Nomenclature As An Independent Topic

When I first saw nomenclature presented as four independent chapters, instead of as small sections within functional group chapters, I reacted negatively. Who wants to teach multiple topics in nomenclature in one class period?  Shouldn’t students be exposed to the material over time, developing their skills incrementally, similar to what occurs in a language class?  And don’t students deserve those “easy” problems about nomenclature at the beginning of each exam?

However, when I taught the course using Joel’s early draft of the textbook, I found that knocking out nomenclature quickly and in large chunks works well for students.  Naming compounds is, after all, an algorithmic process that follows rules.  As you go from naming compounds with one functional group to those with a different functional group, the only significant changes in the name are the prefixes and suffixes.

Since Joel’s presentation of nomenclature is extensive, I found that doing a nomenclature example for each functional group and targeting potential misunderstandings was a sufficient use of classroom time.  During that first year, I devoted a page or less on a single exam in each semester to covering the topic and we were done.  One of the major benefits of this approach is that, as I went from chapter to chapter in the text, I could focus on the major theme of the chapter without taking a break to teach nomenclature.

In 2010, I experimented with students taking responsibility for reading the material in the textbook and devoting lecture time to asking questions about the material (and counting students’ responses as part of their grades). I found that students do quite well learning nomenclature without any lecture presentation at all.  This year, although I am returning to a more traditional classroom presentation, I am asking students to learn nomenclature on their own.  We do a couple of examples in class to specifically address the topic, and, certainly, they have to name compounds that we discuss in class.  However, having them read the material and practice outside of class is working well thus far.

Two further comments on teaching nomenclature:  First, students may appreciate the analogy between organic nomenclature and the German language.  I ask my class what is the most important part of a sentence (the verb), and then point out that in German verbs tend to go at the end of sentences.  I cite the apocryphal story of the man who read a German novel but never learned what happened because the last two pages were missing.  That’s where all the verbs were.  I point out that the most important functional group present goes at the end of the name, and that, in fact, we frequently build names by starting at the suffix and going backwards.

Second, each instructor has to decide which common names he or she wants students to recognize.  At some point in the course, I give the students a list of terms that they need to know. For example, when students study the nomenclature of aromatic compounds, I want them to be able to provide the correct structure when they read  toluene (as opposed to recognizing only methylbenzene).  I don’t have the same expectation for cumene or xylene.  (These are, obviously, my personal choices.)

As a final note, my experience is that nomenclature as a separate topic works well.  Nomenclature can be delegated to its own place, because it is not the meat of what students need to learn.  It is the written representation of the molecules we discuss.

— Steve Pruett

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