes that go into how to separate them. Knowing how these topics interrelate is another key to achieving ideal results in examinations.

Practise with ten-year series

The mistake that tutors and educators tend to make is that they confuse practice and rote learning as the same thing. In the case of the ten-year series, which is a collection of past year papers that span ten years, the mistake that educators may make is that they use it as a basis of learning. Instead, these ten-year series should be used as a way for students to gain confidence after fully understanding the basics, allowing them to put their knowledge into practice. It should by no means be a way to teach, but rather to sharpen and practice.

The advantage of the ten-year series is that the questions within may be a little more challenging, which exposes students to more diverse methods of problem-solving. Faced with new challenges and having to think on the spot, it equips students with the ability to critically analyse and problem solve independently as opposed to just using rote learning techniques in order to answer questions.

Understand question requirements

The final step towards grasping chemistry concepts and achieving success, whether for organic chemistry or mole chemistry, is to thoroughly understand the question requirements. Often each question will be loaded with a directive word and ensuing keyword that help identify the topics tested. Directive words are verbs such as “define”, “explain”, or “describe” which instructs the students to answer the question in a specific manner.

Being able to pay attention to these directive words and understanding the keywords that outline the topics for each question should provide students with an advantage when it comes to answering questions. Functioning almost like a hint, these signposts are a way for students to quickly grasp the topic and begin formulating answers. 

Engage FamilyTutor for your child

Ultimately, by first fully understanding the thesis behind each core concept and how they relate to each other in the study of chemistry, students should face less challenges with grasping the subject in its entirety. If you’re a parent who finds their child struggling with academia, sign up with FamilyTutor to find a holistic process-based science tutor today. If you are an experienced chemistry tutor and wish to impart such skills to students, sign up online to become a home tutor with us!



Carelle is a teacher who has been through the ups and downs of the teacher and learner life. She wishes for every learner to gain educational satisfaction that will help embody the people they want to be in the future.

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