You may have been handed a textbook, curriculum, or nothing. They said, “You have a science background, right? We need you to teach chemistry”. So, you taught it.
Then, you came across some person who asked you how you taught or how you felt about atoms first versus traditional chemistry. And you sidetracked the question until you could get on Google and stumble on this article.
So here is the low down on atoms first.
It Starts Similar to Traditional
Both the traditional and atoms first approach to teaching begin by teaching some form of measurement, SI units, classification of mater, and significant figures depending on state standards. The last thing taught with both approaches is elements and atoms. Usually, some discussion of protons, neutrons, and electrons happens.
Diverges after Protons, Neutrons, and Electrons
The atoms first approach believes at this point we’ve talked about protons, neutrons, and electrons, so why not take this opportunity to dive into the secret structure of the atom.
Depending on your state standards this may include Lewis dot structures, beta decay, alpha decay, and other nuclear chemistry topics. It may also include quantum numbers and electron configuration.
Begins Periodic Table
After covering the miniscule details of the behavior of the electrons, the atoms first approach goes on to teach the layout of the periodic table, ion formation, naming chemical compounds, writing chemical formulas, balancing chemical equations, and so on.
It boils down to tackling the unseen, deep chemistry earlier rather than later.
Atoms Come First
So, atoms come first in the atoms first approach. The point is to teach the minute intricacies of the atom before you teach even the periodic table.
In short, you dive deeeeep into chemistry going all the way into the secrets of the atom then you go back to surface level topics like the periodic table and how elements combine. Then the topics just keep building like traditional chemistry.
My question to you is, “Is it more important for your high school educated student to go into the workforce knowing how to write an electron configuration or to know what solvents would work best to get a stain out of their shirt?”
Are you stuck in a teaching rut? Do you have a constant monologue in your head wondering if students are getting everything they need out of your lessons? Have you been starting each new topic off in the same way?
Your class has been going along fine, but one day you notice that you are getting a lot more "Can I go to the bathroom?", "Are we going to do anything fun in here today?", and "What time do we get out of this class?" questions.
Those are barely veiled neon signs for I'd rather flip my eye lids inside out than sit through the rest of this class.
So tell your students to flip their eye lids back to normal, sit up straight, and get ready to learn because you are about to turn that teaching rut into a teaching groove with these ideas.
#1 Start with a Virtual Field Trip
Have you always wanted to tour Chernobyl for your nuclear chemistry chapter? Or tour a pharmaceutical company when teaching students how to name chemical compounds? What about taking them on a mining tour when introducing metals in the periodic table?
All these are possible with virtual field trips. Just keep in mind that this shouldn't just be a video activity. This should also be a hands on learning experience, so have some metal pieces to sort through or empty common pharmaceutical bottles to label in between virtual tour videos.
Also, don't forget to make it fun. Some Hershey's gold nuggets would be a great themed treat for the mining tour. As for the pharmaceutical tour, why not fill those bottles with M&Ms or Skittles?
#2 Add in Cross Curriculum Learning
Team up with the art teacher and have her show your students some shading or design tips using doodle notes. Or do an oil and watercolor paint project to show solubility rules. Learn about salt painting and how it applies to absorption and solubility.
The sky is the limit. All you need to do is pick a chapter and sit down with the art teacher and see what you can come up with. Don't forget to tag me on Instagram with your learning innovations.
If art isn't working for you, team up with the history teacher or biology teacher or the FACS teacher. (My fudge or hot chocolate lessons would be perfect for teaming up with the FACS teacher.)
#3 Add in a Group Activity
Teenaged students love to interact with each other. They live for interaction. Use this fact to make learning a little more interesting for them by having them work together on an activity.
Want to 10x your engagement? Make it a competition. After I teach the basics of writing chemical formulas, I have them use this race activity to sharpen each other’s skills. They love it because they can interact, learn, and trash talk each other all at the same time.
I love it because they are engaging with me, the material, and each other. It makes a really fun learning experience.
#4 Add in a Web Quest
Do you have a group of students that are really really not into your lessons? Do they write notes and play on their phones constantly, but then say "But, you didn't tell us that!" when it comes to quiz day?
Here is a strategy you can use to gently and effectively remind students that they need to pay attention when you are talking.
On a difficult topic, have students do a webquest. This shows them that by taking the time to explain things during the lesson, you are helping them out.
They still learn, but they will realize that you make learning easier on them through your explanations.
The day after the webquest, take 5 minutes to review their answers and they will listen. Make sure you point out how quickly they understand when you are able to explain things as you move through the information with them.
#5 Add in a Visual or Demo
Nothing can grab attention like a visual, interactive, or edible demonstration.
That's because you are taking an invisible science and making it tangible.
To demonstrate solubility rules you can put magnesium sulfate (Epsom salt) and water together and show nothing happens. But, when you add in calcium chloride-White out! A snow globe appears in your test tube.
Ask students if the magnesium sulfate just came back out of the solution. Then start your lesson by explaining the solubility rules. (Free solubility rules chart)
Use the periodic table coloring activities explained here to show how useful and diverse the periodic table is.
Go big with this and they will be leaving your classroom telling your future class periods the fun that awaits them in your class.
#6 Start with a Poll
Polls are a great way to start a chemistry lesson because you can use them to review or gauge the prevalence of a common misconception.
You can ask,"What grade do you expect to get in this class?", "How much do you study at home?", or "What was the most difficult chapter so far?". These questions can help you plan future lessons. You can also put sample test questions up to see how ready they are.
Use PollEverywhere.com to set up your polls. Students can text in simple responses or you can have them type in A, B, C, or D. Be careful when having free responses. Sometimes students can type inappropriate responses for attention, distracting from your lesson.
The best part about doing polls is that you can have your students take out their phones complete the poll activity, and then after the poll instruct students know to put their phones away. This removes the "But, you didn't tell us we couldn't use our phones today!" argument.
#7 Add in a Video
Videos are a great way to introduce a new topic or show a demonstration that is too messy or expensive, but attention getting.
Don’t use these to teach the topic. Use them as an attention-getters. I really like The Organic Chemistry Tutor and Crash Course for their educational chemistry videos. My favorite is @being_chemist on Instagram because they post great experiment videos.
If you want 30 second clips that teach, check out some of my TikTok and Reel style chemistry videos. Here's one on molar mass, cations and anions, protons and neutrons, balancing equations, ion dipole forces, etc.
Try any of those out or create your own videos that fit your classroom style.
#8 Start with a Digital Activity
Digital activities are the most simple step by step instruction you can use while still guiding. I have a molar mass digital activity and a quantum numbers digital activity in my store right now. In the molar mass activity students are able to interact with molar mass in a way that is not possible with any other medium.
Students drag the elements off the periodic table. Then they drag the molar mass numbers off of the elements. Then they add everything together. Students are guided through the calculations in a way that is just not possible when working with pencil and paper.
The same is true for the quantum number digital activity. Students get to interact with each quantum number and what it represents in full color. Then students are guided through how to find the quantum numbers through charts that make it simple.
Using digital activities like these will not only transform your engagement, but also the deepen level of understanding students will achieve.
#9 Start with an Article
Does your chemistry lesson tie in with a hot topic that has been blowing up the news? Great! Pick an article out and have students analyze and critique it from a chemical perspective.
Just about anything can be tied to chemistry from oil spills, to new drug discovery, to laundry. Have students exercise their knowledge and see just how practical chemistry can be.
This is one of the best ways to answer, "When are we ever going to use chemistry?"
To prove or disprove the "fake news" that surrounds us.
#10 Start with a Career Application
Pull out a recipe and show students how they are using stoichiometry, measurement, pH, solubility, or the knowledge of chemical compounds in baking.
Pull out a DHEC certificate or agricultural license and show students the need to understand water pH and chemical compounds when farming or planning to build.
Pull up an article on making soap for being an Etsy craft seller.
Pull up a pool maintenance plan and show the importance of pH and measuring water quality for personal pools or for a hotelier.
Chemistry can be applied everywhere.
#11 Start with an Anchor Chart
There are so many ways that doodle notes can be used besides as guided notes and one of the alternatives is to use them as anchor charts.
Either take the file to a print shop and enlarge the doodle notes, or pass out printed doodle notes out to students and have them redraw them larger on poster board.
This would be a great cross-curricular activity with the art teacher. When this is done in with the art teacher involved, they are so much better done, but it just depends on the time you have to spend on a project line this.
Assign student groups to complete the charts and then use them throughout the year. Or, use them as an introduction or review for the chapter.
You can see all the available doodle notes to turn into anchor charts here.
#12 Add in an Engaging Worksheet
Lecture and PowerPoints are useless to students without the ability to put it into practice. Don't forget to incorporate as much engaging practice as you can into your lessons. If the worksheets are interesting or have a twist, so many more students will complete them.
Doodle notes* illustrate chemistry on a molecular level that we just can’t see without serious technological help. They are very engaging because students can understand the abstract things you were just explaining.
Even if you are not a doodle note fan, there are many engaging worksheets that offer practice for students such as this molar mass worksheet. Students who have had enough practice will perform so much better in your class.
*doodle notes is a trademarked term used by permission.
Don't get overwhelmed with this list. Pick out one or two and give them a try when you start hearing lots of irrelevant questions during your class. Just one or two adjustments should reengage students and get everyone on the right track.
My favorite is using the doodle notes with the art teacher to make cross curricular lessons or anchor charts.
Check out those links if you need a creativity boost.
Which one are you going to implement?
Are you teaching quantum numbers tomorrow and you need a refresher?
Great! I’ve got you covered.
The best part is I'm going to make this easier than you ever thought possible. Which means your students are going to cheering your name at the end of class and running home telling their parents what an awesome chemistry teacher you are.
Well, maybe not, but you might inspire a future chemist.
This is surprising, but you are going to start with the abbreviated electron configuration.
They told you teaching electron configuration couldn't be fun? Reaaaallly?
Sorry, honey. Some unimaginative person lied to you.
Not all learning is fun, but I believe you can have fun learning days along with those get down to business days.
Through this electron configuration game, your students can demonstrate electron configuration mastery on individual topics.
So look below for the 3 ways students will demonstrate concept mastery to you through this game.
#1 Students Demonstrate Reading the Quantum Periodic Table
When students are first learning electron configuration, they get confused on the direction to read the periodic table. This game reinforces this proper reading direction by presenting the periodic table as a game board with a clear start and finish.
As students roll the dice (or use Google’s random number generator if you chose to use the no prep version) they get lots of practice reading the periodic table the right way and watching other teammates read it the right way.
Using a game gives you and each student's teammates many opportunities to make sure everyone knows how to read the periodic table from left to right.
#2 Students Show They Understand Filled and Unfilled Subshells
This is made super clear in the game through the use of flags. Each flag is called a checkpoint and students write down all the checkpoints they pass because they are filled shells. The last part students write down is the final electron configuration they land on.
So the students proceed like this: Flag(filled subshell), Flag(filled subshell), Flag(filled subshell), space landed(unfilled subshell).
By using a racecar analogy, it helps students not get hung up on what to write down. As they progress through the game they will show that they have mastered filled subshells through writing down the checkpoints. Students demonstrate mastery of the unfilled subshells every time they correctly count electrons as the subshell exponents.
#3 Students Show They Can Write a Correct Electron Configuration
This game gives students a really fun and practical way to write electron configurations. Depending on how high you set the number for students to roll (or use the random number generator) each student will get around 10-15 practices for writing electron configurations.(Hint: Set the number generator to 7-9 for fewer practice rounds, or lower to 4-6 for more practice rounds.)
So if you have a group of 4 students, that is 40+ chances for them to correct each other.
Plus, if you offer a prize for the most accurate set of electron configurations, this is an extra incentive for students to get it right and not rush through it.
Electron Configuration Made Fun
Are you ready to play? Your students are! Now, go follow this link and get ready to save time and find your job of teaching electron configurations easier.
With this game, and your stellar explanations, your class is going to be the talk of the science hall tomorrow.
You just read that twice to be sure didn’t you? It’s not a lie and it is fun.
It’s crazy. It’s fun. And it is so simple you are going to wonder why you haven’t thought of this before. Get ready to teach quantum numbers with one tangible item that most students have in their kitchen.
...And you already have in your classroom. No need to buy anything.
Sounds too good to be true, but it isn't. Quantum numbers are about to be easy.
Use the Coffee Mug
Let students know that everyone is taking notes today. Have students take out a piece of paper and have them put n, l, ml, and ms along the left side.
Have a big coffee mug and a little coffee mug in your hands. Ask students if anyone has one of these they use at home. You will probably get lots of hands going up or nods of agreement.
Tell students that you want them to think for a second and pick out a coffee mug in their minds that they have at home. Tell students to picture where it is and what it looks like. Also, tell them they must be picturing a coffee mug with a handle.
Now, explain that we are going to describe their coffee mug using quantum numbers.
Teach n With a Coffee Mug
Let them know you are starting on "n".
This quantum number describes the size of the mug or subshell. Tell students to think about their coffee cup at home. Is it big or small? Hold up your two small coffee mugs again. Tell them to write a 0 if it is small and a 7 if it is big.
Students should be writing down what "n" means, but also the characteristics of their mug on their blank notes page.
Have students pick a number in between that feels appropriate if it is medium sized.
Teach l With a Coffee Mug
"l" has to do with the shape of the coffee mug or subshell.
Tell students to write 0 if it is traditional, 1 if it has the shape of an animal, 2 if it is the shape of a person, and 3 if it is the shape of something in nature.
Explain that in quantum numbers we write 0 if the shape is spherical(s subshell), 1 if it is dumbbell shaped (p subshell), 2 if it is clover shaped (d subshell), and 3 if it is one of the complicated f shapes.
Make sure to emphasize to students that they need to have good notes and their own "coffee quantum numbers" after this activity.
Teach ml With a Coffee Mug
Explain that "ml" is the orientation of the coffee mug.
Ask students if the mug is on the counter, in the sink, in the dishwasher, in the cabinets, in their car, or somewhere else.
Tell students to picture the position that their coffee mug is in. Tell them to write -1 if it is upright, 0 if it is laying on its side, 1 if it is sitting upside down.
Explain that this is the same for an electron orbital. We need to know if it is oriented up and down, side to side, or front to back.
Make sure students write that last sentance down.
Teach ms With a Coffee Mug
Last, "ms" has to do with spin and I admit it is a bit of a stretch for coffee mugs to have spin, but tell students to bear with you.
This is why the coffee mug must have a handle. If the handle is to the right it is spin up. If the handle is to the left it is spin down.
Now for the really fun part and the whole point of the activity.
You are going to turn this into a magic trick. Walk around the room and pick up students' papers and describe their mugs to the class. This gets highly entertaining and memorable because you are describing their mug to them through numbers. That's what you are going for, right?
Not only that, but they will completely understand why we use quantum numbers to describe the position of an electron. Because you just described the position of their coffee mug with those same quantum numbers.
Now if you really want bonus points with your students, have them bring in those coffee mugs and you could allow coffee/tea/ hot chocolate for that day. Now that is the most tangible way I can teach you to teach quantum numbers. Doesn’t it seem doable now?
Not only can students actually see this (since you had your coffee mug), but they can relate it to their own lives and understand what all of the quantum numbers mean.
Worksheets that will make teaching this difficult topic easy:
Quantum Numbers Cheat Sheet
Quantum Numbers Digital Activity
Quantum Numbers Teaching Notes
Quantum Numbers Doodle Notes
Quantum Numbers Worksheet
How to Teach Quantum Numbers (FREE)
Have you ever been teaching a group of students, and you can almost see your words going in one ear and out of the other ear?
They doodle. (And not in a good way!)
You don't know what to do besides snow plow through the lesson, and pretend it is going along fine. After all, you know students can smell fear.
Have you considered the problem may not be you? It's your cookie-cutter McBoring-Hill slides provided by McBoring-Hill.
PowerPoints provide us with the ability to wow our students. Unfortunately, they are rarely wowed.
After fixing these common mistakes, your students will be binging your presentations like Netflix.
#1 You Always Teach Off of PowerPoints
Every lesson you begin starts with a PowerPoint.
It comes with the curriculum. It’s easy. There aren’t any errors. (Most of the time.) They are consistent. You know what word fits with the description I just gave you?
That’s right, boring.
When you are flying through a PowerPoint, you can't really fix it if your students are bored. You get flustered and try to rush because the lesson isn't going according to plan and you don't know what else to do besides get it over with. But, when you are hand writing the lesson, you can stop and draw and color code and really engage your students.
Mix it up a little. Hand write the information on slides on the board instead of talking through them like an auctioneer on Red Bull. Your student engagement will skyrocket from that one change.
Watch their faces and watch their pencils to gauge the difference.
#2 You Read Slides
No one means to read slides. We all know we shouldn’t. But, your kids were late getting up, you spilled your coffee and then had to change your shirt. Some student stopped you on the way into class and handed you late work from 2 months ago. And now, you are distracted and need to run through the lesson without a lot of thinking.
Which means you are going to inadvertently read the slides. But you can fool proof your slides.
When using a slide presentation to teach, build in interactive slides. Add in poll slides, text in answer slides, problem slides, text in emoji slides, game show slides. By building in interactive slides you are making it so you can't read slides.
So take control of those bad mornings, by planning for frustration and forcing yourself to be better.
#3 Your Slide Pace is Too Slow for Gen Z
Gen Z needs a fast pace. Pshhhh! I need a fast pace.
Clicking the slide and then talking on that one slide for 5-10 minutes is not okay.
Teachers! This is the world we live in. If you are not flashing and in their faces, you will not get their attention. I’m not saying that it is right, I’m saying that it is.
So, roll with it and add a little bit more to your PowerPoints. Put in a slide with an emoji teasing them about how they will feel about these problems.
When doing example problems, put each step on a slide instead of the whole problem. Or, have the steps fly in one by one. This way you can engage your students and ask what they think the next step should be.
Or, using the previous point, they could text in opinions!
If you must teach with slides, make them fast and make them furiously flashy!
#4 Your Information Pace is Too Fast for Students
This may seem to contradict what I just said, but these are two different things. Your slide pace needs to be like drivers on the Autobahn. Zoom, Zoom, Zoom!
BUT -and I mean BUT- Your information pace needs to be slow and allow for practice.
For example, if I was teaching writing chemical equations, the first 2 teaching minutes would look like this:
0:15 Intro slide-Slide with 1 simple chemical formula-
0:30-Slide breaking down chemical formula-Slide showing metals,nonmetals, metaloids
0:45-Slide with a poll
3:00-Slide with an example problem on it
5:00-Slide with a practice problem
6:00-Go over problems with students for 2 minutes
See how I am mixing in slides for students to interact with and digest information along with informational slides?
#5 Not Enough Practice with the New Information
There are many lists that students must use in chemistry class. Many times we will put that list on a slide and tell the students to access it on Google Classroom later.
They need to learn to use it now. In class. With you.
So leave the list up, or hand out copies, and have everyone practice together. Work out a problem yourself, then have them do it. Have students take a poll or text in the answers. It doesn't matter as long as they are working with the new material you gave them now.
Because we both know, they aren't going back to Google Classroom unless they are familiar with the material.
#6 Your Fonts are Too Cute
So, if you are a super awesome teacher (which I know you are!), and you recognize how dreadfully boring most mass produced PowerPoints are, you created your own PowerPoint tailored to your own classroom needs and it is wayyy better than that vanilla PowerPoint produced by McBoringHill.
But, are your fonts a little too cute? I love fun fonts as much as the next teacher, but they have a place. So make sure that readability is #1 and cute fonts are #2.
#7 Your Notes Aren’t Interactive
If your PowerPoint lasts for 35 minutes with 5-7 minutes at the beginning and end of class with no example problems, polls, feedback, interaction, student problem attempts, then…
Houston. We have a problem.
If you are introducing cations and anions have a slide where they have to copy down the ions and label/ color the cations and anions.
If you are teaching writing chemical formulas, then you need a slide where students attempt to write a formula from a name.
Then, you give the answer after they attempt it. And you aren’t done there. You need to put up another slide with a slightly harder problem shortly after the last one. It doesn’t matter if you have students work it out on their papers, take a text message poll, discuss in groups, as long as they are engaging with the problem.
Improve Your PowerPoints
That is a lot of information. My point is that we can improve our PowerPoints.
If you don’t have time, find a PowerPoint that fits your classroom on TpT. Or, even better, take me up on #1 and just hand write your lesson.
I really want you to stop and think about the content of your slides from a student perspective, and make it better. I did!
My slides were terrible! But over time, I improved.
Your slides can improve too.
Do you give your students steps to follow when working empirical formula problems? I find that it REALLY helps my students.
But, sometimes it is hard to come up with exactly the right steps, so I’ve laid them out for you. Just copy them down or pin this post so you can share them with your students.
Let’s get started.
#1 Get to Grams
Usually you are either give your students the grams of each element or give them the percentages of each element within a compound. Convert percent to grams by dividing, but save yourself teaching headache by just telling them to exchange the % to a gram sign. Do make sure they understand that we are assuming 100 grams of substance, which is why that trick works.
When you begin to teach these problems to your students, start with problems that require them to convert percentages to grams as opposed to the problems that start with grams. That way, in problems students don't have to convert to grams, they feel like they get to "skip" a step. If you teach it the other way around, students feel like you are giving them extra work.
It's all in how you present it.
#2 Set Up Converting to Moles
Now students are in grams, tell them that the second step is to set up converting to moles. To do that, they need to divide the grams by the atomic mass of the element.
Tell your students specifically that they will have to look the number in the denominator up by finding it in the periodic table. Otherwise, they will ask you 1600 times. In one day.
At this point, stop and ask if any student has a question.
#3 Divide by Atomic Mass
For example, tell your students that they have 62.1 g C, and they need to divide it by 12.01 g/mol. Tell them to write that new number down to three decimals. Repeat that for all the elements in the problem.
Tell your students not to round until the end of the problem. That will keep all of your students at the same place with the same numbers.
#4 Divide by Smallest #
Tell students at this point they will have 2 or 3 or 4 awkward looking numbers and that is ok. Tell them to pick the smallest awkward number and divide all the by that number.
For example, looking at 5.170, 13.663, and 1.720, 1.720 is the smallest number. Divide 5.170, 13.663, and 1.720 by the 1.720.
Tell students to write that new resulting number down.
#5 Use those Numbers as Formula Subscripts
The last step students did should get them a whole number. That is the whole point of the division. Tell students that if they got 2.001 go with 2. Tell students we must have whole numbers.
You may also want to mention to your students if they end up with a 2.5 they need to either 1) check their work or 2) multiply all the numbers by 2 to make it even.
Bonus Step for Molecular Formulas
Tell students if they need to find the molecular formula, find the molar mass of their current formula, and divide by the molar mass given in the problem.
Empirical Steps Made Easy
Your students are going to love that you gave them these steps!
Now when you put your examples on the board, make sure you do one example where you do the work and write the steps right next to the work. Even better, color code the steps to the work.
If you liked these steps, you are going to love this illustrated guide to empirical formulas where you will make this process super easy for students to learn. Molecule Men who are working in an empirical formula factory use a step by step process to get the right formula out.
You label the spdf blocks, and students are understanding right along with you. Then, you start explaining about reading the periodic table and it's like a DJ hit the rewind sound on a vinyl track.
You have exactly 32 face staring at you like you've lost your mind and they are giving up.
I know you win back 60% of them by the end of class, because you are that awesome. But, what if you didn't have to lose them to start with?
What if there was an easier way?
Start by teaching your students the periodic table for electron configuration using color. They need to label and outline the s block with pink, the p block with green, the d block with purple, and the f block with orange.
You can choose other colors, but the important part is to color code the blocks. Read more on this blog post.
This is basic, but color coding will help all of your students, especially those with reading disabilities. (p and d can look confusing to them!)
Flag Complete Subshells
When we look at the periodic table, many times we are just picking out information that we need for a problem.
This is different, which is why some students freak out at first. We read the quantum periodic table from left to right.
To make this easier, use a race car analogy.
Have them color the last element of each subshell checkered patterned. You can tell students these "laps" are complete subshells.
Next, have them draw a red flag on the element they are trying to find the electron configuration of.
Write Down Completed Subshells
Tell students that they are driving a race car from the 1s1 position. They need to get to the red flag.
So they must “drive” across the periodic table from left to right, in the right "lane", one period at a time.
But they must stop at each “checkpoint”, and write that location on their paper.
Write Down the Finish Line Location
The last location they must write is the red flag location. If they make it to the finish line, they should have a complete electron configuration.
Often when we teach electron configuration, we don’t have a good periodic table set up. Make sure the spdf blocks are labeled, and preferably color coded.
Next, make sure students see the “checkpoints”, or full subshells, and label the “finish line”.
These visual cues will lead up to a much more clear lesson. Students will leave your class with a clear reference sheet they can use throughout the chapter and year.
And that will save you time on repeating yourself. Every teacher wants that! If you want to save more time, check out these electron configuration activities and games:
Electron Configuration Game (Virtual and In Person and No Prep Options)
Beginning Electron Configuration
7 Electron Configuration Activities
Are you looking for worksheets that correct common student mistakes before they even happen? Or, maybe you need a worksheet set that guides them through the learning process? Perhaps your students struggle with notetaking?
I’ve rounded up my top 5 worksheets that will make teaching easier!
These worksheets either head off common misconceptions before they start, take your students by the hand and show them the process, or make learning really fun!
Teach the Order Through Color
The first issue you will likely see when students start to write chemical compounds is that they will not know whether to put the cation or anion first.
But, they won’t ask it like that. You will probably hear, “I don’t know which one comes first?”.
Head the whole issue off by using the worksheet, Intro to Writing Chemical Formulas. Or, you can do it yourself by drawing a bunch of chemical compounds on the board and have students color code them.
In the worksheet, students go through a page of chemical formulas and color code the cations and anions. Cations are positive and yellow. Anions are negative and blue. For the covalent compounds they color the element farthest to the left yellow, and the element farthest to the right blue. You can read more about how and why I color code my chemistry class here.
Then an amazing pattern forms and they go, “Ohhhhhh! I can do this!”
Of course you and I know that the more technical explanation is that the least electronegative element comes first.
But, sometimes, part of being the teacher is knowing when to give information and when to hold back.
Unless you are teaching AP or honors, I’d hold electronegativity back until a little later.
Teach Subscripts Through Flowcharts
This is one of those ideas that I think is best illustrated on the board in front of students and not from a PowerPoint. Walk them through the process with lots of arrows and colors.
Project a periodic table. Draw arrows from the element's location on the table to where you are working out the problem. Draw circles that represent the charges. Show them why we need subscripts and how we come up with them through crossing charges.
Then hand them this worksheet that walks them through crossing charges step by step with lots of arrows.
Or, continue the drawing theme without crossing charges. The worksheet below takes a more visual approach.
If you have a bunch of students that need more “why” behind crossing charges, I’d show them this worksheet that has them draw out the ions.
The first page skips polyatomic ions to ease them into the concept. The next 2 pages can be saved for later once they have advanced through writing chemical formulas with polyatomic ions.
This worksheet is progressive so it gives them more information to start with at the beginning, but removes information as students learn so that they become proficient on their own.
This worksheet is perfect no matter if you are teaching AP or college prep chemistry courses.
Engage Students Through Competition
There is nothing like competition to spark fun learning in the classroom. Students will love this worksheet that shows them a bunch of ions and has them put them together as fast and as accurately as possible.
Students will huddle in groups trying to quietly come up with compounds without their peers hearing. It can be so funny! You'll have to remind them that only the most correct group wins!
What will you as the teacher love about it?
The key that writes out 40 of the most common chemical formulas that students come up with out of this list. It makes grading faster and easier for you. #teacherwin
Teach with the Ultimate Packet
Are you short on time or how to emphasize how important it is for your students to understand writing chemical compounds? Use this set of worksheets as a group activity, with a Jamboard, or use it to keep students "on-task" when taking notes.
Page 1 helps students identify the order to write the formula in, which is a major issue for many students.
Page 2 shows students the covalent compound prefixes and gives them ideas on how to memorize them easier.
Page 3 teaches students why we have to add subscripts to our chemical formulas through visual illustrations.
Page 4,5, and 6 give students practice with a step by step guide on naming ionic, covalent, and polyatomic ion compounds.
Page 7 combines naming all compound types. You have seen students "get it", until the different types of problems are put on the same page. Then students panic. This page prepares students for that hurdle.
These doodle notes illustrate the steps your students need to take, common student issues, and ask questions so that your students feel more comfortable than ever with chemistry.
Go click on any of those links above to learn more about each worksheet.
You taught them metals vs nonmetals. You taught them to name ionic compounds. You taught them to name covalent compounds. But, now when it comes to putting the big picture together everyone just got lost.
A lot of the time we teach all of these concepts separately. But, why not emphasize the differences to help students remember?
In fact, I have a doodle note set that explains this concept side by side.
If the number of protons, neutrons, or electrons changes, it changes the properties of the atom in a major way.
#1 Changing Proton Number
If you change the number of protons, you completely change the element.
Each element has a certain number of protons. If sodium gained a proton it would become magnesium.
Obviously, it’s a little more complicated than that, but you get the picture. Tell students to leave protons alone.
(By the way, if you are looking for a color coded way to teach finding protons from the atomic number, read this blog post.)
#2 Changing Neutron Number
If you change the number of neutrons, you create isotopes. Isotopes are basically just lighter or heavier versions of an average element.
In fact, the way we calculate the mass number of a given element on the periodic table is to average the light, medium, and heavy versions of that element.
#3 Changing Electron Number
If you change the number of electrons you create ions. A loss of electrons is going to lead to an anion. A gain of electrons is going to lead to a cation.
If you are teaching this principle to your students, make sure they know that most elements tend to form either a cation OR an anion. Not both.
Well, unless you are hydrogen, but he’s “special”.
Subatomic Particles Matter
After explaining all this to your students they will see that the smallest change, or mistake as it is likely to be, will change the whole atom.
It also really helps students to see this principle side by side because many times on tests we ask them what the lost of an electron will do to an atom of Na.
One of the options is usually isotope, so this helps clarify the concept so that your students are better prepared for those concepts.
Here is a link for those subatomic particle doodle notes.
I like to say that I teach demographic-based chemistry. When I begin teaching a new set of students I look at the area I live in and assess the demographics of those students. When I first started teaching I was teaching in a RURAL area, where government subsidies where high and the value of education was low.
Because of that experience, I decided I didn’t like the atoms first approach. (If you don’t know what atoms first means, just click here for the atom’s first summary blog post.)
Here’s why I don’t teach atoms first.
#1 It Terrifies Students Who Were Already Scared
Students go into chemistry hearing horror stories about how hard it is. Nothing confirms those nightmares faster than starting them off within the first 2 months by teaching quantum chemistry.
The deep secrets of the atom are fascinating for those of us in chemistry and physics. But remember, we are trying to 1) provide a general education to help that student be a productive member of society and 2) spark an interest in science.
If we start them off with deep intricacies of completely intangible chemical topics, you lose half of your chemistry class without even trying.
Think about it. Electron configuration, spdf, and orbitals have no practical application for students. They see an epic waste of time unless you are going to college or going to be a physical chemist.
#2 It Doesn’t Put the Most Practical Chemistry First
In my opinion, students need to learn the most practical chemistry first. Topics that will be 1) familiar and 2) things they can use. So, teaching them to name compounds is very practical.
I want my students to be able to go home and read the back of the shampoo bottle and say to themselves, “It looked scary before chemistry, but now I know that sodium chloride is just table salt.”
This prevents them from becoming ranting and raving lunatics on the internet about chemicals that really might not be all that bad.
#3 It Hasn’t Been Widely Tested in Non-University Classrooms
The papers I was able to read about why the atom’s first theory became popular was based on implementation at the university level in California.
That was a completely different academic level and demographic than you and I are teaching.
#4 Teach a Demographic First Chemistry
Take a second to think about your students. Think about their background. Are they financially stable? On government subsidies? Did their parents attend college? Does the community value education?
When I started teaching I developed a lot of my resources for students who grew up in low-income areas, who’s parents probably didn’t have a college education, and who’s community didn’t see the value in education.
When you take that type of background into account, it is easy to see why many students give up. They hear about these orbital things that are inside an atom somewhere that you have to put electrons in. Or maybe it was a shell? Subshell? Oh well….The next topic might be easier, they think.
Teach for YOUR Students
Above all, teach to your students. If you are a mainly a physics teacher who got stuck teaching chemistry this year, then yeah, I get why you might teach the atoms first approach with all it’s physics concepts that come first. Just remember, this is chemistry, and though they overlap, students should leave your classrooms at the end of the year knowing chemistry is practical, useful, and not scary.
Play around with the order of what you teach when. Imagine your students understanding chemistry more than ever. Of course, I believe that comes from teaching more traditionally, but I’ll leave the final word up to you.
Want to stay in touch? Sign up here for my email list and learn more about teaching chemistry.
My students like steps for everything. I like steps for things when I’m learning too. Can’t blame them!
Use these steps, or check out this worksheet, for helping students understand how to get the info about protons, neutrons and electrons out of an element.
#1 Know Your Atomic Number
Make sure your students know where the atomic number is and what it is.
It is often confused for the mass number. I like to use this worksheet to clarify the difference, but you can just explain it to them or have them illustrate why they are different.
I tell my students that the atomic number is the smaller number and it is just protons. They like short and sweet definitions.
#2 Know Your Mass Number
Tell them this number is always the bigger number because it has neutrons and protons included in it.
Emphasize to the students that mixing these numbers up is one of the major causes for losing points on the test. That will get their attention.
#3 Define the Calculations
When I have a class of students that gets confused on which number to subtract, that’s when I draw out the difference and show them the difference in atomic number and mass number. Subtracting them backwards wouldn't give any information!
Once they see that the protons are what is canceling out and you are just left with neutrons, it really seems to help those students who need to know why, why, why we need to do that.
#4 Explain the Calculations
I use a cheat sheet like this to color code and lay out how to calculate protons, neutrons, and electrons.
If you have read some of my other blogs, or bought my stuff on TpT, you know I like to color code. Notice on here positive protons are yellow to stay on theme. Plus, it is a nice subtle clue for students.
If your students understand atomic numbers and mass numbers they will be able to figure out protons neutrons and electrons.
As I mentioned earlier, this worksheet is amazing for that. Plus, if you have more advanced students, just use it as a hand out.
If you would like homework or class work for your students to find protons, neutrons, and electrons, try out this worksheet. It is more for practice than the other worksheet I sent you to earlier.
Your students will thank you for giving them a quick reference to remember how to calculate protons, neutrons, and electrons when they are prepping for the midterm exam.
Nothing is more confusing to students than the difference in a shell, subshell, and an orbital. Except for maybe how the brain of the opposite sex works.
But that is a topic for another blogger!
However, I can help you explain the difference in a shell, subshell, and an orbital without breaking a sweat.
Have you heard someone explain polar molecules and not understood it? Yeah, sure, you understand the polar molecule part. But polar in the context of nonpolar starts to get more fuzzy. Then you look at an example problem, and you think, "Well I know that is nonpolar, but I can't tell specifically why, but my gut says 'Nonpolar!'".
Let me explain how I teach this to my students and how I think you should explain it to your students for very easy understanding.
What is Polar?
There are two ways you can talk about polar molecules with your students: through “poles” or through electronegativity.
Most teachers will choose to use the “poles” explanation for beginner chemistry students or college prep courses. For more advanced chemistry students taking honors, AP, or IB chemistry, teachers will probably choose to use the electronegativity explanation.
Both are valid explanations, but the electronegativity explanation is a deeper explanation that allows for more understanding, but can be overwhelming for beginning chemistry students.
When introducing polarity through poles explain that there is one positive end and one negative end. Most teachers start out by drawing out a water molecule because it is very familiar to students. On the oxygen, draw out the electrons and put a minus sign to indicate that it has a partial negative charge. On the hydrogens, put a plus sign to indicate that they have partial positive charges.
It is that "polar opposite", where there is one end positive and one end negative that makes a molecule polar.
What is Nonpolar?
A nonpolar molecule is a molecule that doesn't have two distinct charge sites.
However, when you talk about this through the lens of electronegativity, you can see that there is some difference in charge throughout the molecule, but it is very small. That’s when many teachers use an electronegativity chart to determine degree of polarity.
Again, many teachers only discuss the electronegativty portion of this topic with their more advanced chemistry students.
Stop Saying "Cancel Out"
The one thing you can do to increase student understanding, is to stop saying "cancel out". When the phrase "cancel out" is used, the image that comes to mind is a left to right cancellation, or a top to bottom cancellation. But, often your students are thinking of the actual shapes of these molecules and it is hard to understand caddy-corner charges canceling each other out.
Instead, simply explain to students that a polar molecules have one single positive end and one single negative end. Anything different should be labeled as nonpolar at the most basic level. Of course, if your students are more advanced, or mathematically inclined, have them use the electronegativity chart.
I’ll bet you teach your students the layout of the periodic table by having them color code the group names, right?
It is an effortless lesson to teach and grade. Students love it because they remember the content easier. But, why stop there?
There is so much more you can teach students through color coding the periodic table besides the alkali, alkaline, and transition metal groups?
Let me show you deep concepts that you can teach your students about chemistry buried in the periodic table. You can use color-coding to teach bonding principles, electron behavior, and many other foundational chemical principles.
The periodic table was laid out with careful consideration for trends, behaviors, and characteristics. Bring those properties to a vibrant, 3D life with these lessons.
Some of these lessons require specific colors. Others are open to your interpretation. Instruct your students to color-code however you see fit.
#1 Color Code to Learn the General Layout
Have students color alkali, alkaline, transition metals, halogens, nobel gases, metaloids, lanthanides, actinides, all different colors.
Make sure they color AND label the metals. I find that the remember more that way.
Pick up my fun periodic tables for free here to use with this lesson.
#2 Color Code to Learn Cations and Anions
In the CoScine Chemistry World, happy, positive things are sunshine yellow, and since protons are positive, they are obviously yellow.
The opposite is also true.
Sad things are blue, and since anions are negative, they are definitely blue.
Based on that color scheme, have your students color code a periodic table blue and yellow based on each element’s tendency to form a cation or anion.
The best part about this activity is that it subconsciously lays the foundation for writing chemical formulas correctly. For students, subconscious learning is the next best thing to learning by osmosis!
#3 Color Code to Learn Electron Configuration
Students get confused on what to write down for an electron configuration. Have them color code a periodic table for electron configuration and use it as a cheat sheet to simplify the process for them.
Color all checkpoints (aka. filled subshells like 1s2, 2p6, etc) checkered because it tells the students to keep reading the periodic table. Color all locations red because it means stop and write the complete electron configuration.
Color code an electron configuration sample so that students know how to use this electron configuration periodic table.
For example, in this picture we would have 1s2 2s2 2p6 3s2 3p6 4s2 3d10 4p6 5s2 4d10 5p6 6s2 5d10 6p3. The last space would be a location and it is colored red. The other spaces would be colored checkered.
#4 Color Code to Learn spdf Blocks
Have students color the s block, p block, d block, and f block. Anytime my students and I color, I also have them label as well. Explain to the students that the reason we color is to trigger memory recall later of the labels and information. We aren't coloring for the sake of coloring. That really helps them see the purpose of these activities.
For the orbitals, I have them draw the associated orbital shape, how many electrons each orbital can hold, and label each color with an orbital letter.
Just because you are coloring doesn't mean you can't raise the bar.
#5 Color Code to Learn Bonding
Once students have color coded metals, metalloids, and non metals, they can use the color coding system to quickly decide if a compound has an ionic or covalent bond(<---Great blog post on hacking this).
Have students draw a gray square next to a gray square and label it a metallic bond. A red square next to a gold square and label that a covalent bond. Draw two red squares and label it a covalent bond. Last, I have them draw a gray square next to a red square and write ionic bond.
They love to use this as a cheat sheet throughout the year.
#6 Color Code to Learn Periodic Trends
This one is really fun and very visual. Students pick one color per trend and color the periodic table according to that trend.
I like this because one corner will be very dark and the opposing corner much lighter. You can differentiate this and make it more challenging by requiring students to color in exceptions.
#7 Color Code to Learn Charges
When beginning to learn the periodic table, students need a visual reminder on which groups have which charge.
Here I've given positive and negative 1, the color red. Positive and negative 2, the color orange. Positive and negative 3, the color yellow. Positive and negative 4, the color green.
So as long as you have your students label the left side of the periodic table positive, and the right side negative, your students will be good to go.
Now that is a lot of periodic table coloring ideas! Try them out.
Imagine how much fun your students will have coloring the periodic table these different ways. Not only are these lessons very memorable, but they are very low prep and easy to assess. They will make learning these lessons so much easier for your students and we all know when learning is easy on students, it is easy on us teachers!
Plus, now your students will have a whole booklet of periodic table references they can use at any time.
Go sign up for my free resource library and get those periodic tables for free. Of course, these lessons work with any periodic table so feel free to use your own.
If your students just aren’t getting the more mathematical approach (aka, crossing charges), maybe try a different tactic.
Illustrate for them WHY we balance charges.
Everyone loves a good hack. Especially students and teachers. Imagine your student’s delight when you teach them these two shortcuts.
They will know that your purpose is to make learning chemistry easier on them.
Read on for the sanity saving tricks.
You can teach them through lecture and PowerPoint. But, maybe you want to mix it up? Maybe you want to put a little spice in your classroom? Maybe make the polyatomic ion list a little easier to memorize?
After all you gave them the list and asked them to learn it before the quiz-and then nothing happened.
Do I have a plan for you!
Yeah, sure. You can teach quantum chemistry like you always have. I did.
You can stand at the front of the classroom and explain about the location of an electron, how it is oriented in space, and the probability of finding it at a given time.
You can explain with no diagrams or some of the traditional, hard to understand diagrams.
You can say, "If you are in the s orbital there is only one option for l and also for ml. That should be obvious based on it being in the s orbital."
Or you could really break the topic down into tangible, bite size pieces for your students. You could make students SEE quantum chemistry easily. (#DoodleNotes are awesome for this)
Imagine quantum chemistry with bright colors, simplified instructions, and specific illustrations that inspire understanding.
Now, that sounds amazing!
In our slide drenched classrooms where we post our PowerPoints and Prezis to our Google classrooms, students always have access to our notes. So, students think that they do not need to take notes since they have constant access to information. Some of my students have even said they have teachers that say not to take notes because they can get it online later.
I haven't investigated, but I hope that isn't the case.
I was helping a student this week and I said, "Let me see your notes and I'll show you..." What I was saw was a bunch of scattered words on a piece of paper with no cohesion and thought process behind them. We harp about taking good notes, but let me ask you, have you ever taught a class how to take notes?
I haven't until now. Do you want to know what I learned?
Do your students look at you like you’re speaking gibberish when explaining a new topic in chemistry?
Do you get no response when you say, “Any questions?” at the end of class? If is your classroom some days, it’s time to grab your uninterested student’s attention.
It is so frustrating when you have spent 50 minutes explaining a topic and get crickets. I know.
You think, “Did I explain it right? Did they just not listen? Should I have done more practice problems?”
No, they are bored.
Have you thought about how far out of their world some topics in chemistry are? For some students, we might as well be explaining rocket science.
Rock their world by trying one of these fun tactics and see your students become sponges in your classroom.
Yes, you may have occasional rowdiness (especially with #7), but they will be engaged.
And that involvement is what we all dream of seeing in our classrooms.
When you teach molar mass, do you just throw up example problems? Or, is there a strategy behind the examples you choose?
There isn't a right way to teach students how to calculate molar mass, but there is definitely a wrong way! When you are choosing your examples, make sure that there is a reason behind that example.
Start with a simple example and then build ideas onto that example. Don't just jump in with a polyatomic ion containing compound and think that students will instantly understand molar mass if you just explain it really well. (Pssst....I did that!!!)
So, if you can't start with a polyatomic ion, what type of problem is good to start with?
Students don't know the basic "chemistry language" when they start the class.
When you teach biology or anatomy or physics student already have a basic working knowledge of plants, and bones, and gravity. But chemistry is built on a table that they don't know and a lot of concepts they've never heard of that they need to master fairly quickly. This is why I color code as much as I can.
Many high school courses don't have time to go over formal charge, so you may need a refresher.
This is a complimentary post in order for you to understand more about the azide ion. To check out the ionic/covalent worksheet where this ion was introduced click here, or read the blog post of frequently asked questions here.
Hi! I'm CoScine. I write chemistry worksheets for visual learners. They are fun, easy to follow, and most of them are quick to grade. Since I started my teaching career at the college level, these are just simple chemistry. These worksheets are hard core science.