Get an A in Organic Chemistry

This post will describe the tool I used to review ALL of my organic chemistry notes in 1 hour. I will walk you through the steps and show you how I created and used the most fantastic study tools and aced o-chem.

My official college transcript displays Cs in general chemistry (101 and 102).  Below is a description of what I did to get A’s in organic chemistry. Unlike many liberal arts classes, orgo has no Achilles heel to give you an easy way out. No amount of last minute cramming will allow you to succeed.

If you’re like me, studying is more of a game than a task. The hard part about Orgo isn’t the actual material/concepts, but the large amount of information. Taking in all the information in orgo is like trying to drink water from a fire hydrant. Another challenge is siting down and actually studying when surrounded by friends in easier subjects who don’t need to study as much. If you’re the one carrying around that orgo textbook that’s a foot thick, use it as a reminder that you’re going to need to do something different than the kids taking poli sci.

Practice problems first. Choose to spend the majority of your study time on practice problems. Especially at the beginning of a new section/chapter. Work your professor’s assigned problems first. In my experience the most effective way to begin learning the material is by doing practice problems first rather than by making flash cards and trying to memorize reactions.

Getting Stuck. At times its going to feel like a new set of reactions can’t be distinguished from each other. You’re lost and you “don’t get it”. At this point, its time to switch from practice problems to a reading/memorization tactic. You may think of making flash cards but….

Make Flash Pages instead of flash cards. The point of a flash card is just that, a flash to spark your memory. Lets say you glance at 10 flash cards 1 time each. Each card takes between 5-10 seconds to look over. I believe that it is possible increase your glance surface area from the size of an index card to the size of an 8x11in sheet of paper. This will improve how much information you cover.
-In a glance of 5-10 seconds, your eyes view an entire page of condensed notes instead of a small index card.
-Your brain will be forced to recognize certain reactions and concepts right next to other reactions and concepts that are related.
To make them: copy the essential sections of a chapter section onto a blank page. Say you cover 6 chapters during a semester, with ~10 sections each. This means that if you make a flash page for every section, you will have made about 60 pages of notes. That’s less than a page per day.  When in the span of an entire semester, this is not much.

Look for the similarities. In many cases, the reactions are analogous to each other. For example: nucleophilic attack on a carbonyl carbon by a nucleophile is analogous to nucleophilic attach on a cyanide carbon by a nucleophile (you’ll know what this means later if you don’t now). Many of the mechanisms involve the same exact steps, which is great because it allows you to focus on a big picture. Understanding the general processes are key to then noticing the slight nuances between each specific mechanism, such as the differences between acidic vs. basic conditions.

Read Before Lecture. Just do it. Bite the bullet and spend some time (even 10 minutes) glancing at the material to be covered in the following lecture. If you are ambitious you can make your flash page on the section before class. This is useful for any class, but in reality is not normally actually done. If you want an A, do it for orgo. This will allow you to capitalize on the time you spend in lecture, and actually understand where your teacher is going during class.

You can try any memorization tricks you want, but as I said in another post, the goal with memorization is to maximize your Glances/Time ratio.

Do Not fall behind.

Supplemental material: I used “Organic Chemistry as a Second Language” by David Klein. There’s a version for both orgo 1 and 2. Utilize your textbook solutions manual. If your book doesn’t come with one, its definitely worth trying to find one on the internet – even purchasing used on amazon if you need to. Remember, work on practice problems first.

Check your syllabus and understand how the course will be graded. My professor’s policy was to drop each student’s lowest exam grade and not count it. So, I was able to accidentally blow one of the exams. Realize also that its easier to do well on homework assignments than it is on tests. So make sure you ace the homeworks and other general assignments so that you have a bit of a buffer when it comes to the exams.  If you have close to a B+ average on exams, this may average to an A/A- when combined with the high grades you receive on the general homework assignments. Play the game.

Lab Sections: Your class will probably have a required lab period. Lab was run by Teacher’s assistants. Go to T.A. office hours (one hour a week for me) and get help. Just ask a million questions and understand how they graded and you’ll be fine.

Get to know your professor. College professors can be phenomenal people. They’re incredibly specialized in their area, and you’ll learn more about the class speaking to them for an hour than spending two days studying alone.

Study Groups: Helpful for lab sections and writing lab reports, as well has comparing solutions to difficult practice problems and homework. Having a small network (maybe 2 to 5 people) that you can call on for help while studying will prove to be beneficial. I sincerely believe that I would not be graduating college this May with a chem major were it not for the group I studied with during some of my harder classes.

Go Out. Don’t spend every night studying, give your brain a break. Studies show that you can’t really focus on one thing for more than 45 minutes anyway. Spend part of every evening studying, sure. But keep in mind that those four years goes by fast, and there’s a chance you won’t ever use the information in organic chem again.

The next part is to Review, and maximize your Glances/Time ratio. The idea here is that its more effective to look over a page 5 times spending a 1 minute each time than it is to look over a page 1 time spending 5 minutes. Do this with the flash pages you make. Don’t worry if you have trouble reading so quickly. I’m one of the slowest readers you’ll meet. Force yourself to spend as little time as possible on each flash page when reviewing. You will improve your brains ability to interpret a large amount of material during a single glance. You will soon see how the sponge of your brain collects and retains more information by seeing it many times in short flashes.

This will shorten the time you spend studying for the class. Towards the end of the semester, the 60 flash pages that you made will become readable in 60 minutes or less if you use this technique. Isn’t that incredible? You now have a tool to get through an entire semester of organic chemistry in 1 hour.

 

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