Chemistry plays an important role in our everyday lives, whether we realise it or not. 

It is a vital component of diagnosing health conditions and treating them. It is part of how we grow food and even allows us to engineer new foods. An understanding of chemistry will also be needed to find an effective solution to climate change. 

For these reasons, NCEA Chemistry is a required subject for a large number of qualifications that fall under a Bachelor of Science. This is the case at universities across New Zealand.

Due to this, or perhaps just because of the allure of fun experiments, NCEA Chemistry is becoming more popular with high school students. Another great shift has been in the gender ratios within classes. As a chemistry student I was one of five females in a class of almost thirty. The first NCEA Chemistry class I taught had boys outnumbering girls 2:1. Now there is a consistent almost 50:50 split, with girls outnumbering boys some years!

I think this is, in part, because chemistry is no longer seen as a subject for doctors and engineers. We are also starting to see the results of campaigns encouraging STEM subjects. Adding to its popularity is that many students are beginning to appreciate its importance and relevance as they become more aware of the issues on Earth threatening their future. 

What makes NCEA Chemistry harder to learn?

However, NCEA Chemistry is not a subject students can ‘cruise’ through. 

The topics covered in NCEA Level 2 chemistry are usually new to students. Electronegativity, polarity and equilibrium aren’t things that most students hear in everyday life. Due to this, students have to learn a whole new vocabulary as well. This makes revising even more important. 

Did you know that it takes, on average, 3 separate interactions with new information before your brain will store and remember it? 

In subjects like English, students have been learning about language features since primary school. They are usually building on prior knowledge in these subjects, which make them easier to learn. As students are unfamiliar with the concepts in NCEA Chemistry, they have to be exposed to the information more frequently.

Another issue that makes NCEA Chemistry harder to learn is the subject matter. Chemistry is the study of  atoms,  molecules and how these two interact. Atoms and molecules are so small they can’t be seen. This means students have to use their imagination to visualise what these things might look like. Trying to imagine something you have never seen before, in 3-D, isn’t easy. It takes a lot of focus. Students can miss the actual key points they are meant to be learning because their brain is concentrating on working out what an atom or molecule looks like.

Thankfully, there are ways to make learning NCEA Chemistry easier for your teen.

Idea 1: Use tools that model the molecules and reactions

There are some great tools out there that let students see the molecules they are learning about. One of the best free online tools is the Phet Molecule Shapes Visualiser. This lets students add single, double and triple bonds to a central atom and view the shapes and bond angles of the resulting molecules. This is perfect when students are learning the shape names and bond angles of molecules in Achievement Standard 91164 – Structure and Bonding and Achievement Standard 91390 – Thermochemistry.  

Some students are more hands-on learners and prefer something physical that they can hold and interact with. In this case, Molymods are a great option. These are plastic balls and sticks that students can connect together to make different molecules. Unlike the Phet Molecule Shapes Visualiser, Molymods also let students add different atoms to the central atom and combine molecules. This makes them perfect for learning organic chemistry too (Achievement Standards 91165/2.5 and 91391/3.5).

Molymods used when learning NCEA Chemistry
Molymods used to learn NCEA Chemistry

Most schools will have a set of Molymods that students can use in class or during breaks. However, if your teenager is studying through Te Kura or they want to use Molymods at home, you can purchase them from TradeMe or Amazon. They can be quite pricey though. 

You can get your teen to make their own molymods for different shapes and bond angles using toothpicks and different sized polystyrene balls. They will need a protractor to measure the correct bond angles between two attached balls. 

Idea 2: Create analogies that make connections between new concepts and everyday experiences.

I always use analogies when teaching the key points in NCEA chemistry. It can be hard for students to get their heads around complex concepts they have never heard of before. Attaching these topics to more concrete experiences can help students make sense of them. 

In Level 2 Chemistry students are introduced to the concept of electronegativity in the Structure and Bonding Achievement Standard. It comes up again in NCEA Level 3 Chemistry. Electronegativity looks at how strong of a pull one atom has on the electrons it shares with another atom. Students can struggle with this concept at first as they have never heard of it before. 

I introduce this concept by comparing it to a tug of war between two teams. Both teams (atoms) are pulling, wanting to get the rope (electrons) closer to them. As the atoms sharing electrons change, the size and number of people on each team change too.

Everyone is familiar with a tug of war, so they can easily visualise what is happening. Making connections between what they are learning and what they already know is an important part of the learning process. It is essential, if students are to store and be able to recall the information. 

Students can create their own analogies by linking the abstract concepts to everyday events they are familiar with. Taking the time to come up with analogies as they revise will strengthen their understanding of the concepts significantly.

Idea 3: Complete NCEA Chemistry papers from previous years

Finally, I strongly suggest that students attempt NCEA Chemistry exams from previous years.  The types of questions examiners ask remain fairly consistent every year. Often, only the examples given in the questions change. 

Completing old exam papers shows students which questions always come up in the exam. If they write a list of the questions asked in each paper they can use it to focus their study on the key concepts. It also shows students which key concepts they aren’t confident with and need to revise.  

The NZQA website has NCEA Chemistry exams going back to at least 2014. They also have the mark schedules available. You can print off the exam papers so your teenager can practise answering the questions. Once they have attempted the questions, get them to check the mark schedule to find out what they need to add to achieve a higher grade. 

Here are the links to previous NCEA Level 2 and 3 Chemistry exam papers. 

NCEA Level 2 Chemistry:

91164 (2.4) -Demonstrate understanding of bonding, structure, properties and energy changes

91165 (2.5) -Demonstrate understanding of the properties of selected organic compounds

91166 (2.6) -Demonstrate understanding of chemical reactivity

NCEA Level 3 Chemistry

91390 (3.4) -Demonstrate understanding of thermochemical principles and the properties of particles and substances

91391 (3.5) -Demonstrate understanding of the properties of organic compounds

91392 (3.6) -Demonstrate understanding of equilibrium principles in aqueous systems

Make sure your teenager answers the questions before looking at the mark schedule. Otherwise, they end up copying the information from the mark schedule. This does not force their brain to interact with the information so they do not learn anything.


Here is a list of the tools and strategies discussed in the article above:

  • Use the Phet Molecule Shape Visualiser
  • Use the school’s set of molymods or purchase a set
  • Create molecules using polystyrene balls and toothpicks
  • Link unfamiliar concepts to well known experiences
  • Complete old NCEA exam papers and use the mark schedules to find areas to improve

If your teenager has missed lessons due to sickness or trips, or they are finding that their teacher is moving through the topics too quickly or they don’t connect with their teaching style, consider The Online Chemistry Classroom

This is an online resource for students studying NCEA Level 2 Chemistry. Currently, it is only available for Achievement Standard 91164 – Structure and Bonding. 

Inside the online classroom there are: 

  • Video lessons that I prepare and deliver so you know your teenager is learning from a qualified, experienced and passionate teacher
  • Essential notes so your teenager can easily review the key points
  • Learning activities to develop your teenager’s understanding of the key points
  • Quizzes so they can quickly assess their understanding
  • Revision activities to help them focus on the key points as they prepare for exams 

For more information about The Online Chemistry Classroom click here.

If you have any questions about the tools and strategies covered in this article, leave them in the comments below and I will answer them.