Why is organic chemistry so difficult?

Q: Why is organic chemistry so difficult? I don't understand what's going on. My professor is confusing and I can't afford a tutor. Her tests are unpredictable, and she tests on random things she never went over in class or in the book. I thought I wanted to major in chemistry and become a doctor. What should I do?

A: Organic chemistry does have a reputation for being difficult. What is hard to know is why. For some professors, it is difficult simply because they want it to be difficult. For those professors, it is difficult to know how to prepare.

I have written several blogs on my website about learning and organic chemistry (www.curvedarrowpress.com). If you want to know more, you can read them there. However, I detect some differences in expectations from what I did in my classes. Questions "on the book" or "in the book" are worrisome. This sounds as though you studied the vocabulary words for French class and the actual questions are in German. In my experience, it is difficult to imagine questions about chemistry that are not in a book. Oh, they may look different, but the principles are generally quite simple and basic.

Herein we come to what you need to learn. Learning organic chemistry is not memorization of facts. There are too many variations to be able to remember all of the facts needed. You need to learn the principles to be applied to a problem. Here, organic chemistry is more of a language than a collection of facts. If a computer is programed with English translations from an original language, what comes out is unintelligible or barely intelligible results. That is the nature of language. The words can construct different meaning in different contexts. Therefore, you must learn how they are put together. In organic chemistry, your objective is to connect the facts or problems with the rules or principles.

In my teaching, I had begun to note that the top students rarely used flash cards. I had posted a correspondence with a student who was wishing to make lists of chemicals. While I did not think he should not do this, I also did not think it would help him to know something he did not. This was my opinion. Listing together a group of chemicals (nucleophiles) that you did not know would not be as valuable as knowing what they did in the first place. That is, it occurs to me that a list of nucleophiles will not teach you which are nucleophiles as effectively as learning how nucleophiles react and deduce what they had in common. That is, it is easier to label a compound as a nucleophile because of how it reacts than it is to learn how to use a compound because it is in a list.

I have done very well with students who have legitimate expectations of going to medical school. If having organic chemistry making logical sense is appealing to you, then I suggest you consider the book "A Guide to Organic Chemistry Mechanisms". The book is a guided inquiry workbook that is designed to teach you organic chemistry reaction mechanisms, the 900 lb gorilla of organic chemistry. I have had excellent success with the book, especially with students of above average ability. Learn reaction mechanisms with "A Guide to Organic Chemistry Mechanisms©" now available at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble or
http://www.curvedarrowpress.com .

Look at the results here:

From the webpage … "In class, I began to expect that students who used flash cards would score lower than those that just learned mechanisms. Flash cards may be fast and easy, but they didn't follow my thinking of how our brains learn the language of organic chemistry. Mechanisms contain a chemical logic ...

What I don't know about your class is whether your instructor waters down mechanisms and reactions. Does he avoid either? Does he focus on nomenclature or ??? (fill in topic)? Some instructors choose a book to avoid mechanisms."