Organic Chemistry Study Tips
By James Ashenhurst
Guest post: “I went from being afraid of tests to actually looking forward to them”.
Last updated: March 6th, 2012
I love getting letters from people about their experiences with organic chemistry. I love it even more when they share some of the techniques and strategies they used to do better in the course. The other day I got a letter from a reader, Dr. James L. Jones of Jacksonville, reminiscing about his time in o-chem and a specific technique he used to do well. So I asked him to write out the full story in a guest post. Take it away, James:
I was a chemistry major in college. After flunking out of college my first year, I repeated calculus and German over the summer. My study skills were obviously nonexistent.
Second year I took Organic. This was the one course that I was most interested in and the most afraid of. Organic is a “weeder” course. And is across the country one of the most difficult courses that people take in college.
First semester I made a Pass, or a B/C. For some reason I just couldn’t make an A on any of this guys’ tests. The material wasn’t that difficult, but there was a lot of it. I tended to lose points on simple memorization. I had talked to the professor, mostly to let him know that more than anything I wanted to be a chemist.
The first week of second semester, we’re in class. I’m reading the lab for that after noon. The guy next to me a reading a comic book and the guy next to him is asleep. My professor, Phil Furgeson, was going over some problem on the board, when he stopped, turned around and asked me a question…
You have to understand, Furgeson NEVER asked students questions. Not ever…He gave his lecture and left.
“Mr. Jones do you know the answer to this”, pointing to the reaction on the board.
“Of course you don’t, you’re not paying attention…. as usual”
I’m completely stunned. He humiliated me in front of the entire class. I looked at him and under my breath swore to get “even” with him.
I went back to my room and made a study guide that I had been thinking about for a while. Basically you take a notebook of loose leaf paper. You divide each sheet into 3 columns.
First column is a Question.
Second column is the answer, in detail
Third column is some comment or hint. Like “look stupid, it’s an asymmetrical ether”
You go thru the book and write down every possible question. You include every other short answer question at the end of the chapter. Every possible question.
The book reduces this huge pill of material to something that is manageable. And just as important, it lets you know what you know and what you don’t know…
Every afternoon after class I’d “service” the notebook, every night and first thing in the morning I’d go thru the book.
I stayed at least a chapter ahead of the class, so when the Prof goes over something, you’ve already seen it. Amazing how much faster you learn.
Now one thing that is really, really important: you just cannot look at the question and answer it. You have to cover up the answer and WRITE DOWN the answer. This is critical. It’s very easy to look at say the “Wurtz Reaction”. Oh, this is simple, get on the test and you don’t know it. That’s what I was doing wrong the first semester. THAT DOESN’T WORK…. Write down the answer. I used brown hand towels from the men’s room, and a #2 Blue Ball point pen..Hand towels are free, and blue ink shows up on them well.
I’d put a red mark next to every question I missed. And I’d write comments and hints in the 3rd column.
Night before the test, I’m looking at red marks and drinking beer.
About 2 weeks after my incident in class I go in to take the test. 20 minutes after it starts I walk up to Furgeson, hand him the test and walk out of the room. He looks at me with this look that says “what, you quitting?”
Week later grades come out, they range from 25 to 106…Some jerk has gotten every question right and the extra credit question. There will be no curve.
Furgeson walks around the room handing out the tests. Some people are finding out that they are not going to medical or dental school. People are visibly upset.
Furgeson walks past me several times. He finally walks up to me with the last test in his hand. He crumples the test into a ball and just sort of tosses it at me. He walks off. Doesn’t smile, doesn’t say a word…
It’s the 106…
I finish the semester with over a 95 average. Furgeson walks up to me just before finals and says “you know, you don’t have to take the final, you’ve got an A in the course”
I became one of his “boys”. Small group of students that he allowed into his advanced organic class and took us to lunch once a week. He’d buy the beer and give lectures on napkins.
Changed my life….. I applied the same treatment to calculus.
I went from being afraid of tests, to actually looking forward to them. If you’re prepared you can walk into an exam, knowing that you are going to destroy it.
And you know, I really didn’t work that much harder. I set aside about 2 hours a day to study organic. In exchange, I had the highest average in that class in the history of the school. Emotionally I went from being depressed to really pumped up..
James L. Jones MD, PhD
PS. Years later Furgeson died in his sleep of a heart attack. Sad, never got a chance to really thank him. He changed my life.
Got a story about your ochem class, or want to share some techniques or strategies for succeeding in organic chem? I’d love to hear it! Send through email to firstname.lastname@example.org or use the Feedback link above!