Organic Chemistry Study Tips – Reframe Answers As Questions

by James

in Organic Chem Study Tips, Organic Chemistry 1, Teaching

Let’s take a quick look at this reaction.

1-reaction1

Here’s one way to study it:  look at the starting material, look at the reagents, look at the products, and try to memorize the entire thing. That’s certainly a possibility. There’s just one problem. It’s very easy to convince yourself you know something when you’re staring at the answer.

A better way to study for this reaction is to use it as a source of questions.

  1. Given the starting material and reagents, what is the product of this reaction?
  2. Given the starting material and product, what reagents are required?
  3. Given the reagents and the product, what starting material is required?

2-reaction2

You’ll notice that these are very common exam-type questions. If you have a set of flashcards (or find some online) you can do these types of questions by covering up the relevant section. It really helps if you can do this OUT LOUD so that you will engage a different part of your brain besides your inner voice.

When you get these three answers down, you can also add the following two questions.

  1. What is the mechanism of the reaction?
  2. What is the stereochemistry of the reaction? That is, does the reaction require your reagent to have a specific stereochemistry (for instance, the anti configuration in the E2 reaction), or does it produce a specific stereochemistry in the product (as in our hydroboration example shown above)?

If you’re really keen, you can ask at least two more important questions:

  1. Given any choice of reagents, provide one reaction you could conceivably do to synthesize the starting material.
  2. Name one reaction you could conceivably perform on the product.

Getting to know organic chemistry is like exploring a vast new city on foot. It takes a while to get to know the order of the streets and how they’re all related to each other (plus there’s some really old, weird parts of town that are completely disorienting). The more robust (and less fragile) you can make your knowledge, the sooner you’ll be able to discover the connections between things. While you’re studying, it helps if  you pretend you’ve been asked to explain the course material to a trusted friend, who is asking you questions. In the long run, It should work out a lot better than pure rote memorization.

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