Linguistic Considerations in Teaching Organic Chemistry

Language acquisition and orthography are two ideas from the field of linguistics and applied linguistics that are relevant to teaching organic chemistry.

Language acquisition in children occurs without conscious effort. By hearing examples of the language, children internally codify the rules of the language and can generate language spontaneously. This ability diminishes with age, shutting down around adolescence, which is why adults learn languages through study of rules, vocabulary, and phonetics.

As experts, our acquisition of the language of organic chemistry is an extension of our first language. Consequently, while we did learn some of the language through conscious effort during our education, there is a good deal of the language that we have absorbed through exposure. You can probably recall a term in organic chemistry that you have had to define for someone, and you found yourself creating the definition on the spot. Or you can identify something as incorrect, without ever having learned a formal rule. For example, OHCH2CH3 probably strikes you as an incorrect representation of ethanol. However, you may not recall ever formally learning that the hydrogens attached to initial heteroatoms should precede the atom and not follow it, as in HOCH2CH3. You simply know what’s “right” and “wrong.”

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How Should Biochemical Topics Be Treated in an Organic Textbook?

In most organic chemistry courses, the majority of students are biology majors and/or have their sights set on a career in medicine or other health-related field. My own course is no different. Therefore, like many organic instructors, I believe that students ought to see the relevance of organic chemistry to biology and medicine. Why is the course required for a degree in biology? Why is the course a prerequisite for medical school? One way for students to see this relevance is to show them how organic chemistry specifically applies to biology and medicine. One way to do this is by exposing students to some biochemical topics. But how? To what extent? And when?

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Intermolecular Attractions and Solubility: A Classroom Demonstration For A Difficult Topic

An understanding of solubility, melting points, and boiling points based on intermolecular attractions, or intermolecular forces (IMF), is critical in academic research as well as industrial work. For example, I know that the following facts:

  • Methylene chloride is a better solvent for the extraction of the products of LAH reductions than diethyl ether.
  • Stearic acid is a solid at room temperature while isostearic acid is a liquid.
  • 1-butanol is basically immiscible in water.

Knowing these facts has been critical at particular points in my career. (If I had only learned the last one sooner, I could have prevented the only uncontrolled explosion I have had in a chemistry lab.) Consequently, I consider IMF an important topic.

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What Role Should the Organic Textbook Play in Helping Students Transition From General Chemistry?

Early in my teaching career I realized that a large percentage of my organic chemistry students weren’t carrying forward nearly as much from their general chemistry course as I had expected. This is a potentially enormous problem because without command of, and the ability to apply, several concepts from general chemistry, students will find it difficult or impossible to understand new concepts in organic chemistry. Ultimately, this leads to the dreaded “memorization problem” that so many of us teaching organic chemistry constantly battle. In talking with instructors at other institutions, I have learned that it wasn’t just my students, but rather it’s a common problem. Many students need a review or reinforcement of several general chemistry topics before pressing forward with new material in organic chemistry. But how should this be done? I think that no matter how you answer that question, the organic textbook can play an important role in helping students make the transition from general chemistry to organic chemistry.

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