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3 Approaches to Studying Tricky Stuff

Updated: Nov 21, 2021

I met a nice young man this morning, who has been studying Biomedical Science, as a pathway into Medicine. This plan is not new. Plenty of the candidates, whom I help to assess for this program, already have a degree.

What was interesting about this guy, was that he seemed to have a blind spot about just one aspect of just one subject. He got High Distinctions for all his other subjects, but failed this one - twice! Good for him, that he planned to speak with his Head of School about what was going amiss, and what he could do about it.

But, you have to agree, it's pretty disheartening to fail a course - twice!

We got to chatting about study techniques, and I asked him a few questions to see what he was doing, and where he was missing out.

It was obvious, that he had some proven techniques that never failed him. But this one aspect of this one course was a tough one! You see, his blind spot was to do with the little bits inside molecules and cells. Ahh! It took me back to my own undergraduate days, of utter frustration!

If I'd known then, what I know now, I would have got the University Medal!

So, what's a molecule? Trusty old says, ".. the smallest physical unit of an element or compound, consisting of one or more like atoms in an element and two or more different atoms in a compound; a quantity of a substance, the weight of which, measured in any chosen unit, is numerically equal to the molecular weight; any very small particle", while says, "..a group of two or more atoms that form the smallest identifiable unit into which a pure substance can be divided and still retain the composition and chemical properties of that substance".

No wonder he'd be confused.

Let's look at something that says it in less words: a picture!!

Let's think of a few examples. Table salt is two atoms together, in a 1:1 ratio. Those atoms are sodium and chloride, their short names are Na and Cl, and when you make table salt, it is called NaCl. Sodium and chloride are a good fit for each other. Sodium seems to fill in chloride's gaps; you can see in the diagram below, at the right.

Tiny bits of table salt (left) are called NaCl (right). Thanks to

If you like caffeine, the picture is a bit trickier. If you check out the molecular structure diagram below, you'll see a couple of things popping out. The first, is that there are different letters in there: C is for carbon, H is for hydrogen, O is for oxygen, and N is for nitrogen. The next thing you might notice, is that some are combined with other letters (like CH3 or H3C), while some don't seem that way. CH3 and H3C are the same, and they're called methyl groups. Remember methylated spirits? They are a bunch of different things (including ethanol), which have that methyl group attached. So, caffeine contains 3 methyl groups, and they are simply one carbon to three hydrogens. It's just a recipe ...

Caffeine's molecular structure (

You might also notice in the caffeine diagram above, that some atoms are joined by single lines, and others are joined by double lines. This, together with the number of atoms in each part of the compound, is to do with the physical properties of the atoms and the molecule. The chemical formula for caffeine is (wait for it) C8H10N4O2. That means there are 8 carbons, 10 hydrogens, 4 nitrogens and 2 oxygens, and you could call it 1,3,7-Trimethylxanthine.

Draw it yourself (

Now, I am not going to teach you chemistry. What I want to do, is to use this difficult concept to illustrate 3 approaches to studying tricky stuff.

Approach #1: Interrogating the "Tricky Stuff".

Imagine you are a detective, and you need to ask the molecule questions to solve a mystery. You want to find out where some of the atoms have hidden their stash of cash, and why. You ask open-ended (active) questions. That is:

  • What

  • Where

  • Who, and with whom

  • When

  • Why

  • How much/how many

  • Then what

Don't forget that last question, because it puts everything into perspective. You're a detective, and you need to solve the mystery!

Approach #2: Ascribing Personalities to the "Tricky Stuff".

Imagine you are at a party, and there are lots of atoms bumping around, dancing to the music. Some are in sync, and develop what looks like a really strong bond almost immediately. They dance really well together. Others are not so sure, and they hang around the buffet looking at each other shyly, relying on their friends to reassure them that they're likable. Still, there are others who just haven't seen each other and are simply not interested in one another.

If you like, methyl groups are the gangs or cliques of the party. They often arrive together. They're made for each other. Nitrogen and oxygen like each other a bit, but they often need a chaperone or friend at parties. Not always, but sometimes. Oxygen and nitrogen can form various oxides, such as nitric oxide, NO; nitrous oxide, N2O; and nitrogen dioxide, NO2; oh, and there are N2O4 and N2O5 as well. So, nitric oxide is the brave coupling; in nitrous oxide, one nitrogen says, "you like me, you like my twin"; while in nitrogen dioxide, it's the oxygen twins hanging out with the nitrogen. The others are just quirky little gangs.

The point is, that you make the "tricky stuff" more like something you already know. You know people. People are similar in some ways, and different in others.

Approach #3: Teaching the "Tricky Stuff".

Remember when you were younger, and you played games where you pretended to be someone else? Maybe, you played classrooms or teachers. Maybe, you still like dressing up and role-playing!

One of the best ways to learn something, is to teach it. Yes, even if you don't already know it very well! Just take the tiniest part of the subject, the part that you know, and tell somebody else. Get them to ask you some of the questions that you think might be important (they could be the ones from Approach #1). The more you say the tricky stuff out loud, the more you will teach yourself.

You can do this in all sorts of ways. You could:

  • get together with two study buddies, and take turns teaching a tricky topic, or describing how to solve a practice problem;

  • role-play, whenever you do the dishes after dinner, with your family or friends;

  • day-dream that you are giving a lecture to adoring fans, and they absolutely love you!

So, the tip in Approach #3, is "to teach is to learn". It's a cliché, I know. But clichés are clichés because they are often true. To teach, really is, to learn.

Now, when I started this post, I mentioned that the young man also had a blind spot regarding cells. They are just bigger parties .... so, you know what to do!

Remember, my book, "Study Skills for Success", will teach you, pretty simply, how to use your brain efficiently to get information in, and to get information out. The sooner you start reading this book and using my tips, the sooner you’ll develop both the competence and confidence to succeed in your schooling and further education. It's available as an e-book, and only from my website. Lucky you, it's in the Store tab, and hyperlinked right here. Please purchase it - for yourself, for the students you care about. And please, let me know what you think about it. Your feedback helps me to improve what I do too! Thanks!!

If you'd like a different tactic, why not try the 7-day online program? Once you have access, you can go back to it as many times as you want.

Feel free to like, comment, and share ... Also, if you like what I have to say, please feel free to purchase books and meditations, and to leave a comment! Two happy reviews on Amazon and other online retailers earn subscribers a 50% discount on their next book (if both are purchased from this website).


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