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How to Succeed In Orgo: Collected Advice

The course syllabus is that sheet of paper you get on the first day of class that explains what the grading scheme is, the course content, contact information for the instructor, and so on. For most courses this is pretty standard. What makes organic chemistry course syllabi distinctive is that they are often accompanied by a short expository essay from the instructor, entitled something like “Advice on How to Do Well in Organic Chemistry”. It starts with “No doubt you have heard horror stories about this course…” and goes from there.

Depending on how many times the instructor in question has seen students make a particular type of mistake, a considerable proportion of the essay may be written in BLOCK CAPITALS. The reason, of course, is that many of these instructors have seen students make the same mistakes  year after year and are trying to emphasize their importance.

I actively search for and collect these types of essays. I thought it would be worthwhile to go through as many of these as I could find and summarize the collected advice. What are the patterns? What are the most common words of advice from instructors in the trenches, who’ve had experience with thousands upon thousands of students over the years?

For the 25 “How to do well in organic chemistry” essays that I’ve looked through, here’s the breakdown of the most common words of wisdom:

Most common advice on “What to do”:

1. Do problems (22). No other area of advice was stressed as much or had a higher BLOCK CAPITAL FACTOR (BCF) than the advice to “do problems.” This shouldn’t be surprising: this is what is tested for in your midterms and exams.

Some of the quotes:

2. Actively review the material. (17). This includes not only rewriting notes, but also other activities including writing and summarizing, such as making notecards/flashcards, concept maps, and visual summaries.

3. Study partners. (15). The advice on study partners was more split.

4. Get Help (11). This includes advice to seek out the professor, TA’s, or tutoring.  Representative quote:

5. Read notes before class (9). Representative quote:

6. Attend class. (9). Would you expect to hear ” I’ve basically been giving the same lectures since 1986,  skip it if you’ve got better things to do”? As Warren Buffett says, beware of asking the barber if you need a haircut.  Many did mention, however, some of the benefits of attending class (in addition to the threat of missing in-class quizzes). Not as many specific quotes, but  several mentioned that 1) it provides an opportunity to ask questions, as well as network with people in your class, 2) some people absorb information much better by listening as opposed to reading, and 3) it also provides an oasis of time in the day where you can place the course material as the single object of your focus  (assuming you’re not using your laptop to check Facebook and track the stock market while the lecture is going on).

7. Do something every day (8)

What NOT to do:

1. Don’t fall behind. (14). Quote:

2. Don’t consult the study guide until you’ve completed the question (10)

How much study time should be devoted to organic chemistry per week? Suggestions ranged from 6 hours to 18 hours/week. The median suggestion is about 10 hours. There weren’t many specifics as to how to use that 10 hours, but one suggestion was to spend about 75-80% of that time on problems, with the remainder on making summaries and other types of active studying.

Final thoughts.

If you have to summarize this advice into three basic principles, they would be the following.

  1. Do problems.
  2. Rework and rewrite your notes – make summaries.
  3. Don’t fall behind.

Granted, the advice isn’t particularly specific, and might in fact be disappointingly obvious. It’s like being told that the secret to losing weight is to exercise more and watch what you eat. But according to the advice of people who have who-knows-how-many man-years invested in teaching this course and have seen thousands of students succeed and fail,  they’re the foundations of success. I wouldn’t discount it.

“You do not have to be brilliant to do well in organic chemistry but you do have to be well organized, highly disciplined, and self motivated and you have to work very hard; these are exactly the skills required in most professions”. (ref)

“Genius requires dedication (i.e. work ethic). Enlightenment is not instantaneous. ” (ref)

If you want a zip file with the collected advice sheets, send me an email.  [Finally, I collect these things, so if you have a good example of “How to Do Well in Orgo”, send it! Bonus goodwill for high BLOCK CAPITAL CONTENT].

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