Thoughts On Teaching Organic Chemistry

By James Ashenhurst

How Much Does Having A Great Memory Matter?

Last updated: January 23rd, 2024 |

I recently heard from a reader, Hussain, who told me that he’d been working on memory techniques that allowed him to memorize a deck of 52 cards in just a few minutes. Inspired by this awesome story,  last week I asked my readers how much would it mean to them to have a great memory. How much do you think your memory affects your grade?

A LOT of students I hear from wish that they had better memories, or struggle with remembering different mechanisms or reactions. They seem to think that if only they were blessed with genes from the Magic Memory Fairy that they would suddenly be crushing their o-chem course – and, sadly, blame *themselves* for not having a great memory.  They then proceed to go down this downward spiral that begins with putting successful students on a pedestal for having a great memory and using that as an excuse for why they’ll never do well in ochem. Self fulfilling prophecy:

 I think a great memory helps a lot. Sometimes I feel that I am at loss just because I cannot memorise and mug up things as fast as my class mates. I have to devote a lot of additional time to learn the facts, reactions and other things. This at times demoralises me.

Other students I heard from have a different perspective on it:

“I think a great memory would be excellent for use in organic chem, however I believe understanding concepts would be better. Just incase they twist up the question on you.” – Cathy

“If I had a much better memory, I do not think my o-chem grades would improve all that much. My TA’s have told me, and I have realized myself as I am in my 3rd quarter of ochem, that this subject is about learning patterns. Memorizing will only go so far if one does not understand the mechanisms behind the reactions” – Leah

“I’ve no idea if there’s a “right” answer to this, but my organic chemistry grade wouldn’t be that much different (94%, whoohoo!) even if I had an incredible memory! Understanding the reactions was so much more useful to me than memorizing all the different mechanisms for different pathways. Obviously you do have to memorize a few things, but with enough practice those things become “common sense” and reactions become easier.” – Jennifer

“Memory and comprehension are structure and function. Both are equally important and play off of one another. Figuring out how to increase your exposure of data in a way that you can quickly make sense of it is, in my opinion,one of the best skills to gain in college.” – Ryan

YES. So glad to read so many comments from students that get it. We’ll go back to this.

So how much does a great memory matter? Here’s what Hussain wrote after his first test:

“I had my first Honors Organic Chemistry 1 exam last night and it was brutal. My main issues were most likely in pKa values, resonance structures, and molecular orbitals. Also, we get very complicated and lengthy questions on our exams (it was 9 questions that took about 2 hours to complete). More important than anything else, I need to be able to synthesize new information that I learn so I can [apply concepts]. I need to understand the theory behind each step so I can answer questions for every possibility. For example, one question involved drawing the most stable conformation of a cyclohexane-eesque substance, but it involved three cyclohexane rings that were connected to one another by the sides. The closest we had gotten to that molecule before we took the exam was decalin (two rings). As another example, we also had to give the exact pKa values for six very complex compounds from a list of ~12 pKa values (some would be used once, some none at all). This was difficult since you have to use process of elimination as well as making decisions based off [applying concepts] (since you don’t know the exact pKa values).

Any help in deciding the difference between [memorization] and [applying concepts] would be greatly appreciated.”

My quick response to this was to learn to apply the 5 key factors that affect acidity and the 4 key factors that govern the stability of resonance forms. Not that it was asked, but I think it’s clear that having an encyclopedic knowledge of a pKa table is a lot less helpful than simply being able to recognize the key factors that affect acidity and analyze the presence or absence of those factors in a set of given molecules.

So how much did it help to have a great memory? As it turns out, Hussain did about class-average for that test. Which is just one data point, but supports the idea that being able to apply concepts is a more important skill than simply being able to memorize things well. Exactly as Cathy said, above. 

I don’t want to paint this as a lesson that “memorization is bad”, or that “memory doesn’t matter”, or that “people with great memories have no advantage in an o-chem class”. I’m not saying any of those things – and it’s clear that Hussain is a thoughtful guy who really understands the importance of conceptual thinking, otherwise he would never have emailed me with that insightful question.  It’s just that if anyone tells you that “ochem is all memorization”, you should be highly sceptical of that. If you were to follow that advice to the letter, at many schools there’s a good chance you’d end up failing.

In organic chemistry, the matter of memory is not a black and white, memorization vs. no-memorization issue. There’s a balance. If this is unsatisfying, Harry Truman’s quote seems appropriate here:

“Give me a one-handed economist! All my economists say, On the one hand on the other.” – Harry Truman.

That being said, let’s go a bit deeper. Say you really did want to develop a great memory and apply it to o-chem, while still keeping an eye on understanding the key concepts? How would you go about that?

In the next post I’ll ask Hussain to explain in a bit more detail the techniques he uses for memorization and how he’s planning to apply them toward learning reactions, as well as other fun things in life.






Last week, I asked some of you how well you think you’d do in ochem



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