Monday, May 19, 2008

I Have No Chemistry with Chemistry

I would like to euthanize a nasty rumour floating around about me. A couple of years ago I took a intro chemistry course by correspondence. My final mark ended up being 94%.

That's when the rumour started. People started thinking I was good at chemistry. After all, anyone who can get a 94% in chemistry must be good at chemistry, right?

Not quite. Here's why:

The average university course takes about 13 weeks, with 3 hours of class per week. Science classes that have a lab component often have a 3 hour lab every week. That's 6 hours of classroom instruction per week.

6 hours/week × 13 weeks = 78 hours.

The rule of thumb I heard when going to school was that for every hour you spent in the classroom you should spend two hours outside class doing homework and studying.

(78 × 2) + 78 = 234 hours.

Add an exam onto the end. Let's round up. 240 hours.

My average mark in university was 86%. That's an average of 0.358 percentage points per hour of course.

I know most courses don't require that much time to complete. I don't think I followed the 2:1 study time requirement for any of my courses in college or university. I'm being generous for the sake of argument.

Compare to a class I was good at: Computer Data Structures. I went to most of the lectures. I typically slept, or read a novel during class. I did the assignments. I probably put 1.5 hours/week into that course (including any lecture time when I may have been paying attention).

1.5 hours/week × 13 weeks = 19.5 hours of work.

My final mark was 97%. That's 4.97 percentage points per hour worked.

Chemistry took me from June to November to finish. That's 28 weeks (compared to 13 for the average course). From June until September I worked on chemistry for about 41 hours/week. (5 hours a day Monday through Friday, and 8 hours on Saturdays and Sundays). That happened for about 16 weeks.

41 hours/week × 16 weeks = 656 hours.

From September to November (12 weeks) I worked for approximately 11 hours/day on week days, with 8 hours/day on weekends. That's 71 hours/week.

71 hours/week × 12 weeks = 852 hours.

852 hours + 656 hours = 1508 hours.

Starting about a week before my exam and midterm, I took practice tests (which were very similar to the real tests). My marks were in the 50s and 60s. Those practice tests allowed me to see my strengths and weaknesses. I had about a week to work on them. When I wrote the tests, and got a 90% and 91%. Combined with my lab marks, and assignment marks I got a final mark of 94%.

1508 hours. That's 6.28 times more than the average course, and 79.4 times more than a course I'm good at.

That's an average of 0.062 percentage points per hour worked.

That's awfully low for something I'm supposedly good at.

In order to do 1508 hours of study for a normal course of 13 weeks, you'd need to study for more than 16 hours per day, every day.

Here's a table for the visually inclined:

A course I'm good atAn average courseIntro to Chemistry
Time spent studying
19.5 hours240 hours1508 hours
% per hour

And what did I get from it? What do I remember a year an a half later? Here is a list of things I remember from that class:
  1. If it looks like water, it probably is. Taste to make sure.

  2. Acids eat things. They poop out water. The opposite of an acid is a fortress.

  3. If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the precipitate.

  4. If your trousers are rapidly oxidizing, check your moral compass. You may be lying.

  5. Paraffin doesn't work for Tyler Durden

  6. The Addams Family tree is actually a table.

  7. Most chemists have mole problems.

  8. Many of these moles have lots of gas.

  9. Some of these moles are brave and noble.

  10. If you're really radioactive by insisting on calling in for all the contests, requesting your favorite songs, you may be only living a half-life.

  11. Giving your girlfriend coal earrings and insisting that they're diamonds because they're made of the same stuff will give you the opportunity to find a new girlfriend.

  12. Watching Pink Floyd's The Wall while experimenting with Acid will cause you to either mess up the experiment and/or miss some of the movie. And then the movie won't make any sense.


Anonymous said...

So I guess we can infer from this post that you ARE good at math right? :P

Andrew said...

I sure hope so.

Andrew said...

Actually, I think the math in this post is pretty elementary. I think this post speaks to my analytical nature.

Anonymous said...

Stop selling yourself short...

Andrew said...

It's not so much about selling myself short, but showing data, or rough calculations in the absence of data.

I suppose it could be argued that with that work I became good at Chemistry. Maybe I should modify my thesis and say "Chemistry is not a natural talent of mine, but with enough work and determination you can accomplish anything you set your mind to."

Okay, so for about 2 weeks, a year and a half ago, I was good at chemistry. But the rumour I was trying to dispel is in the present tense.

"Use it, or lose it." I haven't used it, except to enjoy Fight Club at a deeper level. I think I've lost most of it.

My point is it's a sad student, indeed, who asks me for help with their chemistry homework.

Andrew said...

UPDATE: I am right now proving my last point, the one about the sad students asking for my help with chemistry.

I saw a friend's Facebook status say something about her being frustrated with chemistry. She's taking grade 12 chem. I asked if I could help. She gave me two questions.

I couldn't even begin to answer either of them. The second question made me feel like I should have known how to do it. But feelings are fleeting. I couldn't help her.

Case-in-point. I'm back to stinking at chemistry.