Well, there are two weeks of class left before the final examination. I went into this course with a bit of trepidation after hearing all the horror stories and, now that I’ve pretty much reached the end of the tunnel, have concluded that the difficulty of organic chemistry is far overstated. He’s never given us a grading scale, so I didn’t really find out until after the last exam where I stood, though I was pretty sure I was in good shape. The average on our last exam was a 45% and I got a 77%, which was one of the top scores – I think the highest was an 81%.
The point of this post isn’t to boast about my grades or ranking in the course – both are fine and my professor told me that I don’t need to worry about my final grade. Although, if I stopped turning in homework or didn’t take the final, I’d imagine that would change. Anyway, I’m not too worried about the course at this point, which is a nice feeling.
Someone asked a while ago for me to post some things about learning organic chemistry that I found frustrating. Here they are in no particular order:
- Textbooks are great at giving simple examples of a particular reaction mechanism – the paradigm reactions are easy enough to understand. What infuriates me, however, is when the text (or lecture notes) show the mechanism for a very simple reaction, and then show reactants and products for a much more complicated reaction, without showing the mechanism. If instructors are trying to emphasize understanding, it would be much more useful to actually show what’s happening and why, rather than just showing the reactants and products and leaving the rest up to the imagination.
- How many times have you heard “the molecule is happier with the positive charge here rather than there”? This annoys me to no end – stop trying to simplify things by anthropomorphizing. Charge at one location is preferred over another for good reason, most of which are fairly well understood. Students are old enough to hear about things like charge stability and lowest energy states. Imparting emotions to a molecule or atom just makes it more difficult for students that want to understand what is actually going on.
- I’m a big believer in learning objectives for science courses. Textbooks typically cover an enormous amount of information, much of which isn’t going to be covered in the class and can be safely omitted when the student is reading before and after lecture. My experience this semester would have been a lot better if I had known specifically what it was that we were expected to know after we had completed a particular section. This would have made studying much more targeted and helped me to fill in holes at the end of the section, rather than wasting a lot of time trying to figure out which subjects were important and which weren’t.
Here are a few things I’ve learned about this subject that students ought to be aware of before they take this class. I doubt any of these will be new for most people, but hopefully, others can benefit a bit from them:
- Success in organic chemistry can be helped or hindered by the quality of your professor and classmates.
- Study groups are not the necessity that everyone says they are. While your mileage may vary, study groups are often an enormous waste of time. I met about once a week with 4 other people to review our answers to the homework and review problem subjects. After the first exam others realized we knew what we were talking about, so we wound up with about a half dozen party crashers when we got together, all asking us to teach them organic chemistry. Bottom line – if you have a study group, get together to go over what you’ve already done outside of class and don’t invite people that will distract you from that goal. A couple hours a week is probably sufficient for this.
- The reliance upon memorization as the key to success in organic chemistry is a mirage. I don’t know what you would actually memorize – I haven’t seen anything in the course that I felt could be memorized, so if you find yourself making flashcards, you’re doing something very wrong. Maybe for learning functional groups you could do this, but you’re going to use them enough that you’ll have them wired after a few weeks anyway.
- Do some problems or reading every day. I didn’t do this because organic chemistry isn’t all that hard for me to get a handle on, but if I had, I’d probably understand things better than I do. I’ll probably spend a good chunk of winter break reviewing a few key chapters to get a handle on things better.
- Don’t let yourself get psyched out by the people around you whining about how difficult organic chemistry is. I let myself get taken in by the horror stories around the first exam and did substantially worse on the first exam than I should have simply because I bought into the idea that it was tough and I was going to fail. I learned a lot more about myself and self-confidence during the first few weeks than I did about chemistry. If you’re surrounded by negative and pessimistic people, tell them to piss off – don’t get sucked into their game. Prepare and study well – play your game, not theirs.
Best of luck to everyone that’s taking organic chemistry now or in the future – I’ll post some updates on the course over the break. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!