1. Course Preparation
I don’t really have one overarching strategy, and I wouldn’t say that my strategy is the most elegant or efficient, but I would say that I am getting there. Especially in the beginning, in was more of “siege” tactics than anything.
My one bad habit (?) with classes is getting ahead of the class pace, sometimes learning all of the subject during a semester break. So, knowing about the reputation that organic chemistry had, I decided to “run into the burning building”, for lack of better words, and tackle it head on rather than fear it. I guess you could say that my first step was to get into the right mindset.
Next, I started early, before the semester started. This way, I was able to stay about 4-5 chapters ahead of the lecture. What I would do is pre-read the chapter to know what was going on, then read it again slowly and doing all of the problems. If there was a word or concept I didn’t know, I would not move forward until I understood and mastered it. I sketched out just about every mechanism and molecule I could find. I have notebooks full of molecules and mechanisms. This was a serious time investment.
So anyway, I probably spent about 10-20 hours on each chapter, depending on the difficulty. A lot of this was time well spent, although some of it was wasted since later on in lecture the teacher would emphasis certain parts while skipping others, want us to know about certain reactions/mechanisms but not even mention others. Although my approach was not efficient, I did reach a level pretty close to mastery on those concepts once I stepped into lecture. This allowed me to fully understand everything the teacher was talking about, and to ask relevant questions.
2. Exam Preparation
About a week or two before an exam, I would take the list of “suggested book problems” that our teacher gave us and would rework those problems for the relevant chapters. Keep in mind that I had already done these problems, but by this point it was sometimes 3-4 weeks previously. Any problems I had trouble with would go onto a list and I would keep reworking them until they got eliminated from the list.
The book “Organic Chemistry as a Second Language” was a HUGE help, especially for IR and NMR. I only skimmed the textbook chapters on these subjects, as this book was more pointed and relevant.
3. Organizing Notes and Reactions
A day or two after lectures, I would compile all of my notes. Concepts would do into an outline form Word document. Reactions go into my reaction notebook. Here is a description of my reaction notebook:
1. A chronological list of reactions with starting material, conditions, and products. Any reactions whose mechanisms were discussed in class have a *
2. A list of mechanisms
3. A list of reactions organized by common starting product, i.e. Reactions starting with Alkenes, starting with Primary R-OH, Secondary R-OH, Epoxides, Oxidizing Primary R-OH, etc
4. A list of reactions organized by common ending product (retro) i.e. Reactions ending with Alkenes, Primary R-OH, Alkanes, etc
The reactions in lists 1,3,4 are all cross indexed. For example, hydroboration might be listed as #28 in each list. This makes it easy to identify errors, omissions, demo molecules that could be improved. Most of the molecules were ones given in lecture. Some of them used prototype molecules. I did this if I wanted to demonstrate a particular stereochemistry concept, or showing how different reagents lead to different products with the same molecule, etc.
My main study of reactions was with lists 3+4. I have found that identifying reactants and products is usually pretty easy if you know one or the other and the conditions, but remembering all of the conditions can be a challenge, so that is what I focused on.
4. Learning Reactions
What I would do this these lists is get a piece of paper, cover up all of the conditions, and see how many I could write out on the paper. Any that I missed would get an X next to them. I would keep going through the lists, repeating just the incorrect ones, until all of the Xs were gone. Then I would go through each group again. If I could do them all perfectly, that group got a tick mark. Then, wait a while, come back to it. If I could still do the group perfectly again, another tick mark. Once I got to 5 tick marks for each group, remembering all of the reactions was no sweat.
Me and a friend of mine traded synthesis problems for a while. I found that I learned a lot just by writing them and seeing all of the different ways I could move functional groups in 2 steps, 3 steps, etc.
This reaction notebook has been an awesome help, but unfortunately it wasn’t until I was quite a way into Organic 1 that I figured it out. Better late than never!
5. Keeping Track of Mistakes
Another thing I did was I kept a list of every mistake I did on every exam. This included conceptual, technical, and cognitive mistakes. For example, I did horrible on my first exam, considering the amount of time I invested in it. I wasn’t lacking in the first two categories, but I made a lot of cognitive mistakes. I was a little too overconfident, so much so that I didn’t notice a lot of mistakes I made even though I checked my work a few times. Also, since I wasn’t used to how organic tests were formatted, that threw me off a little bit. I made some really dumb mistakes.
There was one mistake I remember where the question asked to outline the free radical addition of HBr to an alkene. I figured that I would be a hot shot and detail the mechanism, even though that wasn’t asked for. Also, I wasn’t entirely sure how much detail was required when it said “outline”, so I decided to play it safe and prove that I knew what I was talking about. Well, I detailed everything, except that I forgot to draw out the starting alkene!!!!! This definitely went on the list. The moral of the story was to learn from every mistake. Also, there were a few stereochemistry concepts (particularly meso) that I still wasn’t quite strong enough on, so I had to figure those out, quickly.
6. Final Words of Advice
Another piece of advice is to not get behind and to try to understand everything as it is presented. If something looks foreign, it must be made familiar immediately. Look stuff up, do extra practice problems. I have done probably thousands of problems…way too many than I would even like to think of.
I feel like I am a little more efficient now. When I go into class, I have still read all of the chapter and have done most of the practice problems, or at least the recommended ones. Sometimes, if I don’t do all of the problems in a chapter, I will do ones that are similar to the recommended ones, since they have appeared on tests. I don’t try to memorize every reactions before lecture, since I don’t know which ones the teacher will want us to know. Memorizing all of them would just be wasted time.
Also, I always consider homework to be “free points” in every class that I take. There is so much time and so many resources available that getting anything else than close to 100% is almost illogical to me.
let me first say that a major part of the studying and learning in this class for me is the composition of my review notebook. This is a 3-ring binder that I fill with notes from the chapters in the book. The pages consist of careful and neat notes on what was said in the book, complete with full arrow pushing mechanism, important notes and explanations, and everything else I found important to the readings. What I also do is mark REALLY important words or phrases or parts of pictures (such as pi-electrons to help in determining aromaticity for example). I also use a highlighter to mark the arrows in the mechanisms. When I fill the front and back of a loose-leaf paper, it goes in my binder after the last one, creating a chronological in-depth outline of the class material. Anyway, I say that you don’t want to read ahead to much because you might be going to specific or to broad at times. There are some topics in the book that are explained to a different degree than how my professors have explained them. Sometimes a mechanism will be shown in the book that the instructor later said in lecture that we didn’t need to know. Other times he showed us a mechanism that wasn’t explained at all in the book (this was the case for hydroboration of alkynes for me). To account for this and achieve the best review notes possible. I read the text book with my notes from lecture adjacent and constantly cross reference while i’m writing my review notebook. It may seem tedious but you’ll thank yourself in the end because, for one thing, you have everything you need to know for the exams in one place (which is important for me), and because the processes of cross referencing allows you to actually absorb the material without you really even knowing it!
This leads to one aspect of my general strategy: keep up with the assigned reading, even get ahead if you can. Reading ahead in the chapter in preparation for lecture was really helpful. In the periods of time between each exam (2-3 weeks), I would generally go through each chapter on my own around 3 times. The first time would be a relatively superficial run-through, the second time I would go through and do the chapter problems, and the third time I would go through and do reaction mechanisms. For an overall study strategy, I would summarize it this way: Read ahead, compile sheets of reactions and their mechanisms, focus on pattern recognition over blind memorization, and try to get interested in the subject material.
We were expected to do all the problems in the assigned chapter every week (~100 problems), and we were given reaction sheets to keep up on. Each reaction sheet was either “Reaction of (functional group)” or “Synthesis of (functional group)”. On the sheet was drawn general reactions, reaction names, specific examples of the reaction including all reactants and products, mechanism of the reaction, and side-notes or comments. I have a pretty thick stack of reaction sheets now, since there are two for every functional group. Completing reaction sheets fully and on time was key for me, and was probably one reason why I enjoyed and excelled at retrosynthesis, “predict-the-product”, and “roadmap” problems so much. Along with the reaction sheets, we were given a 2-3 page problem set for each chapter. I would estimate that I spent around 15-20 hours per week on organic chemistry (including reading, homework problems, worksheets, pre-labs, and lab reports).