17 July 2007

Strategies for Mastery of Organic Chemistry

For many pre-medical students, Organic Chemistry represents a monumental hurdle that must be crossed painfully. This need not be the case if you can change your "thinking" about organic Chemistry. I will be the first person to say with great conviction that I was not a "carbon-friendly" chemistry major but I had a passionate love of the subject matter of chemistry and organic chemistry was but one more course that added to my knowledge of the subject matter that I loved. I ended up performing very well in Organic chemistry even though it wasn't my favorite course in chemistry.

Organic Chemistry is the chemistry of carbon-containing compounds. It is not the basis of Biochemistry, though both chemical disciplines share carbon as a component for many of the compounds that are studied within each discipline. O-Chem is centered around carbon and the special characteristics of carbon-containing compound families while B-Chem generally looks as structure, function and characteristic reactivity of macromolecules that contain carbon. This is why I could happily study B-Chem in graduate school and not be a particularly "carbon-friendly" chemist.

O-Chem starts out with the special atomic characteristics of carbon that are responsible for it's bonding and reactivity. There are plenty of explanations of reaction mechanisms that must be mastered and absorbed as these basic reaction mechanisms will present themselves repeatedly as you move through the course. Rather than look at them as abstract and in isolation, learn them and be able to recognize them as a recurring theme as new carbon-containing families are presented. In short, you should be able to look at the way electrons behave in the various mechanistic schemes and apply that knowledge to new reactions as you encounter them.

O-Chem has a specific vocabulary that includes terms like nucleophile, electrophile, substitution, replacement, degradation etc. It is a very good idea to keep a list of the new terms as you encounter them and make sure that you understand them within the context of your o-chem study. One of my techniques was to take class notes on the left side of my spiral notebook. The right side was reserved for adding notes from my textbook and for working problems. I also kept a running tally of terms by leaving the last ten pages of my spiral notebook clear and using those for listing new terms and their definitions. I would circle in red, the new terms that I had defined in my notebook glossary as they were mentioned in my notes.

O-Chem requires daily study while you are taking the course. You need to review the previous lectures and notes, preview the next lecture and study the current lecture notes within the context of how they fit with the assigned reading and problems. Always look at an o-chem problem by making a note of the concept that the problem will be illustrating. Every o-chem problem or synthetic scheme has a concept behind it. Make a practice of noting these as you work the problems and studying the concepts as you work the problems.

O-chem also builds upon previous principles. For example, as you are introduced to the simple alkane family of compounds, the characteristics of this family should be compared and contrasted to the alkenes, alkynes, aromatics and other families as they are introduced. Make yourself get into the habit of reviewing summaries and characteristics of each old family as new families are introduced. This will greatly help you with synthetic schemes and problem-solving.

Before you go to lab, you should sit down with your lab book, write out a simple outline of each experiment with a listing of the steps that you will be doing. You should do any pre-lab exercises and review any topics in your text as they relate to your experiment. Many organic labs require that you answer post lab exercises, write up a report and submit these for grade. Look over your post experiment questions before you begin the lab so that you can be sure that you have obtained the proper observations that will enable you to answer these questions easily.

If you are required to keep a laboratory notebook, make sure that you include the following:
  • The purpose of the experiment
  • The experimental procedure
  • Your data (tabular form is a good way to present this
  • An explanation of your data that includes possible errors
  • Any spectra (NMR, GC, Mass Spect that you obtained
  • A summary of your observations

Don't record data on little scraps of paper! Those little paper scraps can get lost and your grade will suffer. Get used to preparing for each experiment and recording your data directly into your laboratory notebook. I used to take photos of my experiments as I went along and pasted these directly into my laboratory notebook so that my instructor knew exactly what my reaction setup looked like as I progressed through an experiment. I also pasted my NMR spectra and GC results directly into my lab notebook with annotations and directions to my conclusions about their appearance.

As you encounter a new family of compounds, look at their reactions and usefulness in synthetic schemes. Again, you may want to keep a running list of characteristic reactions of each family as they are presented. With each lecture, link to the previous lecture and study a whole weeks worth of material and data on the weekend.

O-chem is a preview and practice course for many of the courses in medical school. The manner in which you approach your o-chem will be good practice for medical biochemistry, pharmacology, microbiology and pathology. These medical school courses build heavily on their introductory concepts just as o-chem builds upon the concepts that are presented at the beginning of the course. Like o-chem, these courses require daily mastery and will increase your vocabulary exponentially.

What you cannot do with o-chem or any other pre-med course is decide mentally that you cannot master this course or that it's a "weed out" course in which the professor is out to "destroy your career". No professor has the time or energy to care about working to destroy any particular student. While there are good professors and poor professors, the material to be mastered in o-chem or any other subject, does not change. Don't let your feelings about a particular professor distract you from the business of learning.

Learning to tune out your fellow classmates i.e. those who whine, complain and otherwise attempt to distract you, is another good characteristic to develop. Some immature folks are going to brag that they "never study and get As" or that "the professor doesn't give As" or my personal favorite, "you can't possibly earn an A because you are not that smart". Don't buy into any of this stuff. Look at the course syllabus as soon as you get it. Look at the requirements for each grade and decide that you will meet them. At the first sign of trouble, get some help.

Check out the O-Chem help site at Frostburg State University. This site is under construction but can be an excellent adjunct to any o-chem coursework. Use the site as a tool not as a substitute for attending class and working your assigned problems. The URL for the site is: http://www.chemhelper.com/ This site requires registration but has a message board, discussion forums and plenty of resources for any o-chem student. In addition to this site, there are likely others too including possibly one at your school so utilize them as you need them.

Don't underestimate the value of attending recitation sections and tutorial sessions. These sections/sessions are great opportunities to get your questions answered or reinforcement of your knowledge of the material as you learn it. Don't skip these sessions and don't skip class. Utilize the office hours of your professor and make an appointment for a consultation at the first sign of trouble. Don't wait until a couple of days before the exam to seek help.

Keep up with your homework and studies. Again, I cannot overemphasize the importance of keeping up and not getting behind. Few people fail or do poorly in o-chem because they cannot understand the material. Most people struggle because they get behind and cannot catch up. Don't get behind and don't skip class. If possible, get ahead of the class and stay ahead. If something comes up that takes time away from your daily study, take care of it quickly and get back on track. If you are taking o-chem during the summer, skipping even one day of study can be a "deathblow" to your total course performance.

Finally, get a copy of the Biological Science Topics for the MCAT(o-chem starts on page 12 of this document) and make sure that you are systematically checking the topics off from both your General Biology and o-chem course as you go along. This document can be downloaded at : http://www.aamc.org/students/mcat/preparing/start.htm Go to the Tests Sections and download the topic lists (pdf documents) for Biological Sciences, Physical Sciences and Verbal Reasoning. These three documents can help to keep you on track as you move through all of your pre-med coursework.

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