Before the start of the semester, I said that I would revisit my predictions about organic chemistry once the semester was over and determine whether I had been right or not. Here is some of what I said with some post-semester commentary:
There are 70 people in my section, of which about half are the traditional second year students and nearly everyone is aiming for something in the health sciences.
Half the class dropped. Another 5 people or so probably failed the course. Of the 30 or so people that passed, only about 20 are going to be headed into the second semester since it will officially be billed as an honor’s section.
The professor is widely regarded as a good professor, but very hard. Previous classes have commented that they believed the course was beyond its level. Whatever.
Honestly have no idea what those people were talking about. He chose not to overlook a lot of details and he focused on the mechanics of what happens in organic reactions, but I never thought he was overly hard. I’ve had far worse. Even his homework assignments, which were supposedly the stuff of legend, weren’t all that bad. They usually required some reading ahead in order to figure out, but office hours and classmates made it a lot easier to get through. Although, the last of the four assignments had an interesting grade distribution, given that the lowest score was a 0%.
The majority of organic chemistry students have never actually been challenged academically. High school education in the United States is a joke and first-year university classes aren’t necessarily much more rigorous. I think a lot of students that whine about how evil organic chemistry is have never actually had to study for a class before.
I was absolutely on the mark here. There were two high school students that were taking this course since they had already had AP chemistry – pretty sure one of them did alright, although he seemed to have only a rudimentary understanding of electrostatics, even though he had had a full years worth of AP physics. The other one was actually my lab partner and he got roundly smacked by this course. Don’t know if he wound up with a B or a C, but it was pretty clear that he was in over his head from the start.
Overall, the impression that I got from most of the students that weren’t in my study group was that this was the hardest class they had ever taken by far. Pretty sure that assessment will change, if we make it into medical school.
First-year courses aren’t rigorous enough and students show up for organic chemistry without any basic understanding of things like energy, electrostatics, and thermodynamics. Reading through my textbook the last few days has convinced me that if you don’t take a year of physics before organic chemistry, you’re asking for trouble.
I think this was a very prescient statement, particularly for a course that was taught with a little more depth than most. I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m convinced that a year of physics, even if only at a conceptual level (ie., without all the math), would make organic chemistry a lot easier. Understanding transition states, activation energies, conformational changes, and a host of other things in organic chemistry would be a lot easier with an understanding of some basic physics. My advice to organic chemistry students that want to really stack the deck in their favor: wait until you’ve had the entire physics sequence before taking organic chemistry.
Freshman chemistry is little more than memorization, so incoming organic chemistry students have no fundamental understanding of things like the origin of orbitals, VSEPR theory, intermolecular interactions, and scores of other things. They may have memorized a bunch of charts for their exams, but they have no idea why something like water has a higher boiling point than hexane or why carbon forms four bonds and not five.
I have no idea where people get the idea that organic chemistry is memorization. I didn’t make a single notecard for the entire course – I don’t even know what you would even memorize. Anyone that tells you organic chemistry requires gobs of memorization is seriously misinformed.
While there are exceptions, second year university students have awful study habits. I’m amazed how few students read their textbooks before coming to lecture and wait to start the homework the night before it’s due.
This was the primary reason I saw people fail organic chemistry. It wasn’t intelligence. It wasn’t lack of memorization abilities. It wasn’t the teaching. It was their study habits. There was a group of about seven girls in the back of our class, the ‘Chatty Kathys’, that waited until the night before the homework was due to start on it and didn’t do any outside reading or problems on their own. I doubt they failed, but they probably comprised the bulk of the C grades in the course. Organic isn’t hard, but that doesn’t mean you can just sit in lecture and expect to have the understanding and ability to solve problems to just leap inside your head. Maybe that’s part of why medical schools scrutinize organic chemistry grades so much – it definitely reveals the quality of your study habits.
The hype. People believe organic chemistry is impossible because they’ve been told that it’s impossible. I don’t buy it. Difficult subject matter, sure – but not impossible if you put the time in.
I have to confess, I fell victim to this earlier in the semester. The night before the first exam, I convinced myself that I didn’t understand anything, that organic chemistry was too hard to learn, and that I should have taken an easier class. Why? Because I got an 89% on a homework assignment (the regrade improved my score to a 100% – our TA was a little ferocious with the grading). I went into the first exam convinced I was going to fail organic chemistry and wound up with the most shaky exam performance I’d ever had (still wound up 10% above the average). I’d allowed myself to buy into the lie that said organic chemistry was some beast that only a select few could conquer. Not true. It’s not impossible. It’s not even difficult, unless you’re unprepared or have a bad professor. But, if you buy into that lie like I did the first exam, you’ll lock yourself into an evil, dark place and wind up not performing your best. Don’t do it.
All in all, I think I had a pretty good handle on the course and what would be required of me. Ultimately, the key to success is to be prepared, focus on understanding, work enough problems outside of class to learn the concepts – you’ll never learn the concepts unless you make mistakes on problems and learn from them – and stay caught up with the material. Do those things, and I can promise you that you’ll achieve your academic goals, as well as actually learning some interesting science along the way. If that latter part doesn’t excite you to some degree, then I’m not really sure why you want to go to medical school.