What About Nonmajors and Pre-health Students?

I am convinced that students learn organic chemistry best when we teach them how to work with mechanisms prior to delving into predicting products and devising syntheses. And when dealing with reactions, it is important to organize reactions according to mechanism, in order for students to have a sustained focus on mechanisms throughout the year.  But some instructors might have concerns over the fact that their class is comprised largely of nonmajors and pre-health students. Will teaching the material in this way represent additional details that those students simply don’t need? Will teaching the material in this way do these students a disservice? I would emphatically say, “no,” to both questions. My own class consists predominantly of nonmajors and pre-health students (about 85%) who generally outperform my chemistry majors. So, to the contrary, I strongly believe that a mechanistic organization will in fact help nonmajors and pre-health students to succeed.

I think the biggest reason that teaching a mechanistic organization will help nonmajors and pre-health students succeed stems from the motivation that such an organization can give students. In the 11 years that I have been teaching the organic chemistry course, I have seen nothing provide more fuel to students—majors and nonmajors, pre-health or not—than the feeling that the material actually makes sense! Such a feeling is empowering. And perhaps more importantly, students begin to believe that, truly, the more effort they put in, the better their success will be—a message that fails to get across to students who are floundering and end up spinning their wheels.

For pre-health students, there are still other benefits to teaching organic chemistry via mechanisms. One benefit is to their performance on their respective admissions tests, such as the MCAT or the DAT. Students who have a better understanding of the material the first time through will have longer retention of the material, affording them an easier time when they review one, two, or more years after they complete the course. Moreover, such tests frequently have questions that go beyond simple rote memorization, actually probing a student’s understanding of concepts and mechanisms. Another benefit comes from the fact that medical schools increasingly want students who can problem solve. This was communicated to me directly by a representative of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), and was corroborated by the director of admissions at the Duke University School of Medicine.  When an organic course demands students to routinely apply the tools they have acquired to work with mechanisms, it is easier to give students credit for this in a letter of recommendation.

My belief in teaching organic chemistry via mechanisms is supported very heavily by the results I see from the organic chemistry prep course I teach each summer through Duke University’s School of Medicine. Each year, I teach about 50 underrepresented and underprivileged freshmen and sophomores who have aspirations of medical school, and who come from roughly 35-40 different colleges, universities, and community colleges from around the country. Throughout the six weeks, we focus almost exclusively on basic concepts of structure and stability, as well as the fundamentals of elementary steps and mechanisms. Almost zero emphasis is placed on predicting products of reactions, except in the last few days when we transition into nucleophilic substitution and elimination reactions. Students then return to their home institutions to take their full year of organic chemistry. In each of my ten years teaching that prep course, 80%-90% of students go on to earn an “A” or “B” grade at their home institution. Furthermore, roughly 70% of them are admitted to medical school their first year out, whereas nationally, the average age for first year medical students is 24. Seeing this, it is clear to me how vital it is to give students a proper foundation to work with mechanisms.

— Joel Karty

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