How to learn organic chemistry

Ducks in Millstone River near Canal in Kingston
Why is organic chemistry hard? Your professor shows you a reaction and the product. Why not just memorize it? It is fast and easy. You know what the product is.

Does it matter if you don't know everything about the reaction? Let's say you are in a strange place and you ask for directions. The person giving them doesn't speak English very well. He knows the terms 'left' and 'right' are the directions he needs to use, but isn't sure which one is correct. Does it matter? Do you really have to know every word? I learned that while traveling to ask the person to also point in the general direction I had to travel. If you want to understand, you must know the meaning of every word. Just because you know the destination, does not mean you know how to get there. What if you don't know the exact destination?

Here is the problem. Organic Chemistry is like a language. It is easy to learn a number of phrases that one must use. Because it does not contain the complexity of other languages, students do not realize the importance of how reactions take place (the mechanisms). Furthermore, for a number of reactions, the mechanism may not be known. Therefore, the importance of having and using a mechanism is left out of many reactions.

As students progress, the number and variety of problems increase. Again, like learning a language, the phrases that were statements are now questions and mixed in tense. You need to know how words are used and varied. That is the difference between memorizing phrases and understanding the words. To understand the words is to understand the logic of the language. What is the equivalent in organic chemistry? That is how mechanisms are useful. They are the meaning for organic chemistry. They are the explanations of how and why electrons move.

How do you learn mechanisms? I found this to be easy for me. I knew I was going to be asked to solve a problem that used the mechanism that was being taught on a new problem. It was clear to me that before I could use that mechanism on a new problem that I had to be able to write it for an old problem first. Therefore, I memorized the mechanisms. I also found that as I memorized more mechanisms, they were similar to mechanisms I already knew. I started from a blank sheet of paper and wrote them out over and over until I could write them without any notes.

While I could encourage students to do as I had done, I quickly learned that my approach and abilities did not work for other students. What I learned that I needed to do was to go back to how a language is learned. You don't teach English to a child by reading the New York Times to him or her. If you did, there would be no context to the words and therefore no meaning would be acquired. In college, I learned French. In the class, they took phrases and gave us translations so we could grasp the meanings of the words. However, they also made us use the words in class. They varied the sentences so that new connections were created in our brains that allowed us to use the words in meaningful ways.

What "The Language of Organic Chemistry" does is to reproduce that process. The mechanisms are broken down into meaningful phrases. The different parts contain portions of the problems. Mechanisms are learned bit by bit. This is to teach the patterns of reactions because our brains are efficient at learning patterns. Finally, the book is laid out so you can make copies of pages because you cannot learn a reaction by writing the solution a single time. (On this last item, that was how initial versions of the book were created. However, it is difficult for me to predict whether I can or should maintain that format given the practicality of the publishing process. Furthermore, I had anticipated that an electronic version of the book would allow students to easily make copies of any page. However, if the book were released as an unprotected version, there would not be a book, but things change. Adobe has created a mechanism that allows me to retain control of the .pdf files. In that case, do we need the hard copy or does the hard copy need to be in a format that can be easily photocopied?)