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How To Learn Organic Chemistry

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You have probably heard horror stories about this class. About how organic is the hardest course, the flunk-out course, etc. You may feel overwhelmed by the number of compounds, names, reactions, and mechanisms that confront you. My suggestion to you is to read these pages and take the suggestions to heart.

Personally, I think organic chemistry is a great lot of fun. I want you to enjoy this class as much as I do, but I can't learn the material for you. Sorry.

If you are to be a successful student of organic chemistry, you must discover for yourself how to learn chemistry. Different people learn, take in, process, and integrate information, differently. What works for you will not always work for someone else. An explanation that clarifies for one person will simply add more confusion for another. Try lots of things until you find the ones that work for you.

Important Rules to Live By If You Wish to Succeed in CHEM211
1. Work the Problems

2. Don't Get Behind
You ignore these rules at your peril.

On Studying:

Organic chemistry cannot be learned the night before the exam.
Don't even try.

Learning chemistry, or any subject, involves practice. Far too many students attempt to prepare for an exam by spending hours and hours in the day and a half before the test, shoving loose pieces of random information at their heads. No wonder many folks are frustrated by their performance in the class.


One analogy that works for me is that learning organic chemistry is like learning to play the piano. (Okay, so I'm a pianist, shoot me.) You do not sit down in front of the keyboard the evening before the recital and attempt to learn the A minor 2-Part Invention by Bach. In order to play at all, you need to practice every day in the preceeding weeks and months (and years).


Organic chemistry cannot be learned the night before the exam. Don't even try. You must practice every day - read, listen, work problems, re-read, take notes, re-organize ideas, ask questions.




1 Read the Text; Think

Read the text or at the very least skim it BEFORE CLASS. This allows you to review material you might already know. You will also have an idea about what material is coming. You will know what information is in the book - and you won't have to write it all down in class. You may even be able to generate a few questions. You can pay special attention to any unclear parts during lecture.


2 Attend Lecture; Listen; Think

It is a well know fact that the people that struggle the most with this course are the ones that show up at lecture the least. Inverse correlation. Think about it.


Occasionally during class, I will ask you to pull out a piece of paper and write down a mechanism or work a problem or something. I will then collect your creations. These will not be graded, so relax. What good are they, you ask?? They allow me to take attendance rather easily. They allow me to see whether you've read the assignment for the day, where you are with the material, what's confusing and what you've got a handle on.


3 Take Notes; Think

Listen in lecture and take notes. Note that I put LISTENING first and note taking second! If you have skimmed the text, you will know what material appears in the book, such as which mechanisms are drawn out etc. That way, you have to write less. Make a note about things you did not understand then ask about it, either during class, after class, or later in my office.


Too many people develop the bad habit of trying to write down everything the professor says/writes/shows during class. This would not be bad in itself, except that many folks turn OFF their brains while doing it. They do not attempt to understand what they are writing. Then, when they attempt to use those notes later in working problems and stuyding, they have no idea what the notes mean. Solution: think more, write less, use the textbook as a backup.


Your lecture notes should not be a simple rote copying of whatever appears from my mouth or from my pen or piece of chalk. Your notes allow you to begin to process, organize, highlight, and identify concepts in a way that is useful TO YOU. Some students have found it helpful to bring ink pens of different colors to class so that they can organize the notes by color as they go. You may discover another method that works for you.


4 Work Problems; Think

Work problems, do them many times. Work lots of problems. Do the ones assigned until you understand them. Then do them again. Do the ones that weren't assigned. Generate lots of paper for the recycle bins. Problems ask you to use the material in ways other that the text or lecture can do. Problems give you the opportunity to discover which concepts and ideas are clear and unclear. Problems can be fun.


Study by working the problems, NOT only by reading your notes and the text. Your best measure of your facility with the material is whether you can work problems.


Working problems is essential to success. Work some more problems.

More Survival Tips

  • Keep Up

    Falling behind is death. And once you are behind, it is even harder to catch up while staying on top of the new material. So don't dig this hole for yourself. Start right now and keep on schedule.

    You cannot see how the material you cover today will be used again three chapters from now. But it will. By focusing on basis principles, you will see that the same reactions keep appearing over and over again. The specific details will change, but the principles remain the same.

    If you fail to comprehend something now, you set yourself up for compounded problems later. Deal with the issue now, while it is fresh in your mind. The best way to keep up is to plan to do organic every day. Weekends included.

  • The Daily Work-Out

    The basketball player, the swimmer, the violinist, the dancer, the student of foreign language, all of them practice daily if they are to succeed and improve. Organic chemistry takes time and practice. It takes discipline and planning. But so does weight training.

    Just do it.

  • Learn, Don't Memorize

    Organic chemistry consists of a few basic principles and many extensions and applications of these principles. There IS rhyme and reason to organic chemistry. Relatively little memorization is required if you grasp the major concepts and develop flexibility in applying those concepts.

    Some facts and fundamentals must be learned (memorized) in order that you have a working "vocabulary." So one of your main tasks is to identify the key ideas, learn them, and then apply them. Do not attempt to memorize your way through this course. It does not work. There are more than 14,000,000 organic compounds known, and you will never be able to guess which ones might be chosen as examples.

  • Ask Questions

    Simple, right? Wrong. Far too many students do not ask questions. You have many opportunities to clear up the unclear: during class, after class, in my office, at recitation, in lab. Take advantage of me. That's why I'm here. Ask.

    My favorite questions are of the type: "I worked this problem and got a different answer than the one in the book. I thought that this functional group did that but in this case I guess it doesn't. Why?"

    My least favorite questions are of the types: " I don't get chapter 6?" and "What will be on the quiz?"

  • Work the Problems

    Too many folks attempt to master organic by reading the text and reviewing lecture notes ONLY. This is fatal. The only way to determine whether you are truly getting the hang of it is to do the problems. Do lots, do them over and over, fill recycle bins with scrap paper.

    Your study time should be 75-80% working problems, the remainder reading the book or reviewing notes.

    Another fallacy about organic, and about working problems, is that you can just read the problem and think to yourself "Oh, I understand that" and then go on without ever scratching pencil on paper. Beware! The practice of writing it down can help you to see where you might make those pesky "silly" mistakes that cost points when it counts.

    Now hear this! I do not always collect the assigned problems for grading. If you are struggling with the material, by all means turn in your written-out problems for me to look at. I will be glad to go over them and find where you need some clarification. I can then suggest additional problems, which you can work, turn in to me, etc. You have at your disposal unlimited problem consultation. Two catches: you must initiate this and you must actually write something down to turn in.

  • Art and Foreign Language

    No, you do not have to register for these this semester. Much of the communication of ideas in organic chemistry is conveyed by the drawing of structures - art. There are some "artistic" conventions of organic chemistry that are very important. Learn them. Live them. If you fail to appreciate the critical nature of your "artwork" in this course you may just fail other things as well. "You know what I meant!" doesn't cut it if it is not what you've drawn.

    Just as with foreign languages, organic chemistry has its own vocabulary and grammar, jargon and lingo, even alphabet. Become familiar with these as they are presented. Use them, work with them, make them your friends. One example is arrows: reactions arrows, equilibrium arrows, resonance arrows, curved arrows, retrosynthesis arrows. All these have particular meanings and uses. When applied carefully, they convey ideas clearly and concisely. When applied without understanding, they quickly demonstrate confusion and gobbledegook.

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