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Organic Chemistry Study Tips

By James Ashenhurst

“Why is it that I spend all this time studying and I still don’t feel like I learn anything?”

Last updated: March 13th, 2012

This week I had a session with a new student (who I’ll call “Tim”) from Virginia. We had a brief session, where we went over things like the additions to alkenes and reactions of epoxides. He showed me some of the answers he’d given for his recent problem set and for the most part, they were correct. It was just the mechanistic understanding which was lacking.

Two days later I met with Tim for an hour right before his exam, and then he dashed off to write it.

Later that day I saw he was online, and asked him how it went.

“It didn’t go well. The exam was really difficult and long.  I go to class from 10am-1pm and I spend the rest of the day studying, but the mechanisms just don’t stick in my head.   I don’t know what to do, I’m thinking about dropping the class, but if I do and take it again I have to do REALLY WELL.”

I wish I had an easy answer to give Tim for how to do well in the course. I don’t.

He was clearly a bright guy, very inquisitive and not afraid to look stupid by asking questions.  He had a copy of “Organic Chemistry as a Second Language”. He’s spending a lot of time studying. He’s motivated. He does the problems. Furthermore, he’s had no distractions all summer – just focusing on organic chemistry.

“Why is it that I spend all this time studying and I still don’t feel like I learn anything?”

I think finding the answer to this question is one of the most important challenges there is.

If you’re having this problem, there’s a few places I’d turn to:

1) Figure out what your learning style is. I know people who never missed a class because they knew they needed to hear the professor speak. If it came down to getting information from books, they were in trouble. Other people need to write things down and endlessly transcribe. Then there are others who need to act things out. I even know of one person who did something really creative – she made drawings of superheroes who exemplified some of the characteristics of the chemical reactions. Talk about creativity! Wow.

2) A study partner makes a big difference. In college, I had a guy in my chemistry classes called Ken. I wouldn’t say we were friends. But he was an extrovert, and he knew he needed other people around him to study with. I was far too shy (and stubborn!) to ask other people to study with me, but I felt bad telling him no. So I ended up getting sucked in to a lot of study adventures where we would meet up in some random campus building on a Saturday afternoon and go through problems together. Although I never would have initiated it myself, it made a really big difference to have someone to argue with and hash things out. If you really can’t find someone in your class, look into your extended network of friends who’s also taking organic chemistry at a similar level. Meet up online on Skype or Google Voice.  The key is to have someone to teach and someone to learn from. There’s nothing like teaching to really help you nail concepts down in your head. Having a committed study friend also keeps you accountable.

3) I’d take a close look at Cal Newport’s books, as well as his site, “Study Hacks”. There’s a lot of resources there, even a recent post called “I got a C on my Orgo Exam – What do I do?

4) Find a tutor, either someone at your university (peer-to-peer) or someone in your area. They can help give you the perspective you need to determine what your weaknesses are and to address them. They can even help you develop a study plan to address the key concepts you need to master for the course.

Organic chemistry isn’t easy. If it were, sites like this wouldn’t exist. There aren’t any quick fixes. But when you’re doing everything right and still not doing as well as you can, there are still things you can do before you completely give up hope.

What suggestions would you have for someone in Tim’s position?

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Comment section

2 thoughts on ““Why is it that I spend all this time studying and I still don’t feel like I learn anything?”

  1. I will most def bookmark your website! I a lot of good things like you mentioned! I just hope to get a B or better in my second semester of organic chemistry. Would you say just practicing mechanisms over and over would be the key in getting them? I need to buy that book organic chemistry as a second language. Thank you for posting!

  2. I’d say one of the keys to getting mechanisms is to ask yourself, “In this reaction, what is the nucleophile and what is the electrophile?”. Most reactions come down to this principle. There are *many* different chemical reactions, but less than 20 (by the end of Org 2) really different mechanisms. Flash cards also seem to help.

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