How to learn ochem

This is post I made on Yahoo!Answers to a question about learning organic chemistry. I have answered this or similar questions many times.

I am gathering data on how students learn ochem. I believe a common method is simple pattern matching. It is easy to do and doesn't require great effort. The problem develops as the matrix of answers grows beyond a certain level. It is at this point that I often heard, "I am so lost". That is, the students are saying there are more answers than they can connect simply by memory.

There is a solution to this, logic. Our brains can connect information together if it is based upon earlier principles. Such a method of thinking is logic. Reading and writing is constructed in this way. If you needed to learn the Gettysburg address, you would know this. You would know this because if I gave it to you in another language, it would either be much much harder or impossible depending on the similarity to a language you already knew. The intellectual connection is that the phrases create meaning, the words create phrases, the letters create words, and the shapes create letters. If you didn't know Chinese, and I asked you to learn the Gettysburg address in Chinese, it would be impossible because no logic for connecting the shapes would exist. It would be like trying to draw a Jackson Pollack painting from memory.

The chemical equivalent of logic is reaction mechanisms. Students would ask me how many mechanisms did they need to know. I would answer only the number that you wish to answer on the exams. I have not found this to be a problem as reaction mechanisms are constructed on similarity to other mechanisms. It never happens that you would learn one mechanism that did not rely on principles you had learned earlier (Markovnikov addition is a family of similar reactions). You can read how students have done in my classes on my website.

Disclaimer, I am the author of "A Guide to Organic Chemistry Mechanisms" (, Barnes and Noble or ).