A few weeks ago I had the chance to interview (via e-mail) an instructor of organic chemistry at a medium-size American school, who shared her insights about teaching and learning organic chemistry. Comments have been lightly edited by me (JA). Thanks to the anonymous organic chemistry instructor (OCI) for taking the time to participate.
JA: As an organic chemistry instructor, what are some of the most common mistakes you see students making?
- Not counting carbons.
- Kicking out H as a leaving group rather than using a base to remove a proton
- Wanting to focus on nomenclature, especially in Organic I. Hey, even I don’t know all the IUPAC rules! I tend to quickly shift the focus of the course away from nomenclature
JA: What do you think are some of the key ingredients for success in organic chemistry ? Do you have one that’s most important?
- Recognizing functional groups and learning the patterns. I always tell my students to try to not get intimidated by molecules (even if the molecule looks intimidating) because, sometimes, the bulk of the structure isn’t involved in the reaction of interest. “A molecule will tell you what it wants to and can do”, I often say, “it’s up to you to learn to recognize the message.”
- Learn to simplify the question to everyday language, especially with mechanism type questions. Asking “what has happened here?” is a powerful question that can reveal the path to solving many problems.
- This is probably the most important – I think taking organic chemistry is a great way to develop critical thinking skills, so not being averse to thinking is key. Many questions in organic chemistry require you to take the time to re-interpret the question, look at all aspects of the question, winnow out the unimportant aspects, then follow an “if this, then that” scenario. If you don’t follow through, most often you will miss the point and the answer. It is very difficult to do well in organic chemistry if you hate being pushed to think or are a lazy thinker. You have to be wiling to be engaged.
JA: When you were learning, what were some of the biggest “roadblocks” you had on the way?
Not learning the patterns. I think I wasn’t told that there were patterns. To be honest, it wasn’t until graduate school that I actually “got” organic chemistry. I really liked organic chemistry in college and I did really well in the course. I even went on to do research in synthesis after college, but it wasn’t until graduate school, when I got thrown in the deep end learning vast amount of new material, honing my lab skills, and developing my sense of independence that I really learned what organic chemistry was all about. I was pushed to think deeply. It turns out organic chemistry wasn’t that complicated after all. I just to look for the patterns. Sure, there were always things that don’t fit the pattern. Learning to accept that was also something I had to learn.
JA: If you could wave a magic wand and get your students to do one thing better, what would it be?
Practice, practice, practice. Do assigned problems honestly. Not just to say you’ve done them, but to use problems as a diagnostic tool to determine their own level of understanding and to help see the pattern. This ties in with #2 above.
JA: What the best thing about organic chemistry, in your opinion – what gets you excited about it?
The problem-solving ability and creativity it nurtures. I love the challenge of having to think your way out of any problem and, of course, the satisfaction I feel when/if I get it right. I also appreciate the fact there is an explanation for everything (even if there is still a debate about it) and that there is very little that falls to subjectivity or explanation by majority vote involved in organic chemistry. I guess this is what science is all about.
JA: Any other perspectives or questions that I missed? You’re anonymous, you can say what you like.
OCI: Can’t think of anything here.
JA: Thank you so much for your time.
OCI: Glad to have an opportunity to share my thoughts and experience.
Are you an instructor (or student) of organic chemistry? Willing to be interviewed? I’d love to get your perspective. Your identity will be held in confidence unless you expressly desire otherwise.