Tag Archives: studying

Let’s add beryllium powder

‘Beryllium’ page from Theodore Gray’s book, The Elements

Initial condition

  • H2(g): 0.70 mol
  • He(g): 1.00 mol
  • Li(s): 0.40 mol (still solid: it melts at 180.5 degrees)
  • LiH(s): 0.60 mol
  • Pressure = 525.5 kPa
  • Temperature = 99°C

No reactions!

Beryllium doesn’t react with any of the things in the vessel: H2(g), He(g), Li(s) or LiH(s). My one mole of beryllium powder (which would cost me over $70) would just sit at the bottom of the vessel doing nothing.

With not much else to write about in the Periodic Table Smoothie this week, it might be a good idea to calculate how much this Periodic Table Smoothie would have cost in real life.

Element Cost per kg[1]  Molar mass  Cost per mole
H2  $              4.00 2  $       0.008
He  $            52.00 4  $       0.21
Li  $          270.00 6.941  $       1.87
Be  $      7,840.00 9.01  $    70.64
B (next week)  $    11,140.00 10.811  $  120.43
TOTAL cost of 1.00 mol of each of the first five elements  $        193.16


The addition of beryllium was highly uneventful. The vessel still contains the following:

  • H2(g): 0.70 mol
  • He(g): 1.00 mol
  • Li(s): 0.40 mol (still solid: it melts at 180.5 degrees)
  • LiH(s): 0.60 mol
  • Pressure = 525.5 kPa
  • Temperature = 99°C

We’ll add boron next week and see what happens.

Turn Off Social Media While Studying

A new survey shows that social media is the biggest distraction students face while studying
A new survey by Stop Procrastinating shows that social media is the biggest distraction students face while studying

The leading internet blocker, Stop Procrastinating, has announced that 64% of US students have cited online distractions such as social media as a hindrance to their productivity. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, shopping websites and YouTube were among the sites that students found the most distracting.

Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)

Nearly all of the students who responded in the survey referred to a ‘fear of missing out’ (FOMO), which is the anxiety that people experience when they believe that important events are happening without them. The anxiety arises from a perceived decrease in ‘popularity’ if they’re not up-to-date with the latest happenings in their social circle. Teenagers are particularly susceptible to FOMO, and 24-hour social media feeds such as Facebook and Twitter are exacerbating the problem. Students are constantly checking their social media feeds (sometimes a few hundred times per day) in order to keep up with the latest drivel happenings.

Interestingly, first year university students were the most affected. It’s possible that in first year (sometimes called “freshman year”), people’s social circles haven’t quite cemented since the upheaval of leaving high school. People are therefore more anxious and fear missing out on new friendships and events… so they gravitate towards social media.

Almost half students surveyed admitted to losing an hour each day to social media. Common Sense Media estimates the real figure (including traditional media such as TV) is more like 9 hours per day. That’s a lot of screen time, and it’s affecting students’ social lives, their grades and their sleep.

Over half of the respondents said they’d been stopped from writing an essay because they felt compelled to check social media at some point. Any issue that’s stopping half of our students from writing essays (or concentrating for any extended period of time) needs to be addressed urgently.

This problem needs to be addressed urgently

The level of distraction today is unprecedented. We all carry televisions and music players in our pockets. I got in touch with Tim Rollins, the director of Stop Procrastinating, who said:

“We have made Stop Procrastinating free today in order help students to beat their Internet distractions and boost their performance in their studies. The Internet, social media, emails are pervasive and eating into our quality time. We need urgently to put ourselves back in control.” – Tim Rollins

Software is one of the tools that can help students get the lasting willpower they need to overcome FOMO and get back into studying. Here are my tips for eliminating distractions while studying.

Tips for distraction-free studying

  1. Delete all the Facebook apps from your phone
  2. Study with your phone in aeroplane mode
  3. When using your desktop, use the Stop Procrastinating app to limit your access to social media sites.
  4. Study without music. All the research says it doesn’t help.
  5. Don’t eat and study at the same time.
  6. Drink only water while you’re studying.
  7. Sit upright while studying: don’t study laying in bed or leaning back on the couch.
  8. Have a goal for each study session. Write it down and work until you’ve completed it (e.g. make notes on all 6 types of acid/base chemical reactions with examples)
  9. Study in a location that you never use for relaxation… the library is a great choice. Most students can’t study in their bedroom because they usually relax there.
  10. Limit the number of Facebook friends to 30. Delete all the others: I understand this takes some courage, but you probably don’t know them anyway! Their unimportant updates distract you from studying.

Stop Procrastinating is an Internet blocking and productivity application compatible with OS X and Windows. It allows users the option to block the Internet for a period of time in three ways, depending on how much self-discipline they have.

Kennedy Rainbow Cell

Kennedy Rainbow Cell electrolysis chemistry demonstration initial setup aerial view
Initial Kennedy Rainbow Cell setup

Demonstrate electrolysis with an electrolytic cell in a petri dish.


  • 1 × Large petri dish
  • 1 × DC Power pack
  • ~50 mL Distilled water dH2O(l)
  • ~3 g potassium nitrate powder KNO3(s)
  • 2 × Graphite electrodes
  • 2 × Wires with crocodile clips
  • 1 × Clamp and stand
  • 1 × Very strong static magnet
  • 1 × Roll of sticky tape (any type)
  • ~10 drops of universal indicator
  • ~50 mL dilute HNO3(aq)
  • ~50 mL dilute KOH(aq)
  • 1 × Spatula


  1. Place petri dish on clean, light-coloured bench and add distilled water until it is two thirds full
  2. Add ~10 drops of universal indicator and observe the colour.
    Q: What pH is the distilled water? (You’ll be surprised!)
    Q: Why is/isn’t the colour green?
  3. Add ~3 g of potassium nitrate to the petri dish and stir using a spatula until completely dissolved
  4. Adjust the pH of the distilled water carefully using the nitric acid and potassium hydroxide as required. Try to make the universal indicator colour green (as pictured) ~pH 7
  5. Attach one electrode to each of two wires using crocodile clips
  6. Dip each graphite electrode into the green solution at opposite sides of the petri dish. Hold these electrodes (and wires) in position by in position by sticky-taping each wire to the surface of the workbench
  7. Demonstrate the strength of the magnet by attaching it to the clamp. Carefully, clamp the magnet into the clamp and position the magnet 2 mm above the surface of the green solution
  8. Ensuring the power is turned off, very carefully, attach the wires to the DC power pack according to the manufacturer’s instructions
  9. Turn the voltage to zero (or very low) and turn on the power pack
  10. Turn the voltage up slowly (12 volts worked well) and observe any changes you might see in the Kennedy Rainbow Cell


  • Turn off the power pack and stir the solution. Explain why the colour goes back to being green. (If it’s not green, explain that, too!)
  • Turn the magnet upside-down (TURN OFF THE POWER FIRST)
  • Reverse the polarity of the wires
  • Use AC current instead of DC
  • Use different indicators
  • Why would using NaCl(aq) be dangerous in this cell?
  • How can you maximise the swirling?
  • How can you make this experiment much more epic?

Click to download Kennedy Rainbow Cell worksheet (PDF)

Safety considerations

  • Make your own risk assessment before carrying out this experiment
  • The strong magnet is capable of attracting both wires to itself. Don’t be touching the exposed parts of the crocodile clips when this happens. If this does happen, immediately turn off the power pack and fix the problem. Secure the wires with more tape. Don’t touch the electrodes while the Cell is operating.
  • Don’t use chloride salts or hydrochloric acid in this experiment. The voltages involved can cause the production of toxic chlorine gas if sodium chloride is used. Use nitric acid and potassium nitrate instead.
  • Make sure the wires don’t touch each other.
  • Again, make your own risk assessment before carrying out this experiment



This cell is potentially dangerous. I accept no responsibility for and loss, damage or injury caused by the operation of a Kennedy Rainbow Cell. If you’re under 18, always get adult permission before you make this type of cell.

Make Your Own 2015 VCE Revision Timetable

Click to download by Sample 2015 VCE Revision Timetable
Click to download by Sample 2015 VCE Revision Timetable

You’ve got 100 days until your English examination and full-time revision should begin from today.

How to Make a Revision Timetable

First, print my 2015 wall calendar in A3 size or larger. The left, middle and right of each day-box represents each of three study sessions:

  • Morning session: 8am to 12pm (make a dot to the left)
  • Afternoon session: 1pm to 5pm (make a dot in the middle)
  • Evening session: 6pm to 9:30pm (make a dot to the right)

Next, use coloured stickers from Officeworks (or coloured markers) to label your examinations. Use a different colour for each subject. Working backwards from those examinations, put more stickers on the chart to denote which subjects you’ll study in each study session.

Rules when filling your timetable:

  • Plan 100 revision sessions in the 100 days before your first examination
  • Try not to plan revision sessions on school days – save that time for homework!
  • Adjust the number of sessions you will have for each subject: you might want to focus more on some subjects than on others, or prepare for them all equally. It’s up to you.
  • Revise for 12 sessions each week that you’re not in school
  • Revise for no more than two sessions in a day
  • Avoid the evening session when possible.
  • Use your free time to relax or get some exercise.
  • You may move a study session but you are not allowed to cancel it

Make Your Own Revision Timetable

Blank 2015 calendar
Click to download a printable 2015 calendar

This strategy worked extraordinarily well for me during my A-level studies. I studied this much (48 hours per week) and achieved an equivalent ATAR of over 99. What’s your revision strategy? Leave your ideas in the comments section below.

Procrastination, Motivation & Burnout

Procrastination, Motivation & Burnout
Be in the 3rd section. Click to enlarge

Inspired by the enthalpy diagrams we’re currently drawing for Unit 4’s thermochemistry chapter, I thought I’d put a timely reminder on the site about how stressed you need to be in order to maximise your academic performance in Year 12.

Most of the Year 10-12 students I’ve encountered in my teaching career have been in stages 2 or 3 of the above curve, but I’ve certainly taught students in each of the five stages. I’ve seen the characteristic signs of each stage.  Research has shown that being on top of that curve maximises your performance in a given task. Therefore, your goal as a student is to maintain your position in that third quintile: to stay motivated but not lazy; and to stay productive without feeling stressed.

1) Procrastination

In stage 1, students have no idea what they want to do after Year 12. They don’t study particularly hard, they don’t enjoy reading, and their ‘default state’ is not studying: it’s usually surfing the Internet, playing computer games or playing sports.

Symptoms of stage 1 include:

  • “I’ll be alright in the exam”
  • “I’ve didn’t finish the homework the teacher set me”
  • “I didn’t really understand that topic but I’ll be fine anyway”
  • “I vaguely remember learning this” (referring to the start of Unit 3)
  • “Honestly, I’ve never read the textbook”
  • “I’ve done one practice paper – and that was during class”

2) Laziness

In stage 2, a student’s goals and ambitions are defined only very weakly. Most students in this stage haven’t yet decided what they want to study at university, and are looking to “keep their options open” without actively looking for a career or course that they want to pursue. Some students in stage 2 have a very vague goal but they’re not taking any action towards achieving it. There are more students in this stage than in any other.

Symptoms of stage 2 include:

  • “I didn’t do that homework because the teacher won’t check it anyway”
  • “Do Checkpoints questions? That will take me HOURS!”
  • “Some students work so hard: they study about 3 hours per night”.
  • “I don’t like writing in textbooks”
  • “I’ve always been good at Science. I’ll be alright in VCE.”

3) Motivation

Stage 3 is ideal: the student has a clear goal for the next few years and is committed to pursuing that goal. They know which university courses they need for their future career, and they’re studying diligently to get the required ATAR for that course. All students should endeavour to be in stage 3.

The following statements are typical of a student is in stage 3:

  • “I need a 42 or above in Chemistry to get into Medicine at Monash”
  • “Could you please check over these questions for me? I got a couple wrong.”
  • “I need an ATAR of 86 to get into my preferred course. I need to stay near the top of my class”
  • “I study every day according to the revision timetable on my wall unless something urgent comes along. If I miss a self-study session, I reschedule it.”
  • “I’m under pressure to succeed – but I have the confidence that with enough hard work, I can achieve my goals”

Read an interesting story about motivation from the APS here.

4) Stress & Anxiety

Stage 4 is when stress becomes intense and counter-productive. A student who is too stressed will perform below their optimal level. Students in this stage have either: (a) no clearly-defined goal and thus little intrinsic motivation – just pressure from external sources; or (b) have a clearly-defined goal but are motivated too much: they thus stress themselves out physiologically, which hinders their ability to study.

In both cases, the symptoms of stress & anxiety include:

  • “Chemistry really annoys me. There’s so much work to do.”
  • “I feel overwhelmed with all the stuff we’re expected to learn.”
  • “I didn’t get much sleep because I was worrying about the Chemistry SAC”
  • “I suck at Chemistry”
  • “Chemistry’s definitely my 5th subject”
  • “I’m going to fail”

Click here to learn more about 50 symptoms of stress.

Click here to take a quick stress/anxiety quiz.

5) Burnout

Avoid this stage at all costs. Students who have burned out have given up on their goals because they felt overloaded with pressure. The most dangerous aspect of burnout is that students will actively quash their ambitions in an attempt to de-stress themselves. Students in this stage need support from external sources (friends, parents, and counsellors) and need to take a short (~7-day) break from studying.

Symptoms of burnout include:

  • “University? I hate university!”
  • “Who needs an ATAR, anyway?”
  • “I’d rather walk the dog than do anything related to study!”
  • “I’m doing amazingly well in World of Warcraft. Soon, my character will be worth a Bitcoin or two.”
  • “I never want a job.”

When students burn out, after sarcastically making some silly, low-level goals for a week or two, they usually re-appear in stage 1: procrastination. The cycle then begins again: they’ll need to be re-motivated with new, meaningful goals to get back into stage 3.

Learn more about the differences between stages 4 and 5 here.

Need to go from stages 1 or 2 to stage 3?

To escape procrastination and laziness, make a goal for the next few years. Imagine your ideal life in five years’ time as if nothing could hold you back. Your goal might be to become a doctor, to start your own business, or to buy a house: keep the goal large but attainable. Everything you do every day should be done with that goal in mind: will playing more computer games get that house purchased? Will watching more TV help you get that masters degree? Remind yourself why you’re studying VCE. The ‘why’ will be different for every student. Study daily with that greater goal in your mind and you’ll feel much more motivated to keep going.

Learn more about motivation and getting a strong work ethic here.

Need to go from stages 4 or 5 to stage 3?

Take a week off to relax and do something you really enjoy. Relieve some of the counter-productive stress that’s built up within you and you’ll feel refreshed afterwards: you’ll be in a better state to continue studying. Daniel Pink gave an excellent TED talk on how excessive motivation made people’s ideas more narrow-minded, and in a complex subject like Chemistry, a narrow focus can actually be a hindrance to your understanding because you need to synthesise information from several different sources. Taking a break will actually improve your performance.

Learn more about how to tackle burnout here.

What are your thoughts? Are there more than 5 stages? In which stage are most of the students you teach? Comment below.

3 Skills to Master Before the End of Year 12

Master Reading, Note-taking and Asking for Help
1: Reading; 2: Note-taking; 3: Asking for help

Studying is actually really simple. Master these three simple principles while you’re in Year 12 and you’ll be on the path to excellent learning outcomes in university.

1) Analytical Reading

We learn the majority of our information by reading. It’s your responsibility as a student to make a careful, analytical reading of the textbook in order to understand all the concepts taught on your course. Beyond Year 10, the pace of your lessons will increase and you’ll find that simply paying attention in class will not be enough to gain a full understanding of what’s being taught. The earlier you master the skill of analytical reading, the more you’ll learn from your university investment. University lecturers don’t have time to explain all the concepts to every student in person!

Learn how to use a textbook here.

2) Note-taking

Annotate the textbook as you read it. Paraphrase and summarise your notes onto paper and organise them obsessively into large, lever-arch folders. Colour-code all your subjects: Chemistry has always been a ‘green’ subject for me. In lectures, don’t rely on the printed notes/slides provided by your lecturer. High-achieving students make their own notes during the lecture. Cornell Notes helped me enormously in Cambridge: master this skill if you want to thrive in university.

Learn how to take great notes here.

3) Asking for help

After Year 10, teachers will check your homework less frequently. Don’t use that as an excuse to slack off. As you grow into adulthood, you need to become a self-motivated learner. You’ll need to be proactive and get help when you need it. Share your assignments with your peers, attend group study sessions, and knock on your professor’s door when you want some advanced Chemistry questions answered. University teaching staff don’t have time to check every student’s progress all the time – but if you approach them and ask them for help, they’ll definitely be delighted to help you out. Make the most of your university experience by being proactive and asking for help.

Learn more about asking for help here.

That’s all there is to it!

Are there any crucial study skills I’ve missed from this list? What else do you need to master before you go to university? What do you wish you knew before you started undergraduate degree? Write to us in the comments section below.

High-Achieving Students Ask for More Help

Student performance graph

I’ve been there: the teacher has moved onto a topic about which you understand nothing, and you’re sitting in class waiting patiently for the next topic, which you hope you might actually understand. Students in these situations often shy away from asking questions in class because they’re afraid that they’ll interrupt the lesson for the other students. Most hide the problem and stay quiet until the next topic comes along. It’s sometimes only when the class sits a standardised test that the issue is even brought to the teacher’s attention.

Here’s some (modified) meta-data from students I’ve taught in the past year. I searched my inbox for the surname of every student I teach then counted the hundreds of questions they’ve asked me collectively since the start of the academic year. I grouped the students into quartiles and plotted the average number of questions asked in the last few months versus their current academic performance.

Results were shocking: not only did the higher-achieving students ask me more questions by email than the lower-achieving students, but the correlation was surprisingly strong (R² = 71%). This begs the question: do high achieving students get higher grades because they ask for more help? Is there a causal link between getting more help from a teacher and achieving a higher grade? Common sense suggests that there is.

What does this mean for you?

Students should ask for more academic support in order to maximise their learning. In particular:

  • Always email your tutor with academic questions. Number each question for easy reference in later emails.
  • Remember the 5-minute rule: ask for help from your teacher or tutor if you make zero progress on a question for more than 5 minutes.
  • Ask to see your teacher or tutor if you don’t understand something. Just ask them to “explain [topic] to me because I didn’t really understand it in class”. They’ll be happy to explain it to you.
  • Don’t get put off if your teacher seems too busy to help you right now. Just ask them, “do you have time tomorrow?” and schedule a more convenient time to meet.

In university, teachers don’t pay such close attention to the individual progress of each student. After Year 12, you’ll be mostly on your own. You’ll have to be proactive, take responsibility for your own learning and ask for help when you need it.

Are you a top-achieving student who learns all by themselves? What are your thoughts? Leave your feedback in the comments section below.

Got 600 Hours to Spare? Become Bilingual!

hello in many languages

In 2011, 17% of Australians21% of Americans and 53% of Europeans spoke two languages fluently. Being bilingual not only opened them up to new cultures, and earned them more money, but also, according to several recent studies, protected them from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease later in life. Here are 9 great reasons why you should learn a new language.

Bilingual people in Europe

1. Bilinguals have higher cognitive processes.

As Maria Konnikova writes in the New York Times: “[A bilingual child]… develops enhanced executive control, or the ability to effectively manage what are called higher cognitive processes such as problem-solving, memory, and thought. [A bilingual child] becomes better able to inhibit some responses, promote others, and generally emerges with a more flexible and agile mind. It’s a phenomenon that researchers call the bilingual advantage.”

2. Bilinguals are better able to attend to important information and ignore the less important.

Cognitive neuroscientist Ellen Bialystok has spent her career studying how bilingualism sharpens the mind. She said in an interview with the New York Times in 2011: “We asked all the children if a certain illogical sentence was grammatically correct: “Apples grow on noses.” The monolingual children couldn’t answer. They’d say, “That’s silly” and they’d stall. But the bilingual children would say, in their own words, “It’s silly, but it’s grammatically correct.” The bilinguals, we found, manifested a cognitive system with the ability to attend to important information and ignore the less important.”

3. Bilinguals are better at multitasking.

Bilingual people are not only accustomed to switching rapidly between two languages, but they’re also thought to process the semantics of each language simultaneously at a subconscious level when they’re communicating using just one language. Sustained practice at processing two tasks simultaneously when they speak primes bilingual people to be slightly better at multi-tasking simply because they practice it on a daily basis.

4. Bilinguals are somewhat protected from the effects of dementia.

A 2006 paper by Bialystok et al. showed that bilingual dementia patients showed an onset of symptoms 4.3 years later than their monolingual counterparts. The disparity is thought to be explained by the increased cognitive load demanded by comprehending and speaking in two languages. The brains of bilingual patients with Alzheimer’s disease function cognitively at the same level of monolingual patients who have suffered less brain degeneration.

5. Bilinguals are better at spatial working memory tasks.

A 2013 article by Luo et al. tested the spatial working memory of monolingual and bilingual adults of different ages. The researchers found that bilingual people outperformed their monolingual counterparts in spatial working memory tasks at all age levels. (Having a strong spatial working memory helps with navigation, direction, location, and visually processing spatial orientation of objects in our environment.)

6. Being bilingual improves cultural awareness.

Language is inextricably linked with culture, and learning a language involves a developing a heightened awareness of the culture that speaks that language. Bilingual speakers can understand jokes and sayings in two languages as well as any mistranslations between the two that might not make sense to a speaker of either language. Being bilingual often leads to being bicultural.

7. Bilinguals earn more money worldwide.

Generally, employers see being bilingual as a valuable skill. Bilingual people more than their monolingual counterparts in many parts of the world. In Florida, bilingual workers earn $7000 per year more than their monolingual counterparts. In many American states, bilingual teachers receive a $5000 annual bonus. It’s also no coincidence that Luxembourg, with 99% of its population bilingual, has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world.

8. Being bilingual makes travelling easier and cheaper.

I know from experience that if you only speak English in China, life can be confusing and expensive (unless, of course, you’re lucky enough to have bilingual people on hand to help you out). Travellers who don’t speak Chinese can only visit high-end hotels and restaurants, and they need an expensive bilingual travel agent to book tours. When I was in Beijing in 2011, Great Wall tours were five times more expensive if you booked via an English-speaking agent instead of directly with the Chinese tour operator. Long-distance bus tickets were double the price for those who couldn’t haggle in Chinese, and China’s leading plane-ticket website is about 20% cheaper if you purchase via the Chinese-language version of the site instead of using the translated English version. Finally, of course, being fluent in Chinese earns you much more respect from the locals when you visit China.

We can’t choose our first language. However, we can choose our second, third and fourth languages. I studied English, French, German and Welsh in school but still chose to learn Mandarin Chinese after graduation from high school. Chinese attracted me because it trains parts of the brain that English doesn’t: it’s visual, logical and of increasing importance culturally and economically worldwide. For me, Chinese was the key to a fascinating culture very different from my own.

9. It takes only 600 hours of dedicated study to learn many new languages!

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the US Department of State has compiled approximate learning expectations for a number of languages based on the length of time it takes to achieve “proficiency” in each language. The good news is that some (French, Italian, German and more) can be learned in only 600 hours of dedicated study.

How many languages do you speak? What’s your next language?

For free language-learning materials, click here.

Which language will you choose to learn next? Can you think of any downsides to being bilingual? Put your ideas in the comments section below.

How to get ahead in VCE Chemistry

Sally Pearson (not the Pearson who wrote your Chemistry textbook!)
Sally Pearson (not the Pearson who wrote your Chemistry textbook!)

1. Do all the required work for your course.

This includes the required textbook questions, any weekly quizzes and worksheets or booklets that are provided by your teacher.

2. Read the textbook one week ahead of the course

Refer to the course outline and read the textbook chapters before we study them in class. It makes a huge difference to your level of understanding.

3. Check your weekly quiz answers very critically

Compare your answers in the weekly Chemistry quizzes with the ideal answers on the examiners’ reports. (These will be sent out after each quiz has been completed.) Textbook questions are a bit like reading comprehension questions: they test your understanding of what you’ve just read in the textbook. Weekly quizzes are written in a much more similar style to the VCE Chemistry examination you’ll sit at the end of the year.

4. Re-do any SACs that you did not get 80% in

Ask your teacher for a SAC follow-up exercise if you achieved less than 80% in any SAC. Hand in the SAC follow-up exercise to your teacher when completed for marking. (Only your first SAC score will count; however, this strategy is an excellent way of highlighting areas in need of improvement, and then improving on them.)

5. Complete Checkpoints Questions

Your goal is to complete all of the questions in the Checkpoints book before 20 July 2015. Complete Checkpoints questions on the topics you study as you progress through the year.

6. Complete Dimensions worksheets

Your teacher will sometimes set Dimensions worksheets as an assignment in your VCE Chemistry course. You can always ask your teacher for extra Dimensions worksheets. Note that some of the questions in Dimensions worksheets extend a little further than the scope of our VCE study design.

7. Refer to additional textbooks (and do some of the questions)

Use additional textbooks for alternative explanations of the same topics. Please don’t use Google to find Chemistry information because about a third of the results are awful (answers.com and answers.yahoo.com are two such examples). Use HeinemannDimensions and StudyON instead: these are the three best textbooks for our course. Complete questions from these textbooks for additional practice on certain topics as required.

8. Complete past examination papers

By June 2015, you will have finished studying all of Unit 3. You will therefore be able to complete Unit 3 practice examination papers from VCAA’s website (or from your teacher/tutor) by this time. Complete past examination papers in exam-like conditions and check your answers critically using the examiners’ reports provided.


If you get stuck, just ask your teacher/tutor for help. Send them an email saying “Sir, I have no idea how to answer this question!” or knock on their office door for advice. They’re always happy to help!

Remember the 5-minute rule. If you’re stuck (i.e. making no progress) on a single question for more than 5 minutes, ask for help and move on. Re-do the question once your teacher or tutor has responded with tips as to how to answer the question.

Do you know of any more study tips that aren’t in this list? Add them in the comments section below.

Foldable Biomolecules

Hydrolysis (or formation) of a triglyceride
Hydrolysis (or formation) of a triglyceride. Click to download PDF version for printing.

Visualising reaction mechanisms in VCE Chemistry can sometimes be difficult. Making plastic models helps, but I’ve been thinking that it would be much more convenient if students had their own paper version of molecular models that they could keep for themselves and use at home.

That’s why I created Foldable Biomolecules. Each Foldable Biomolecule is a PDF template that students can fold into a shape that demonstrates a chemical reaction clearly. Pull apart the edges of each sheet to visualise a hydrolysis reaction, and push them back together to visualise a condensation reaction.

foldable biomolecule: triglyceride
Click to download Foldable Triglyceride
foldable biomolecules: biodiesel
Click to download Foldable Biodiesel
foldable biomolecule: dipeptide
Click to download Foldable Dipeptide
foldable biomolecule: triglyceride
Click to download Foldable Sucrose
foldable nucleotide PDF
Click to download Foldable Nucleotide v2

These paper-based biomolecules are downloadable, shareable and much quicker to set up than their plastic counterparts.

You can also download the complete set of Foldable Biomolecules as a single PDF here.

Five most important things in any classroom

Students in a classroom
Students studying in a classroom. Source: theguardian.com

At the beginning of each academic year, I ask my VCE Chemistry students what the most important things are in the classroom in order to learn Chemistry. Typical answers include ‘pens’, ‘notebooks’, ‘tables’, ‘chairs’ and ‘a teacher’. I have a different view.

1. Students

Students are the most important ‘things’ in the classroom if any learning is going to happen. No learning happens without students present!

2. Textbooks

The primary source of information is not the teacher. It’s the textbook. The textbook explains every topic on the course concisely and accurately, and teaches students all the theory required for the end-of-year examination. Textbooks contain so many practice questions that some students don’t even complete all of them. Before hunting for extra resources or question sets, do all of the questions in the textbook first.

Learn how to use a textbook here.

3. Stationery

Pens are more important than notebooks because the textbook is designed to be annotated. The giant margins in a textbook (which aren’t there in novels) are placed purposefully to accommodate students’ personalised notes. Students should use at least two different colours of ink to annotate their textbooks, and they should highlight important definitions and phrases as well. (They should translate words, too, if they are fluent in another language.) Teachers will need to guide and encourage students through this process initially. Some students enter your classroom with an aversion to writing in textbooks.

4. Notebooks

Making your own notes is a very efficient way to learn. Any teacher who gives pre-made notes to their students is depriving their students of the opportunity to learn for themselves. It’s fine to give some notes to students as an example, but the vast majority of student notes should be written by the students themselves (even if they’re copying most of it from the whiteboard).

An interesting study found that students who reviewed their own notes outperformed students who reviewed notes given to them by their teacher.

Several interesting studies have found that students who hand-wrote their notes learned more than those who typed them.

Learn how to make great notes here.

5. Teacher

A teacher’s role, in addition to providing academic and moral support, is to bring the textbook (or the subject) to life. A teacher is the difference between reading a play and watching a play. A teacher makes the subject more engaging, more interesting and more relevant by bringing their own experience, funny stories and exciting experiments into the curriculum. Great teachers make even the dullest academic subjects exciting to learn. They serve to inspire and guide students to an extent that technology will never be able to match.

Not in my top 5…

  • PowerPoint slides
  • Internet access
  • iPads, laptops and other gizmos
  • interactive whiteboards
  • laboratory equipment & chemicals
  • printed notes for students
  • past examination papers

What do you think of my low-tech “top 5” list? Should technology be in the top 5? Will technology reduce the need for teachers? Is something other than the textbook the primary learning resource in your classroom?

Let me know in the comments section below.

How to Make Great Notes (15 steps + video)

Image: Shutterstock/isciencetimes.com

Look inside the notebooks of any student who gets excellent grades and in most cases, you’ll find that they have a pristine notebook, too.

Source: The Beauty Type Blog
Source: The Beauty Type Blog

Before you begin, make sure you’ve already started reading your textbook and have made gorgeous annotations inside it.

Learn more about how to use a textbook. See examples of more great notes here.

Now, follow these steps to transfer your notes to an A4 pad. This key learning exercise is suitable for Years 10-12 and undergraduate level.

Part A: Stationery Shopping!

  1. Get three colours of pens ready: black, blue and one other colour
    Always write in black or blue. Use the other colour to draw boxes, underline important words or make things stand out.
  2. Use a large, sturdy, lined A4 pad.
    Do not use notebooks smaller than A4, and do not use notebooks with cartoons or other distractions pre-printed on the pages.

Part B: Making notes

  1. If the teacher gives you notes for their PowerPoint lecture, don’t use them. Make your own notes instead. You learn by making notes!
  2. Always write the date, title and subject in the same places on the page.
    It’s a simple rule but many students (especially in middle school) still don’t do this!
  3. Use the same subheadings as the textbook.
    Organise your notes by writing titles and subtitles. Use the same subtitles that your textbook uses, and summarise the essence each section into your own words (see tip #8). Do not try to keep your notes to one page per section. This will become very restricting in future.
  4. Add textbook reference next to the title.
    Always write the textbook page number in your notebook. If the teacher doesn’t tell you, just ask them for it.
  5. Use at least two colours.
    Colours guide the eye around the page. Use them logically: one colour for headings, another for questions, and another for definitions, etc. Only use legible colours such as black, blue and one other colour. Write mostly in black or blue.
  6. Summarise the textbook’s content into your own words.
    Include: important words and definitions; diagrams; mnemonics and things you need to memorise. Exclude: chapters not on the course; things that won’t be tested; and those superfluous information boxes that don’t help you to remember the important stuff. Add things at you learn from examiners’ reports to your notes in future (see tip #13). Write very neatly in easy-to-read, lowercase letters.
  7. Draw diagrams large and clear.
    Every time you draw a diagram, you need to label it and explain what it means. Keep diagrams simple enough that you can reproduce them quickly and accurately during an examination if you need to. Don’t print ‘perfect’ diagrams and stick them into your notes.
  8. Write notes using “examination language”.
    The definitions and explanations in your notebook should be acceptable to use as answers in an end-of-year examination. The glossary in your textbook is the best source for definitions of scientific words. Make sure you can explain the concepts learned in both colloquial language and in exam-specific language.
  9. Leave plenty of white space on the page. Don’t try to save paper!
    White space is crucial to making the notes easy to re-read so don’t cram your text onto the page: leave some white spaces where necessary (e.g. between paragraphs and in the margin). You will probably need to come back to your notes and add tips, definitions and facts that you learn from examiners’ reports later on (see tip #13). Your goal should be to use up every page of your notebook – not to save paper.

Part C: Reading and sharing your notes

  1. Re-read your notes regularly
    Add to your notes using new knowledge you’ve learned from the textbook (and from class). This is why it’s important to keep your notes tidy and organised!
  2. Add comments from examiners’ reports.
    For example, “always write the ‘+’ symbol near the nitrogen atom on an amino acid in an acidic environment” would be a great comment to add (with a diagram) to the biomolecules section of your Chemistry notebook. This comment is paraphrased from a VCAA Examiners’ Report.
  3. Share your notes proudly with students who miss lessons.
    Email them or share them online.
  4. Re-make them into larger versions and put them onto your wall.
    This not only looks impressive but also reminds you to stay focussed as examinations draw closer.

There are dozens of great note-taking tutorials on YouTube. Here’s one you can refer to for Science classes. Remember that the specifics of note-taking vary from person to person but keeping your notes complete, neat and organised should be one of your most important learning goals as a student.

Any questions? Are you a student with note-taking tips? Leave a comment below!

How to Make an Exam Revision Timetable

This is the post where I divulge how I achieved an ATAR of over 99. I was in a government school at the time and didn’t have any home tutoring. So how did I do it?

Examinations, like sports, require tenacious practice until you’re good at them. To excel in an examination, you need not only strong subject knowledge (e.g. Chemistry), but also great examination skills, which include the following:

  • Using exam-specific language
  • Working to a strict time limit
  • Working in silence in a big hall
  • Coping with the stress that examinations bring

Follow these 8 rules to practice examination skills effectively and you’ll maximise your performance on examination day.

1. Revision is a full-time job (38 hours per week)

To get enough spaced repetition for all the subjects you’re studying, you’ll need to study full time: that’s about 38 hours per week.

This is about the same amount of time as you usually spend in school (7×50-minute lessons plus 2 hours of homework per night). You can fit 38 hours of revision comfortably into just 6 days of the week, leaving your Sundays completely free to relax and catch up on sleep. Start full-time revision several months before your big exams.

2. Revise in 3.5-hour blocks

This will train you to sit and focus for an entire examination. In 3.5 hours, you’ll have enough time to finish an examination paper and then mark it immediately afterwards.

3. Revise during regular, scheduled revision sessions at the same times every day

Research has shown that people recall more information when they’re in a similar physiological state to when they learned it: at the same time of day, and with similar hunger and stress levels.

Revise for 2 of these 3 sessions, 6 days a week:

  • Morning study session: 9:00am to 12:30pm
  • Afternoon study session: 1:30pm to 5pm
  • Evening study session: 6pm to 9:30pm

Try to revise for morning examinations in the morning, and afternoon examinations in the afternoon where possible.

4. Create a revision timetable and stick to it

Get a giant wall calendar (minimum size is A3) from Officeworks and split each day into thirds. Each third represents one of the three study sessions mentioned above.

Get coloured stickers from Officeworks and use them to label your examinations. Use a different colour for each subject. Working back from those examinations, put more stickers on the chart to denote which subjects you’ll study in each study session.

Rules when filling your timetable:

  • Revise for 11 sessions each week (about 38 hours)
  • Revise for no more than two sessions in a day.
  • Take one day off each week.
  • Use your free time to relax or get some exercise.

5. Revise in exam-like conditions!

Disconnect from all social media until after your examinations have finished. Just leave one tweet/status update saying “Preparing for exams now full-time until November XXth. Wish me luck!” and delete all the social media apps from your phone. People will understand!

  • Revise in a comfortable, clean, quiet, uncluttered room. (Some students in China rent hotel rooms at this time of year to help them revise more effectively!) Is your study place as clean and quiet as a hotel room?
  • Revise sitting upright at a desk without a computer present. Don’t cross your legs. Use a desk that’s high enough, and sit 10cm from the edge of the desk. Remove all non-study-related objects from your desk and put them behind you.
  • Don’t listen to music while revising. Not only will music distract you (no matter how much you insist otherwise!), but it’s also forbidden in the examination hall.
  • Eat and drink only things that are allowed in the examination while you’re revising. For the vast majority of people, that’s water only!
  • Only two pieces of technology are allowed: your scientific calculator and an analogue clock. (Why? That’s all you’ll get in the examination hall!)

6. Practice examination sessions (50% of study sessions)

In half of your revision sessions for each subject, do a past paper examination and mark the paper immediately after you’ve finished it. Circle any questions you didn’t get full marks on: you’ll use these as the basis for your next note-taking session for that subject (step 7).

7. Note-taking sessions (the other 50% of study sessions)

Use your textbook, your teacher and your Chemistry notes to correct any questions you answered incorrectly in your previous practice examination. Make detailed theory notes from the textbook on concepts you don’t fully understand and arrange them neatly on your wall. Make these notes colourful and large enough to be legible from a distance of 2 metres.

Not only will this help you to get 100% in those topics next time, but a bedroom wall covered with succinct study notes also look really impressive to anyone else who sees them!

If you start revising early enough, you’ll have time to make great theory notes from the entire textbook. Your bedroom wall should be plastered in study notes for all your subjects.

8. On examination day

  • Don’t revise on the morning before examinations. This will only make you feel rushed and more stressed in the morning. Use your time more wisely by making sure you get to school on time and instead.
  • Don’t listen to music on examination days until after your examination is over! Songs stay in your head for a long time after you’ve heard them, and they’ll distract you slightly from the material you’re being tested on.
  • Bring water in a transparent bottle into the examination hall.
  • Wear layers of clothing that you can add/remove easily. The temperature in examination halls can be unpredictable.
  • Always let invigilators know about errors in the examination paper. However, only tell them about the errors that might affect your score!

Sticking to these 8 tips earned me excellent grades in school, and I believe that you can maximise your potential as well by following the same advice.

Agree/disagree with any of these? Leave your comments below.