Organic Chemistry Study Tips

By James Ashenhurst

Problem Solving In Organic Chemistry

Last updated: September 12th, 2022 |

One of the reasons why so many students find organic chemistry difficult is that the problem-solving methods required to succeed in the course take them by surprise. After introductory courses in general chemistry and physics – where many problems involve determining which equations to use, and simply “plugging” in the appropriate numbers – or biology, where success is largely a matter of making long lists of terms and diagrams to memorize – many students have a hard time adjusting to organic chemistry, where problem solving methods are considerably more varied.

I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a better description of the critical thinking skills involved in organic chemistry problem solving than that described by Prof. Jeffrey Moore of UIUC, who discusses them in this short (6 min) video.

In short, the key problem solving skills in organic chemistry involve:

  1. “wrestling with and resolving ambiguities”
  2. “filtering relevant from irrelevant information”
  3. “overcoming failure and learning from setbacks”
  4. “a willingness to take risks and not be afraid of failure”

If this doesn’t sound like the problem-solving skills required for being an effective physician, I don’t know what is. Another estimable blogger (and retired neurologist)  has made the same point.

If I could venture another analogy, problem solving in organic chemistry also bears  resemblance to chess, where many possible pathways must be identified and evaluated.

Finally I note that Prof. Moore will be teaching introductory and intermediate organic chemistry as part of Coursera’s recent offering of massively open online courses (MOOC’s) in the fall. If the type of thinking required for solving the types of problems encountered in organic chemistry can be taught – and there is no reason to think that it can’t – this should be a very interesting test case.



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