Spanish, French, Italian...and Organic Chemistry?
I'm sitting in the middle of the classroom. I look at my mug holding the remnant grinds of the coffee I finished in my previous lecture and briefly regret not stopping at the café to get a refill. The teacher in the front of the lecture hall drones on with her opening joke – something about two chemists walking into the bar. I shift nervously in my seat and look at the full room. There are so many different majors represented here, from the sciences to engineering to the pre-med students. The punchline of the joke is told, something about H2O2 (what is that?) and the kids in the front of the room laugh. I join in nervously even though I must have missed the point. I look around, I'm not the only one who didn't get it which makes me feel better for some reason. I sigh and take out my notebook. This class is dreaded by all undergraduates whose futures depend on their grade in it. This class is a rite of passage. This class is Organic Chemistry.
That was my first Organic Chemistry class in 2011. I'm happy to report that I did indeed make it through that rite of passage, as well as Organic Chemistry II and Organic Chemistry Lab the following semesters. It's all thanks to one powerful piece of guidance my teacher gave me when I came to office hours after my poor performance on the first homework assignment. I now have the opportunity to pass on this knowledge as an organic chemistry tutor in Boston. The following advice is for students anxiously awaiting their Organic Chemistry class next semester (or later on).
Before you enter the Organic Chemistry classroom this Fall, you must rethink how you view the class. This is not some science class where you'll succeed through intuitively understanding concepts. This is a language course. Yes, you read that right. You must approach this class as you would a course in French or Spanish. Learning how atoms interact and react with each other is just like learning how words in a foreign language interact and affect each other. There is a lot of memorization involved. Let me repeat this. There is A LOT of memorization involved in Organic Chemistry. Once you realize this, the complexities of the reactions and elements will seem more simple. It's just like when you learned to conjugate estar (or être, or sein). At first it seems foreign, but soon it becomes second nature.
So now with this new approach to Organic Chemistry, here's a list of the Top Three Habits to cultivate while studying:
1. Dedicate time simply for memorization. Make flashcards if needed, put on your favorite study jam, and flip through the vocabulary and reactions. You cannot speak German if you do not know vocabulary. There is a lot of vocabulary to learn in Organic Chemistry. If you're not good at memorization (like me), come up with creative mnemonics. Study the general reactions (substitution, elimination, dehydration, etc.) and remember that for every rule there is an exception. Learn the exceptions.
2. Practice makes perfect. You cannot learn French by simply sitting in lectures and reading the textbook. You have to engage in conversational French with someone. Similarly, you must work with someone else to learn Organic Chemistry. Find a study partner, make use of office hours, or find a tutor. Sit down with them and talk through the reactions you are learning. Draw the reactions with them. Quiz each other. Getting a model kit can be helpful.
3. Remember all the parts of learning a new language: speaking, writing, listening, and reading. You must practice each of these with respect to Organic Chemistry. With exams mostly testing the "writing" and "reading" parts, it's easy for forget the "listening" and "speaking" parts. However, you must be able to gain mastery in all four areas to fully understand the class. Think about it – you have to communicate with your teacher or organic chemistry tutor what areas you do not understand and listen to their explanations. On the flip side, if you wish to help a friend you have to understand where they are struggling and explain to them the concept.
If you change your approach to Organic Chemistry, dedicate the time, and utilize your resources, you will be able to ace this milestone in your undergraduate career. Be open to this new idea. I know too many intelligent classmates that approached the class in the same way they approached their general science courses. They were sitting in the same classroom the next semester, retaking the class, listening to the same opening joke. Speaking of which, in case you were wondering: Two chemists walk into a bar. One sits down and asks the bartenter for "some H20." The second follows suit and asks for "some H20 too." He takes a sip, and dies. H202 is hydrogen peroxide, which will kill you if you consume it.