Why is Organic Chemistry Difficult?
Organic chemistry has multiple dimensions and just ask this question to any number of students who’ve taken it and you’ll hear all different sorts of answers. You may hear that they loved the class, they were fortunate there was a curve, or far more often, a litany of groans and attempts to change the subject. “It was easy” may hold a top spot on a certain comedian’s list of “things never said before”. There are other variables involved in those assessments. It is not just nature of the subject that makes it a steep undertaking. This quotation is excerpted from the Georgia Tech school paper by student about his take on the subject. His reaction is quite common:
“Whether you are a science major or not, you probably know multiple people who have given up a good bit of their lives to take on this horrific, evil course. Students devote hours upon hours each day to study incomprehensible amounts of information with, more often than not, little success. While this class is a monstrosity at universities and colleges all around the world….it is no mystery that O-chem is one of the worst weed-out courses…and has been so for quite a while. So many students fail every year, or have to drop the course before they fail. I find it extremely discomforting and unfair that a single course has caused many people I know to alter their entire life plan due to the fact they could not construct mechanisms or synthesize reactions.”
The challenge of learning organic chemistry has a unique, actually legendary, reputation as the gatekeeper course in science—not just by premedical, pre-dental, pre-pharmacy and other pre-hopefuls around the world—it is a source of dread that the majority of students, even some chemistry majors, would gladly have nothing to do with and when it’s over, to never think about again.
The pressure of a career choice depending on the outcome certainly compounds the perception of difficulty and apprehension.
People don’t understand the procedure because they lack the first principles.
It’s often said that the subject is a very large number of simple steps. I’ve told my students this many times because it’s true. Those who experience difficulties however do not think a very large number of anything is simple—especially if any one or more of those steps is misunderstood. I’ve also told them that the steps are not numerous if you can see the reasoning. I don’t mean the concepts necessarily. People say don’t memorize, focus on concepts. Ahem. These people have apparently never taken the real course. Not memorizing the material is the very least of your problems. Why? It is not one of your options. If you possessed such a brain, you wouldn’t be wasting your time paying for college. I have heard one girl say that she loved acing organic chemistry because she all she had to do was just “like memorize” all of it. It turned out she was confusing the chemistry course with shopping for non-genetically-modified, pesticide-free produce.
It is not possible to memorize (and do well), so it’s a moot point. Warning someone not to memorize is the same statement as study hard.
What if I told you however, that there is a way to do well in the course and that if you’re on track to doing so, you are hardly memorizing at all. In fact, there’s far more you needed to memorize in General Chemistry because there’s even less cohesion in a survey course. You can’t do it even if you wanted so it’s ridiculous advice. It’s like saying don’t memorize calculus. Neither statement makes sense if you knew anything about doing either one. Always fly at reasonable speeds on your bike. When it’s possible, we certainly will, thank you! What people actually mean is focus on problem-solving processes.
Furthermore, concepts are large and can often be too vague. Focusing on the concept of chirality for example, will not help you reason to a specific answer about stereochemistry in a particular reaction, because that part is memorized. Both are parts of the concept but each reaction has a different context and similar concepts are the easiest things to get confused without understanding the process.
Concerning The Textbook
For students, the resources for the course vary in the availability and quality of two main resources—the textbook and the professor. Textbooks are produced in newer and more expensive editions which, in general, don’t improve matters or facilitate learning. A new edition may be rephrased or rearranged in presentation, but often changes nothing. Class and national averages haven’t and won’t improve because of a particular book or author. The wide selection of textbook editions and the entrance of increasing numbers of textbook authors into the market is just a signal—a symptom, actually—of a deeper issue. Why is organic chemistry difficult? For one, the book is like none you have or will ever read again.
The search for a “perfect” text is a curious endeavor because such a textbook doesn’t exist. Except for what are superficial differences, changes to most editions have little effect on overall success. Demand for cohesion and better content are qualities students desire. And publishers gladly groom authors and offer large advances to vetted ones to meet that demand. Opinions differ widely however among individuals, their reading preferences, habits, and the author’s style or lack of it.
Collectively, different tastes—not to mention different learning styles—are factors not related to the choice of book but more on how it is related to them by the instructor.
Be warned however, a professor’s job is not to teach but to rehash what you presumably already read. Instructors, unlike textbooks which evolve, are set in their ways that crystallize year after year, for better or worse. What you will get out of lecture, if you’re lucky, is an outline of what you will need to study on your own.
A book can be made wordier and more descriptive, it can aim for simplicity, it might be prettier or include modern graphics and images. Adjustments have benefits and costs. But the most important part of all textbooks is not the writing if it’s adequately done. It’s the quality of the problems at the end of the chapter. As a result, the focus on a better textbook is aimless but supposedly adds value. A better solutions manual should be a publisher’s aim.
Often, the professor will also make his gripes about the book public. “I don’t like or agree with how your book does X, Y, or Z.” This curious and startlingly widespread phenomenon where the professor berates how the book handles one detail or another does untold amounts of damage. Such comments should be addressed directly to the publisher/author to whom it might be of some eventual use.
This was a book, by the way, that students had no choice but to purchase and most are stuck with. It damages the morale of students who already have difficulties making sense of it since the arbiter of your grade is the person doing the griping. Go to Amazon’s book reviews section and you’ll see that countless students are willing to pay double, sometimes triple, for an alternative that’s only a marginal improvement and subjectively so.
Some Elaboration About The Subject Matter
Organic Chemistry, as we know it, isn’t taught logically but in shattered fragments. To gather enough knowledge (the pieces) to apply the philosophy, it traditionally takes about 8 months or two semesters of learning what are just details really if you get the big picture and that takes considerable and detailed problem-solving. Furthermore, almost everything learned in intro organic chemistry is a white lie (intentional but expedient omissions) that will be made clear to you if you happen to continue on in the subject. However, if you don’t go on, something seems odd or missing. Be thankful, as this is reasonable and to your benefit. Understand that there is no phenomenon in organic chemistry that doesn’t have one (or several) exceptions or explanations. The only things that are without exception are the conventions that were arbitrarily agreed upon for convenience. For example, the direction of electron-flow or the designation of absolute configuration have rules that are never violated but only because “someone said so.”
Even with the proper philosophy, your success depends on consistent reading and exposure. Exposure normally comes from lecture and is probably all lecture is useful for (mostly name recognition). Students don’t attend the typical organic lecture and then just walk out being able to do it. It just does not work that way. Lecture is an outline of what to study, and only if you are lucky that your professor puts in any significant effort at all.
Beyond the Textbook
It has reached the point where publishers have gone beyond simple revision. For years, a molecular model kit was an optional purchase. Newer computerized novelties while cute or visually impressive, should provide improvement in understanding but instead serve to make the class less affordable, and one in particular comes to mind, that is absurdly so. Then other computer-based assignments, new divisions of publishing corporations, which are still highly experimental and frankly clunky and often poorly planned further disrupt student priorities. While on-line assignments provide much-needed feedback, it accompanies a disproportionate drain of time. Accustoming oneself to the user interface can waste entire afternoons and evenings where pencil and paper would suffice. It would make better known what the professor expects had the questions originated with her—who is the final arbiter of their grade—not some anonymous consultants hired by some publisher—this issue though has seen some improvement.
The desired format of the “correct” response is very often unclear having little or no context, with questions that are phrased as little more than ambiguous vagueries and supposed hints that are irrelevant or oblique. On top of that, final responses are a single correct answer with half a dozen pieces are “graded” by software that treats proposed answers as all-or-nothing. For lack of a missing electron pair in a large, multiple-part answer you get exactly zero points.
The nature of the textbook has changed but the subject matter doesn’t. Frequent new editions and experimental computer supplements are a symptom of the problem and not necessarily an improvement. If a student can read and understand the textbook they should be able to do organic chemistry. It is ultimately students’ responsibility, after all. So don’t misunderstand: it is not all about books or resources. But reading the textbook doesn’t guarantee understanding. It has to applied by the student to be understood and if the message of the text doesn’t make clear what needs to be done or how to do it then the book is worthless.
The main value of a textbook is not in the prose. The best textbooks have the best quality of questions within and at the end of the chapters. If one doesn’t do the reading or can’t understand the its significance, then usually a tutor can explain the general point better than a professor amidst a class of hundreds. Again, that’s another ongoing and by no means, minor expense. People don’t realize the main value of the textbook is the logical progression of questions it asks and how it presents approaches to the solution. The chief requisite is to follow the progression of logic of chapter problems, not to trudge through the reading. The real test of a good book is the gradual and reasonable thought process of asking and answering problems step by step, as Socratically as possible. The completeness of the solutions manual is critical. Many are summaries that may not include solutions to all the questions.
Concerning The Professor
Why is organic chemistry difficult? The major factor in student performance, and there’s no denying this, is the way the course is taught and, most of all, by how congruent the exams are relative to the material in the lecture. Some students feel that attending lecture is not beneficial at all. It’s seems to be either an hour of racing to draw everything or about keeping awake during a grueling PowerPoint presentation where no procedure or problem solving is demonstrated. Without that, it is all a monotonous test of staying awake. Many organic chemists can teach and do indeed teach excellently. It is, after all, a multi-faceted and often abstract subject. However, they represent a minority. Institutional prestige makes no difference. It’s the same practically anywhere you go. There are good educators and there are figureheads. Most people assume that a PhD is a teaching credential. Hardly. It is a requirement for employment and research often takes priority over teaching since that’s what earns one tenure. Google the phrase “The Teaching Professor“. This is now something of an institution whose simple but quite reasonable idea is to make a distinction between the title of professor, regardless of discipline, and what one does to fill those shoes as an educator.
One solution is to provide a preemptive or prep course made available for students who need to take organic chemistry. The really motivated students, in fact, are known to sit in on a five week summer course prior to taking it. They can attend the class either for free or audit it, take the exams and become adjusted. The exposure alone provides an edge over their peers as they get familiarized without the risk of getting losing grade points. Because of the curve, it’s like the adage about two people chased by a bear. It doesn’t matter if you can’t outrun the bear. You just have to outrun the other person. With progressively more people dropping the course to avoid the unthinkable failure, it becomes harder to outstrip those who remain.
It takes as much exposure to the material as possible and three hours of lecture a week (from even a good teacher) is not enough close to enough—particularly if your study habits are less than desirable.
Concerning the Prerequisites
Many students who do perfectly fine in General Chemistry find that at the beginning of organic chemistry, the very basics of chemistry are presented. Trends in the periodic table, the definitions of acids and bases, atoms, and bonding. They feel comfortable about this (lecture 1), but very few realize how many times these concepts must be considered and used during the course. After about a month, they realize that they don’t understand acids and bases in anything resembling the manner expected and that electronegativity, for example, is not just a trend in the periodic table “from last year” but something that must be considered almost all the time when starting out. The prerequisites are more than sufficient, but the student doesn’t realize how nor how often they must return to first principles when solving problems and that the early and seemingly simple ideas they thought they understood are used in ways stretched far beyond what they once assumed.
Having little or no idea of what is being presented in lecture by not reading or at least skimming the relevant chapters beforehand, a lack of focus on the fundamentals, and especially making a habit of not applying the fundamental concepts throughout the course of study is something that devastates most students facing difficulties. Adding additional material to that lack of foundation is one definition of misery. When that happens, students don’t realize when or where they became lost. There is no ground to stack the sudden deluge of reactions upon and they fall further and further behind. There are no formulas like in General Chemistry which is, in essence, thinly-veiled algebra. What makes it most difficult is that students don’t make use of every resource available on a consistent basis like their classmates or don’t do a little bit on a daily basis. If even one or two problems can be worked everyday or consistently, then organic chemistry doesn’t have to be as difficult as it may seem.