Tips for Studying Organic Chemistry

Tips for Studying Organic Chemistry

Dr Azulene Welcome to Organic-ese OChem

Studying Organic Chemistry is Fun, Full of Danger (and some annoying stuff) but you can and WILL do it!

It's that time of year again. You are probably either just starting or continuing your ongoing battle studying organic chemistry. Here are some things that will ensure your success if you follow them religiously. What is the danger? Falling Behind. Avoid that at all costs. These tips for studying organic chemistry obviously apply to all your other subjects to boot. Those'll become relatively nothing in terms of effort compared to this.

Do just two or three of the following and you're going to have issues. If you can do them all, or get help when you are having problems, you will transform into one of the brethren! Okay, okay you don't want to be a chemist and just want to pass. People decide they will be happy just to pass when they see no results from their efforts. When it's perceived as more trouble than it's worth, it's not a long road to that feeling of resignation. Do not go there. The process of learning organic chemistry can be simpler, more methodical, and less stressful if you just do the following.

  • Practice and draw constantly! Number all carbon atoms you work on. Not just for naming compounds, but so you don't accidentally lose or add atoms along the way. Numbering might seem "beneath" you or unnecessary but it is critical especially later. Once you get the "big picture", you will reach a point where it is no longer when the year is over!
  • Work every relevant problem in the book until you get the solution particularly at the beginning. If you get stuck, take a short break, and start over later. Check your responses with the solutions manual.
  • Study 3 hours or more hours for each hour of lecture you attended. The "3 hour/credit rule" is told to students during orientation and you have been told this several times already. The more you study the easier it gets.
  • Attend other sections of the class (no, I'm not kidding) if you have free time, attend those too. Especially do this to compensate should you miss your own lecture. It may not be the same, it will be beyond you, but the more exposure and perspectives you have the better.
  • Read before class, enough so that not only can you faintly understand that day's lecture material but enough to be able to answer and ask thoughtful questions. When you don't have time to read, at least skim the chapter from beginning to end to get at least a quick and dirty idea of what's coming.
  • Study it every day, no matter how briefly, even if only for 15 minutes. Try to do at least one problem a day. Small efforts eventually make a huge difference.
  • Draw everything out step-by-step. Every intermediate, every structure, again. As you progress, don't draw on top of pre-existing structures, redraw the whole thing out again. Do NOT try to jump ahead to the solution, even if you think you know what it is. This a natural instinct I see in everyone having difficulties. Suppress it! It will pay dividends later.
  • If you make a mistake or get stuck don't just sit there or give up, start over by rewriting the problem or go to the next one which may be easier. Studying means attempting assorted problems not just getting stuck on a question and stopping. Move to a different sections. Despite what you've heard, it's not all cumulative.
  • On exams, do all your work on scratch paper only, writing out the appropriate mechanism then carefully transfer your answers to the exam.
  • Teach what you know to other people or at least talk about it while you are learning it. This will make your understanding blossom.
  • Did I mention?...Work every problem at the end of each chapter? Don't wait till you've read the whole chapter to do it either. That is not a good idea. After you read a section, do the problems for that section. A whole chapter is usually too much.

There is no question about it. If you succeed at  most of these you will ace and thus probably love organic chemistry. If you don't you will whine and complain which changes nothing.

Work all the problems. ...What's that?? All of them? Impossible! It is possible if your continual accumulation of basic fundamentals is consistent enough. Do one problem a day perfectly. Can you solve a different type of problem each day? If the answer is no, you are falling behind and this class is probably not for you along with everything that demands it.

What If I Try and Can't Do It?

Well, anyway, the preceding is what high-quality students usually do. If you aren't doing those things, you are just going through the motions in a truly competitive environment and your grades will already reflect that. Of course, if you didn't care and weren't a good student, you wouldn't be here reading this. It doesn't mean you aren't studying organic chemistry, it means there is a simple but fundamental issue that is causing confusion.

Well, there are people who attempt to do all the preceding, who ace their other classes, and attempt to ace Organic Chemistry in earnest yet often still fail to keep up. If that is you, then we have found each other. I've found it is often some of the most intelligent people who have the biggest difficulties in the subject. It's a difference of mindset.

There's one and only one reason for otherwise intelligent students not "getting it". And it is this: No one, not your book, your professor, or anybody has truly explained it to you; especially at your pace. That doesn't mean slowly, it means at the pace where you can move forward in the proper sequence. This is personal and varies between every person.

Most of all, you have yet to reach to point where you can explain it to yourself. See the Philosophy of Organic Chemistry.


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