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.

One way that an organic chemistry textbook can help is by having significant, tightly focused discussions of the most relevant general chemistry topics. These topics include: bonding and Lewis structures, resonance, orbitals and hybridization, intermolecular forces, isomerism, equilibrium, acid–base chemistry, and kinetics. Most organic texts do present very brief reviews of these topics in early chapters, but often this review is relegated to only the book’s first chapter, and I don’t believe that these short treatments benefit students who enter with deficiencies. When the material is presented in such a terse manner, it is often difficult for students to recognize that they in fact do have deficiencies. And even if a student does come away from the review chapter with a realization that he or she has a deficiency in a certain area, there is a significant barrier for that student to fill in that gap. Often the student is expected to go back to a general chemistry book to do so, but most students don’t keep their general chemistry texts. And for those that do, the topics are rarely presented in the context of organic chemistry, therefore making it difficult for students to applythe topic to their organic course at hand.

Instead, I believe that the treatments of these general chemistry topics should be of a greater depth and breadth than what is typically found in the organic chemistry texts currently available. Students will then be better able to assess what they have been able to carry forward from general chemistry in targeted areas. And should a student discover that he or she has a deficiency in some area, the barrier to fill in that gap will be minimized—the material will be right in front of them. Furthermore, with these discussions presented in the context of organic chemistry, geared specifically toward organic chemistry problems, students will better be able to see the relevance of these topics—students will be more engaged, setting up better long-term retention.

My textbook takes this approach. General chemistry topics are presented more extensively than in other organic textbooks and are tightly focused on how to apply them toward solving problems in organic chemistry. The discussion of Lewis structures, for example, begins with a review of the basic rules for drawing the structures, which students will have learned in general chemistry. The focus, however, is on just the organic portion of the periodic table. Furthermore, the discussion is taken beyond a simple review, showing students how to use common bonding scenarios (four bonds for carbon, three bonds and a lone pair for nitrogen, etc.) to quickly draw Lewis structures of large, complex organic molecules. Another example involves my treatment of intermolecular forces. The discussion begins with an in-depth review of the various intermolecular forces students will have encountered in general chemistry, but is done in the context of boiling points and solubilities of organic compounds and organic solvents. The discussion is then carried further, dealing with important organic topics such as protic and aprotic solvents, as well as soaps and detergents.

Not every instructor will have the interest or time to cover this additional general chemistry material in class. Some instructors may feel that doing so could give students a false sense of security, or might detract from the responsibility that they believe should be expected of students. And that’s fine—the additional material doesn’t need to take up much class time, if any at all. I, in fact, spend minimal time on it in my own class—just what it takes to answer students’ questions about any lingering misunderstandings. But having that material in the book is still tremendously beneficial. It gives me a specific place toward which I can direct students. And for students it represents an efficient and relevant review of essential topics that can help set them up for success throughout the entire course.

— Joel Karty

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