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
- 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.