Common Sense Organic Chemistry

The Working Memory Model in Learning Chemistry

The Working Memory Model

The Working Memory Model and Organic Chemistry

To new students, organic chemistry is a mysterious and notorious subject among college students most of whom have a desire to enter the science fields or pre-professional programs like medicine, veterinary medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, engineering, materials science, nanotechnology and so on. The Working Memory Model is a concept to help give you insight into the mystery of what makes a subject that doesn’t involve terribly difficult steps so arduous. Given the proportion of students that must do superior work or even just complete the course sequence to graduate, it is statistically daunting both to the educator and of course the student. Without a working memory model, excelling will require an extraordinary effort and even passing is not possible for most students without one. How does one Ace Organic Chemistry?

Ace it? First, you have to Understand It

Understanding comes from a Working Memory Model. It is simply the idea that what is learned (new information) is acquired based on related past knowledge and working to modify or add to that knowledge.

Repeating the course is often no guarantee that a student will pass the second time or even third time. Applying it in terms of an unfamiliar discipline ignoring those fundamentals that were covered in the prerequisites and are all in the first chapters of the textbook is the biggest problem. If organic chemistry using those fundamentals doesn’t happen the first time, repeated attempts do not help. Thus, a Working Memory Model should be one of the cornerstones.

Considered this way, the prerequisites aren’t actually necessary, just highly recommended. The fundamentals are taught at the beginning of Organic Chemistry, and nothing more is needed. You do not calculate anything in intro organic chemistry, not even moles. I’m not talking about organic lab here. While a survey chemistry sequence (general chemistry) does create context for the whole discipline and its numerous divisions. Most of what students in college need to know or recall from their year-long survey sequence as it concerns organic chemistry is the easiest of the material (no exaggeration) and involves a couple trends in the periodic table and, of course, the basics about electrons, atoms, and bonding. Very little General Chemistry is needed to continue onto Organic Chemistry.

What? These rudimentary concepts are all covered again at the start of organic chemistry anyway. Some students claim, looking back, they’d have been better off without the indoctrination that General Chemistry imprinted on them. They are prepared for algebraic formulas, multiple choice exams, definitions and terminology and are quite surprised to learn that organic chemistry is nothing like that.

What doesn’t (and kind of does) make sense is that for a course that has hundreds of students all of whom have completed the prerequisites and gained exposure to these basic concepts, that about half will not succeed or withdraw to prevent inevitable failure. Is organic chemistry really that hard? Possibly. But it is certainly very different.

A question perennially asked on the educator side is why? Most, if not all, editions of the Journal of Chemical Education (ACS Publications) are replete with new approaches and models that attempt to sort out these issues, isolate the problem, and to quantify it. This is a genuine concern to you and to those who are committed toward improving higher education in chemistry. It is a priority to the ACS community because society needs and depends on chemists, scientists, and engineers who understand chemistry and those numbers are dropping precipitously. Students will not enter or remain in these majors if they have a strong distaste for the central aspect of it and it invariably begins for many in the sophomore year with the traditional introduction to organic chemistry.

What Ends Up Happening

These students have survived the hardest part, the first year, performing well enough to continue into the sophomore curriculum. Unquestionably, just weeks into it there is a sudden and tremendous demand on the part of students for alternative textbooks, supplemental material, and “For Dummies” versions. This alone is proof something is wrong or not working. For an accredited institution, it reflects poorly if the prerequisites are insufficient for those who try to do reasonably well and who then must rely on statistical grading (“the curve”) just to survive. Sure many instructors make exams easier, leave out more details or, increasingly common, grade inflation at even the most prestigious institutions.

Conversely, there are the academics, who accede to an academic Darwinist view and feel the weeding-out of unmotivated students is not only a necessary evil, it is beneficial, because “keeping the gate”,”weeding out”, and so forth, supposedly ensures the most qualified people make it to the top of their fields as part of the educational process.

Most students understand that lecture is just a presentation or a rehash of bits and pieces of the subject or book but the fundamental ideas are not taught. Teaching, in the absolute sense, is not what professors do in this subject (or any other)Is this surprising? The minority of professors believe that teaching is their job—their job is to profess and facilitate discussion. This is a reality check to students who assume all professors’ role is simply to teach. It is not. Such reliance on the professor is a particularly deadly assumption in organic chemistry. This is not an attack on professors or on students it is merely a fact. The majority of lectures are continual additions of details without a working memory foundation. There are very difficult to absorb if the fundamentals didn’t stick at the beginning.

If it isn’t “evil” professors, how does this phenomenon make Organic Chemistry extraordinarily difficult and many students to realize that lecture can be a waste of time? In the course of a semester, the audience thins out dramatically. Why do students who succeed at AP chemistry, then perform well in their freshman chemistry sequence, suddenly reach organic chemistry and feel blown away? If that question has an answer among the innumerable and subjective variables then a basis for understanding the deeper issues may open the door for improvement.

Many students cannot answer simple questions let alone formulate any without a Working Memory Model which is fundamental to learning. At the beginning, things like electronegativity and other trends in the periodic table, acids and bases are all assumed by students to be no big deal because of the comfort of name recognition. Quickly, however, they find themselves in a warped version of the chemistry they once felt comfortable about but transforms into something they can hardly grasp.

Despite having all the knowledge they need (it is there…just cryptic and hard to separate the useful from the useless), less than a month in, students find they are and have been utterly lost. The information in the book is copious and comprehensive yet many can’t read it or comprehend the relevancy in the segmented form it is presented to apply it.

These students end up going to great lengths, seeking additional resources, searching aimlessly for other materials and invariably find what is actually more of the same information they’ve had all along in an even worse or inferior form. Panderers make dumbed-down scraps of information and summary nonsense to make their product appear easier to deal with. Students don’t realize that the knowledge necessary is already there but find it hard to assimilate…it’s just not accessible to them regardless of format especially review material and memory schemes that make things worse.

Regarding General Chemistry versus Organic Chemistry

Consider General Chemistry in considering the Working Memory Model. If you’ve taken a general chemistry course, you realize that something from prior experience allowed you to succeed in the first chemistry course with relative ease or a lengthy but manageable and sustained effort.

What we know from the Working Memory Model and other advanced cognitive sciences that the learning process needs continual fine tuning from discrete regions of the conscious brain. What are simple concepts that almost no one thinks are terribly difficult if they’ve put in some effort and time, most succeed without massive trauma.

The reason is simple. General chemistry depends on an intelligence that was learned long ago—algebra. Students have a functional framework, a set of previously accumulated skills to use if a solid effort is made to connect them. When the mind has a set of skills, acquiring similar skills merely requires basic reorganization or re-modeling of the existing ones. That framework is based on formulas. The General Chemistry curriculum, a survey course, focuses on breadth of knowledge and not depth—in all major fields of chemistry. These are usually highly idealized “laws” and equations derived from them.

Nothing prevents consistent performance in the general survey course because of its formulaic and definition-based nature.  This is General Chemistry.

working memory model
One Model of the Brain at Work in Learning
To reach the Central Executive Process, there are several other pieces that must integrate into a whole.

The relevant parts of this model are (excuse the jargon):

Cognitive Load Theory: “Cognitive Load Theory suggests that sometimes this additional processing demand isn’t helpful. At the end of the day, to successfully learn new material we typically need to encode it semantically (what it means) and so presenting lots of unrelated images and text to process at the same time may place an extraneous demand on the CE (e.g. overwhelming selective attention).

The Episodic Buffer (EB): “evidence suggest[s] that there’s a need for an additional component to deal with the information from the different stores and with what we already know. The EB is one of the reasons why cognitive scientists point to the importance of prior knowledge when it comes to learning new material.”   

      (Graphic & Cited Quotations: From Psychology for Teachers)

Then there’s Organic Chemistry…

Organic chemistry, on the other hand, is suddenly more in-depth, and though it starts with basic concepts like trends in the periodic table it stretches them to the extreme in what becomes a foreign language (or Organic-ese). There is nothing a student can rely upon to map the most important new logical abilities into their brain and these are the most essential parts of Organic Chemistry.

We’re not talking about all of the topics, just the most important ones. For example, nomenclature, or naming compounds, is relatively trivial. It is not even language, it is just a system of terminology and a small fraction of the material and not necessary to do the important stuff. Spectroscopy (IR, NMR etc) is correlational—it is connecting data of one kind to data of another. It is analysis by comparison—not a new thought process at all.

The most important abilities in organic chemistry, on the other hand, and the business-end of your grade is mainly predicting products, drawing mechanisms, and then designing syntheses. No summary sheet, software assignment or other novelty can teach this well. This is a quite different epistemology and novel to the uninitiated student brain. For lack of a true method learned early on, doing problems becomes progressively more difficult and sometimes intractably so.

General chemistry is actually just algebra in chemical terms but the material in Organic, as it builds, has no corresponding backdrop of math-like abilities to relate to.

The organic problem-solving part is based on awareness of the fundamentals, not formulas. There is nothing analogous in secondary education or even freshman General Chemistry, no mental scaffolding to rely upon when doing the bulk aspects of Organic Chemistry. And when this critical period passes, it becomes a monster snowball that is almost impossible to learn without intense and unnecessary memorization.

Other Variables

The problem isn’t necessarily the quality of teaching by the professor (though that and attitude makes an enormous difference). It isn’t the textbook which is generally a rehashing of all other textbooks. An author who writes clearly and succinctly does help.

Students themselves bear most of the responsibility for their education. We are not claiming otherwise. In this class if they don’t have the study habits, a lack of method is a death knell. In a perfect system, the first college course should, regardless of major, teach students what real and effective study habits involve.

Some professors are indeed articulate speakers, with authority and experience, yet many have little or no clue what message they convey—many are out of touch with their students’ perception of what message is presented. Due to the amount of material to cover and the brevity of a semester, no professor can relent and doesn’t have the luxury of slowing down much less covering the fundamental again. Some concepts in organic are far more difficult than others but this reality is ignored by some professors. Thus, equal time is given to different topics of immensely disparate difficulty. Student confusion grows and progress?…if the right method isn’t acquired early, forget progress.

Naturally there’s the queen of “outside” information, the internet, where students go in droves. You are here, aren’t you? The demand for useless review sheets, summaries, flash cards, institutional incorporation of software homework does as much harm as good. Some assignments, while helpful, are largely experimental and use up a disproportionate amount of precious time.

If you can’t do it on paper first, doing it on a graphical interface doesn’t help.  That interface also requires time to learn and much trial and error. The actual work should be done on paper first anyway. I will say though that computer-based assignments are useful for feedback and does encourage cooperation and in that sense helps marginally.
Something is obviously missing. Something essential. That is a philosophical model of organic chemistry. Do not assume we mean in the Socratic or Nietzsche-an sense, though it’s not a distant leap from it.

Epistemology, theories about what we can know and how we know them, is central. All one can deal with without a model of learning is to assume it’s necessary memorize huge lists of alphabet soup and reagents.

Structures and drawings in front of you during lecture do little when it actually matters (solving problems). Good notes are essential (if you can write and draw that fast). Lines and angles look obvious and anything presented in front of you has a tendency to have the feel of coherence but only in that brief time. Ask students about the wake-up call–the realization that they have learned little beyond name recognition after weeks of this superficial exposure and attempts to read the text.

Students resign themselves to memorization at this point–there is no other option. Still many others just give up at this point. The method of rote memorization is not possible in this subject. No matter how many times it’s demonstrated, read about, or described, students can write notes all day that they see and feel accustomed to but get home and realize it’s meaningless, the actual foundation is totally missing for most.

In order to learn Organic Chemistry, it has to be applied before the ability do it on one’s own emerges. How does one practice something they don’t know in order to learn it how to do it? The subject is completely empirical, none of which is common sense. No one by thought alone, arrived at knowledge of organic chemistry because every aspect of it requires data from experiment and application of the senses.

Therefore, the mental skills to do it, to solve problems, are gained and to obtain these skills one has to use them first using a Working Memory Model—this is a paradox. You can’t learn it unless you practice but to practice you have to somehow know it.

Don’t let this scare you or put you off. We know what is missing: a working memory model for organic chemistry. Organic Chemistry isn’t common sense but the solution to the problem is common sense. Make no mistake about it: there is a better philosophy of learning Organic Chemistry. There is a method that works and works consistently with a modicum of effort. Everyone who does well uses it whether they realize it or not. The key to all this is Working Memory, not memorization.

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