Transition to O-Chem

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The transition from General to Organic chemistry requires some rearrangement of your skills.

Transitioning from general to organic chemistry, as most chemistry or biology students do in their second year, can be a shock. Organic chemistry is far less numerical and more visual-conceptual than general chemistry. Students are generally expected to perform at a significantly higher level in analyzing data and interpreting ambiguous results. Some students find that their success in general chemistry resulted from strong algebra skills, and without that component they are in trouble. Others, for whom the math was more of an obstacle than a crutch, thrive in Organic. Of course, the best students can do well both quantitatively (using numerical skills) and qualitiatively (using descriptive and explanation skills).

Topics Comparison

The general chemistry sequence is usually a prerequisite for organic, although there are some textbooks that integrate organic ideas with general chemistry into a longer sequence. While you may not be explicitly asked to use all of the skills from general chemistry, your instructor will expect you to be able to do them, and you will certainly need them for other advanced classes.

General to Organic Skills
Topic General Organic
Reaction Balancing Must balance all atoms and charges. Frequently, side products are omitted, and some reactants and products are shown over the reaction arrow.
Masses and Moles Mass-mole conversions and Avogadro's number are important Important for lab, not strongly emphasized in classroom.
Chemical Formulas Introduced with Law of Multiple Proporton, etc. Important, but represented structurally more often than as simple formulas.
Gas Laws PV = nRT, kinetic-molecular model Not used much
Atomic Structure Protons & neutrons, atomic masses, isotopes Isotope idea used in some spectroscopy (NMR and mass spectra, mostly)
Types of Reaction Precipitation, acid-base, redox Organic introduces many new types of reaction.
Heat and Energy calorimetry, bond energy, specific heat, ΔH of formation or reactions Bond energy used to analyze some reactions.
Electrochemistry Nernst Law, balancing redox, oxidizing/reducing agents Oxidations and reductions are important, but not quantitatively.
Acid-Base Theory pH calculations, pKa, titration curves, buffers Much wider range of pKa values in non-aqueous systems. Subtleties of acitity factors important, but hardly any math.
Kinetics Rate laws, mechanisms, activation energy, reaction coordinates Very important to organic. Mechanisms are drawn in detail for almost every reaction.
Equilibrium calculation and application of K, LeChatlier's principle LeChatlier is used often, but rarely quantitative.
Energy, Entropy, ΔG Prediction of equilibrium, calculations Qualitative application.
Intermolecular Forces understanding London/VanDerWaals, dipole, and hydrogen bonding H-bonding is very important, intermolecular forces and physical properties used frequently.
Quantum & Bonding orbital shells, photon energy calculations, hybridization, basic MO theory Frequent use of Lewis-VSEPR and hybridization models; molecular orbital model used for some applications
Solutions & Colligative Properties Freezing point depression & boiling point elevation; phase diagrams Important for lab work. Melting points are measured routinely.

Reflection: What were the parts of general chemistry that you found most and least challenging? How are those topics used for O-Chem?

Intellectual Expectations

The other thing that often trips up students in organic chemistry is simply that it is new. Most college students have seen at least some chemistry in high school, so when they take college level general chemistry the basics are mainly review. And in general chemistry, the problems typically have one correct answer which can be found by correct application of a well-defined equation or process. The concepts and thought patterns for organic chemistry, on the other hand, may not have been seen before. Often, the questions are phrased as "why does this happen?", or "what is the most likely product, and how does it form?". These question types are not well answered by memorized facts.

Educational theorists sometimes use a model called Bloom's Taxonomy to describe stages of learning. As you move upward to organic chemistry, you may find that you're asked to use higher levels of thinking, such as Application and Analysis, in addition to Knowledge and Comprehension.

Reflection: Close your eyes and imagine a tree in as much detail as you can. Did you begin by thinking about every individual leaf, and then adding twigs and branches to connect them? Or did you imagine the trunk, then the branches, then the twigs and leaves? Odds are it was the second. Learning organic chemistry is like imagining a tree. If you try to memorize every leaf, it is overwhelming. But if you learn the principles of how a trunk has branches, the branches have twigs, and the twigs have leaves - it turns out to be much simpler!

Study Skills

All of this means that, as you probably already suspected, organic chemistry is hard. In order to succeed at this course. you will have to put in significant study time. But time isn't well used if it is just spent staring at the textbook. Here are some tips on how to make the most of your study time - and most of these will work for other classes too!

Different Learning Styles

People are different. Some people learn just fine by reading and taking notes. Other people find that they learn best when having conversations with others. Some people love to make games or flash cards; but maybe you find that silly or useless. Some students need quiet and solitude, others would prefer to work in a bustling coffee shop. Finding your best learning style can help you get the most out of a class. And trying something different might just help with some tricky concept.

Reflection: What has worked well for you? What supports, or problems, do you have in finding a good way to study? How might those problems be relieved?

Different Classroom Styles

Your organic classroom may look and sound very different from that in another college or university. Some instructors will present the class with a detailed lecture in powerpoint or on the board. Others will spend most of their time in discussions, asking leading questions to explore a particular idea. And other classes may be structured around student worksheets that are developed for you to explore either individually or in groups.

Your class may be structured in a very tradtional way, where you will be expected to read a specific chapter, take notes on a lecture, and later have a quiz or test on that material. Decades ago, when your profs were learning, that was the expected way to teach. There are many changes that can be made to that model. For example, the material can be presented as worksheets or practice problems that students work through. Or, instead of the class being spent in lecture presenting material that is already in the textbook, you can get that same material outside of class so the classroom time is spent on explorations, clarifying, or applying the basic material. This is sometimes referred to as a "flipped" classroom.

Adapting to Different Styles

You may find that the way your class is structured is unexpected, and you have a hard time getting used to it. Maybe you are reluctant to participate in group work, you'd rather do the in-class assignments as homework, or you find it pointless to go to a lecture that's the same as the textbook. From the instructor's point of view, finding a classroom style that works well for a given set of learners is one of the ongoing challenges. Give the class a week or two, trying to fit the model of what's expected. You may find that it's not so bad. If you are still having a hard time getting involved in that teaching style, try talking with the instructor. S/he may have some good feedback on ways to adapt; or be willing to give you some alternatives that work better for you. Both of you are there in the classroom for the same reason: so that you can learn something. Working together to make that as effective as possible is part of being a good instructor - and a good student.