Final Organic Chemistry Results are In

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.


9 Responses

  1. Do you know how disgustingly cocky and condescending you sound? All hail the physics student who knows all. You constantly dismiss all students who struggled with O Chem. I did miserable on O Chem, as a 3rd year college student. However, I’d say I have decent study habits, and I’m a good student, excelling in all my other courses.

    Did you ever stop to consider that O Chem takes a different way of thinking than many of the other pre-med/science/biology/whatever you want to call them courses. Perhaps in a way similar to physics, hence your ease with it, and why Physics is commonly the 2nd evil. Not all students that struggle in O Chem suffer from laziness, or lack of study skills. Some just genuinely struggle understanding the concepts and thinking patterns in O Chem.

    I hope someday that you actually run into a course that knocks you flat on your arrogant rear, and you feel a little more sympathetic for those you scoffed at. I once said that I didn’t understand the whole pre-med stereotype. But reading your blog, I think I’m starting to.

    • Do you know how disgustingly cocky and condescending you sound?

      Yes, clearly, all the posts I’ve made giving advice to people about how to do better in organic chemistry were motivated by my arrogance and sense of superiority. I’m in no way interested in helping people that have less experience learning science than I do. Thanks for pointing this out.

      You constantly dismiss all students who struggled with O Chem.

      I’m not really sure why you think I’ve dismissed students that struggled with organic chemistry, particularly when much of what I’ve written over the past few months has been geared towards helping first and second year students with both physics and organic chemistry:

      However, I’d say I have decent study habits, and I’m a good student, excelling in all my other courses.

      I’m not going to challenge your assertion, but in my experience, we all tend to be terrible judges of our own abilities to some degree. Perhaps you’re the exception, but accurate self-evaluation is difficult and subjective at best.

      Did you ever stop to consider that O Chem takes a different way of thinking than many of the other pre-med/science/biology/whatever you want to call them courses.

      I’ve heard this and it’s probably true, to a fashion. But, my suspicion is that, more often than not, it’s used as an excuse for a poor performance in the class. I will grant you this – upper division science definitely requires a different type of learning approach than introductory biology does. In fact, if you look at upper division chemistry, physics, and biology, they all emphasize critical thinking and problem solving, rather than the memorization of a bunch of terms and facts. It isn’t so much that organic chemistry and physics are beastly things – it’s that introductory biology, which premed students tend to use as a reference, is typically taught at a low level and focuses on memorization. When general biology is taught with the same emphasis on problem solving and conceptual understanding, the passing rates for the class are about the same as organic chemistry.

      That last statement probably requires a little bit of support, so I’ll offer some. Last spring, I took general biology – the first semester was primarily biochemistry, cell biology, and genetics. The professor and I became friends and he mentioned he needed a TA for the fall semester. So, as a favor to him, I decided to help him out. His area of research is in biology education to undergraduates, particularly freshman. His class was structured to emphasize concepts over memorization, a goal which I believe he accomplished (I should mention that this is difficult – there is a science to education, which many educators are ignorant of). After a year of watching students struggle to learn the material and with a 50% passing rate in the course, I’m convinced that the problem the students had was that they failed to alter their learning patterns to fit the course. Even though they were told at every turn to avoid memorization, they still approached the course like it was memorization. This was reflected both in the questions they asked and the answers given on their exams.

      I would submit to you that the reason many students struggle with organic chemistry is not that the course is impossible, but that they haven’t learned how or are unwilling to learn how to change their learning patterns to fit the course. I have no idea whether that applies to you or not.

      Perhaps in a way similar to physics, hence your ease with it, and why Physics is commonly the 2nd evil.

      I don’t know anyone for whom learning physics is easy. Even for the students at the top of my class, studying physics was hard and required a tremendous investment of time and energy. Without exception, the brightest people in my class spent the most time studying the material.

      Not all students that struggle in O Chem suffer from laziness, or lack of study skills.

      I’ve never said all – just many. That’s not condescending or arrogance, that’s observation.

      Some just genuinely struggle understanding the concepts and thinking patterns in O Chem.

      I don’t know anyone for whom learning organic chemistry is easy. The top five students in my class probably spent 20 hours every week studying for the class. I would say that organic chemistry came somewhat easier for me, but it still required me to put in a huge amount of time.

      I hope someday that you actually run into a course that knocks you flat on your arrogant rear, and you feel a little more sympathetic for those you scoffed at.

      Not really sure what you’re trying to say – I’ve already learned the hard way how to learn. I didn’t just spring forth from the womb prepared to learn math and science, I struggled. A lot. That’s why I’ve gone to such lengths to help other people like yourself. If that’s not sympathy, then I don’t know what is.

  2. I disagree completely (with the first commenter). I recently changed programs from an easy Pol Sci arts degree to a BSc Neuroscience, and now have to take all the first year science course. I’ve found that you give a lot of good advice on your blog, and I’ve noticed some of the same things you have vis-à-vis the general attitudes and study patterns of first year undergrads.

    Although I’m in Canada, the quality of high school education is similar, on the average, to that offered in the States. Many university kids are the ones to whom the teaching in high school was under their level, so they just coasted by with high grades without learning to study. When they get to university, they have no idea why they’re getting Cs and Ds when they’re investing the same amount of effort as they were in high school. There are numerous resources, workshops and tutorials to teach them better study habits, but they tend to focus more on spending their student loan money on booze and partying instead of studying.

    Anyhow, I’m being long-winded here. I just wanted to say that a few of your posts (especially one about how to approach first year physics) were really useful to me, and that your observations about why your classmates tend to do poorly are well-founded.


  3. Thank you for documenting all of this!

  4. […] Posted on January 17, 2011 by James Over at Med School Odyssey, the author recently wrote about finishing Org 1, and has a lot to share about his experiences with the course. Here are some choice excerpts from […]

  5. Interesting analysis. I’m in the midst of my second semester of organic chemistry which I’m taking simultaneously with physics and biology, having taken inorganic over the summer. Honestly I’ve found very little that links inorganic or physics to o-chem. A previous student made the analogy that there are physics people and there are organic people; whereas your argument seems to lean more toward the idea that a good physics background would benefit an o-chem student. I’ve found my experience to be quite different; I struggled with physics but find o-chem to be more intuitive. I find there to be a logic and a flow to a lot of the reactions; although I seem to be in the minority with that sense.

    I do completely agree about the memorization bit, though. There are a lot of reactions to learn and I can see where the instinct to memorize might kick in, but I’ve found that my challenge more often is in learning what distinguishes one reaction from another because the mechanisms so often seem to follow a pattern. To be fair, my professor tends to stress overall concepts over details, which I think might be a large part of the bad reputation o-chem has developed.

    Good luck with the rest of your pre-med challenges!

  6. I got my butt whooped in organic chem each semester…and I was taking calc-based physics at the same time (I got a B and a C respectively–in organic) and I don’t know whether to blame it more on my way of approaching the course or my course load.

    • Thanks for the comment.

      Honestly, a lot of it depends upon the professor and the way the course is structured. Learning physics at a really deep level in a one-year sequence requires both a fantastic professor and an enormous aptitude. For most people, it takes a long time – there are a lot of topics in physics and chemistry that I didn’t really understand until I studied for the MCAT. Hell, for that matter, there are still topics that I don’t really understand all that well.

      As far as doing well in organic chemistry, I think that the perspective that the course is taught from is key. If my professor had made the class an exercise in the memorization of a bunch of reactions, I would have been miserable. I’d have probably done fine, but it would have taken a lot more work on my part. I knew going into the course that a mechanistic approach suited me better, so I sought that out. That made the course far more approachable for me.

      For what it’s worth, I’m sorry you had lackluster success in organic chemistry. If you decide to take them again, make sure that you spend some time figuring out what you can do differently. Also, despite what you might hear on SDN, organic chemistry IS tested on the MCAT – mine a few weeks ago had a significant amount of organic chemistry on it. Best of luck to you – feel free to ask me for help if you need it.

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