Dr Kate Nickson
The Importance of Maths in A Level Chemistry
Updated: May 27, 2021
I frequently find myself advising prospective students, be it for individual A Level Chemistry tuition or for an A Level Chemistry Group Class, on the importance of Maths. With the increased mathematical content of the current A Level Science specifications, students find A Level Chemistry really difficult without having A Level Maths to go with it. At least 20% of the marks in A Level Chemistry assessments require the use of mathematical skills. That is significant!
It is not that Chemistry specifically needs much of the content from A Level Maths, but it is more the mathematical familiarity that is required to deal with the Physical Chemistry questions. The timings are very tight in A Level Chemistry exams, so students need the Maths to come naturally, as they don’t have time to think about how to rearrange an equation, which can be a stumbling block. There is also that intuition that comes when they deal regularly with numbers, which helps them approach Chemistry problems systematically and with confidence.
What are the specific maths skills needed in A Level Chemistry?
Knowledge of the relevant equations
Answers must be given to appropriate numbers of significant figures, without being told what they are in the question
Use of standard form and conversions between standard form and ordinary form
Working out the units of an answer from the units of the data
Fractions and percentages
Estimation e.g. if an experimental parameter changes, what effect will that have on the results?
Relating equations to the formula of a straight line to enable plotting on a graph
Determination of gradients and intercepts of graphs
Use of tangents to a curve
Use of angles and shapes in 2D and 3D structures
Use of symmetry in 2D and 3D shapes
Use of exponential and logarithmic functions
Can you do A Level Chemistry without Maths
Yes, but it is harder! As a former Head of Chemistry, it concerns me how variable the advice from schools still is about the need for Maths to support A Level Chemistry. While, some of the top schools now insist that students have to take in-house “Maths for Science” sessions if they want to take A Level Chemistry without A Level Maths, many do not mention it. My aim is to ensure that students at least make an informed choice not to take Maths. At least then they are prepared for the extra work that will be needed on the Physical Chemistry.
I find myself frequently tutoring students who are taking Chemistry A Level, as a means to enabling their more Biological aspirations e.g. medicine, dentistry, vet medicine. Often, they are not taking Maths and thus find the Physical Chemistry tricky. With lots of support and careful teaching of accompanying skills they are able to succeed.
A note for Physical Chemists
If you are a Physical Chemist as opposed to a Biological one, then I strongly recommend considering Further Maths A Level. For those who might want to do Engineering, many of the top university courses require it. As an undergraduate Chemist at the University of Cambridge, the only thing that got me through the maths component of the Natural Sciences course, was my A Level Further Maths
Resources for Maths Support
There is a CGP book, “Essential Maths Skills for A- Level Chemistry”, which is a good starting point for anyone not doing A Level Maths. For support with the Physical Chemistry calculations, you cannot beat Jim Clark “Calculations in AS / A Level Chemistry”. I also put together some “Maths for Scientists” videos last year as part of a “University Preparedness” course for the Access Project, which are available on YouTube. There are a series of accompanying worksheets available to download here.
The key thing is lots of regular practice, as this is the only way to get good at Physical Chemistry.