Yes. Let’s skip past the anecdotes, as entertaining as they may be, and move right through to a more detailed analysis. Here’s why:

1) There is a ton of vocabulary to learn. David Klein, author of the acclaimed book “Organic Chemistry as a Second Language”  really hit the nail on the head with that title: organic chemistry is a language unto itself. Here’s an example of some of the vocabulary we encounter within the first 5 chapters of a typical organic chemistry textbook:

  • common names of a large variety of chemical compounds
  • the names of all the functional groups
  • all the terms to do with structure, bonding, and stereochemistry.
  • in addition, everything we’re supposed to know from General Chemistry like acidity, basicity, equilibria, thermodynamics and so forth.

That’s a lot of vocabulary – when you add it up, well over 100 individual terms.

2) There are a lot of symbols to learn. There is a rich visual language to chemistry in addition to the spoken one. Prominent examples:

  • condensed formula notation and line notation
  • Fischer projections, Newman projections, wedge/dash notation, cyclohexane “chair” drawings
  • Arrow notation: reaction arrows (single and double) curved arrows (single and double), retrosynthesis arrows
  • The symbols for various elements, including Lewis structures

On top of the vocabulary and the symbols, at the beginning of the course we cover chemical nomenclature, including numbering/naming compounds and assigning (R), (S), (E), (Z) and so on.

This is just vocabulary, grammar, and punctuation – and we haven’t even got into the actual content yet!

 

3) Then there are all the facts to know. While a rote knowledge of facts isn’t as important as it might be in a biology course, to take one example, there are still a wide range of facts that should be at our command as we make our way through the course:

  • the pKa’s of different classes of molecules
  • electronegativities
  • solvent polarities
  • a feel for the relative values of various bond strengths
  • most importantly - different reaction types

4) As if that wasn’t enough, then there are all the concepts. This is where things start to get really hairy. While I said that knowing rote facts isn’t stressed so much on exams, knowing the trends of those facts (and understanding them) is key. The students who understand the concepts are the ones who do well in the course, because this is the level of understanding that is generally tested for on exams.  Here are some examples of general questions that reflect a more conceptual understanding of organic chemistry:

  • how does structure affect boiling points and water solubility?
  • what factors affect acidity/basicity?
  • what are the factors that affect nucleophilicity and electrophilicity?
  • what are the ways in which structure affects chemical reactivity?

5) There aren’t that many formulas that help to simplify things. Even if you have a strong distaste for math, you have to admit that formulas have their uses.  They’re enormously simplifying. For instance, it would be nice if there was a straightforward formula for nucleophilicity, since it’s one of the most important concepts in organic chemistry. Well, sorry – you’re out of luck.  We learn that iodide is more nucleophilic than fluoride, for instance, except when we’re using a polar aprotic solvent, in which case the order is reversed. It’s all these exceptions which tend to lead to frustration. Be prepared – there’s a lot of them!

6) All of these build upon each other, like a pyramid. Just like we have to learn vocabulary and grammar before we can have conversations, we have to learn the vocabulary and conventions before we can make sense of a lot of the facts. Furthermore, it isn’t until we’ve seen a lot of the facts in action that we start to get a handle on the concepts. The course moves very fast. Without a command of the vocabulary and conventions introduced at the beginning of the course, the facts and concepts introduced later on will be much harder to grasp – which will translate into poorer grades.

7) Finally, the sheer complexity generated by all these conventions, facts, and concepts leads to the need to learn a great number of different skills. By skills, I mean applications of all of these types of knowledge toward solving different problems, for example -

  • naming organic compounds
  • predicting products of a chemical reaction
  • determining the structure of a compound given spectral data
  • planning the synthesis of small molecules

Is there any other course like it? Probably not. Organic chemistry is in the middle ground between a fact-heavy course like biology and a highly quantitative course like physics. So you end up getting the worst of both worlds, as far as course difficulty is concerned. It’s a course that tests our memory as well as forcing us to think. And we haven’t even mentioned the labs yet, which add a whole other practical dimension to the course. Can you think of another field of study which involves so much 1) book learning 2) making decisions based on thinking through conflicting data, and 3) working with one’s hands? I can.

The good news is that you’ve already learned something that’s even more difficult than undergraduate organic chemistry. The fact that you’re reading this means you’ve already learned English. Think about how tough English is – the huge vocabulary, all the colloquialisms,  the weird grammar that follows no clear rules, the myriad exceptions to all the rules – English drives people nuts. Being able to read, write, and speak well in English is (in my opinion, of course) a more difficult task than learning organic chemistry. It doesn’t take a genius to learn English – but it does take motivation, time, discipline, and a lot of grunt work.

In spite of everything, success in organic chemistry is a very achievable goal. It is within the average student’s power to do well in organic chemistry, given  1) motivation, 2) sufficient time, and 3) effective study strategies.

Stay tuned.

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