Part of not falling behind is taking advantage of your most precious resource: time. In an ideal world — which is the world that many professors seem to believe students live in — you would have enough time to be able to understand and master every single concept and idea in organic chemistry. In the real world (which is the one where students have part-time jobs, other classes, family and medical emergencies, and — get this — lives), things don’t always work out that way.
Doctors in emergency rooms use a concept called the for allocating resources when there’s not enough to go around. A person with a gunshot wound gets medical resources at the expense of the person with a headache. Time is your most precious resource. Spend it wisely using this principal of triage. For example, if you have little time left before an exam, instead of spending three hours memorizing a data table that may be represented by one problem on an exam, use the same amount of time to master an important idea in organic synthesis that will be represented on half the exam. In other words, be practical when you study.
In 1992 the Organic Reactions Catalysis Society (ORCS) created the Murray Raney Award “for contributions in the use of sponge metal catalysts in organic synthesis”. The award is given out every two years at the annual ORCS conference.
Organic chemistry has a reputation for being a challenging course. But here’s the thing that’s often not mentioned: Organic chemistry is a subject that anyone can ace. Doing well, though, requires working not only hard but also efficiently. Here are ten practical tips on how to study as efficiently as possible so you can do well in the class.
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One trap that many students fall into is getting comfortable after they do well on the first exam. Don’t fall for this trap. The first exam is quite often the easiest exam you’ll take all semester. Organic chemistry is a marathon, not a sprint. You have to pace yourself, so set aside a little bit of time each day when you do organic chemistry come rain, shine, or big frat party — and don’t let up.
Organic chemistry is probably the fastest-paced course that you’ll take while an undergraduate. Organic textbooks usually span a thousand pages or more, and a majority of that will probably be covered in a two-semester class (and it’s not exactly like thumbing through a Stephen King novel). If you fall behind, it’s nearly impossible to catch up. So, make a schedule and do a little organic chemistry every day.
Learning organic chemistry is not a passive task. You can’t just read the book and expect to soak up the material, like water into a sponge (although some students have tried using the textbook as a pillow, just in case). You have to actively engage yourself, working the problems in the text of the chapters as you go along, underlining key passages (don’t worry about marring your book), and working the problems at the ends of the chapters. Some students outline the chapter as they putter through it, emphasizing all the critical ideas that can be used while simultaneously making a crib sheet for when they prep for an exam.
Going to class is also an efficient use of your time, because a good professor does a better job of explaining organic chemistry than a textbook can. In other words, an hour in class is worth two on your own. Of course, the time you spend in class will be much more fruitful if you’ve read the textbook going to class. Sitting in class and brainlessly copying notes off the chalkboard without having a clue of what your professor is talking about is a waste of your time. So, reading your textbook beforehand will allow you to get the most out of your time in class. Class time is also a good time to ask questions about concepts you had difficulty understanding when you read the book.
Some people find working in groups helpful, and some studies suggest that working in groups is one of the best ways to learn. Additionally, making a commitment with a group is like getting an exercise partner. It’s harder to cop out of a studying session if you’ve made plans with someone else to study two nights a week. Just be sure that your group doesn’t develop bad patterns (like one person doing all the work and the rest copying, for example). A group is probably not going to help you memorize the functional groups, but it may help you to discover how to tackle problems, if everyone in the group pitches in. If you’ve worked in groups before and you know groups work well for you — particularly if you know the people who are going to be in the group — then that’s great. Use group work to your advantage.
Professors have office hours, and so do teaching assistants. Your tuition pays their salary, so make use of them. If you get stuck on a problem (and everyone will at some point) or you just don’t understand a concept, go see one of them. They’ll probably be happy to help you (unless it’s after 5 p.m. on Friday, when they just want to leave and get a beer during happy hour). If you think you’re going to need consistent one-on-one help, ask your professor about finding a tutor.
Don’t fall for that claptrap that says you’ll look stupid by asking a question. Organic chemistry is not an obvious subject (and that’s an understatement). After a couple weeks, over half the students in your class will be utterly lost and will have absolutely idea what the professor is jabbering on about (you, of course, will understand because you read the chapter before you went to class). So, for you not to understand an idea here or there is a minor issue, and it’s certainly nothing to be ashamed about.