On Nomenclature

In my first few years as a professor, I taught nomenclature in the way it was organized in the textbook I was using at the time—i.e., according to functional group. Each time my class began a new functional group chapter, I would teach aspects of nomenclature associated with that functional group. Indeed, I found this to be a very tidy way of organizing nomenclature because the rules of nomenclature themselves are based on functional groups. But despite spending a substantial amount of time in class on the topic—about 2–3 lecture periods in total throughout the year—my students were underperforming on their exams. Today, teaching the entire course under a mechanistic organization, I deal with nomenclature very differently. In my textbook, nomenclature is fully separated from the main chapters that deal with actual chemistry (structure, stability, reactions, etc.) and is organized according to nomenclature rules, not functional groups. My students are assigned to learn most of that material on their own; I spend just a portion of one lecture period on it. As a result, I am finding that my students perform much better on nomenclature on their exams. The take-home lesson is that “tidy” does not always mean “best.”

Why does separating nomenclature from the main chapters benefit students? One reason is that it helps students focus as they learn. I’ve previously argued that including nomenclature in a functional group chapter distracts students from the actual chemistry that is also presented. By the same token, aspects of structure, stability, and reactions act as a distraction to nomenclature. Separating the two makes it easier for students to see how they differ: Whereas stability and reactivity are governed by laws of nature, nomenclature is simply a set of conventions conceived by humans. Thus, whereas learning aspects of chemistry entails understanding and applying concepts, learning nomenclature requires simply memorizing and practicing rules.

A second benefit of separating nomenclature from the main chapters is that it better enables students to see how the various nomenclature rules relate to one another. Consider, for example, the fact that many functional group books present their chapters in this order: alcohols < ethers < ketones and aldehydes < amines; whereas the order of functional group priorities in establishing suffixes is: ethers < amines < alcohols < ketones and aldehydes. In my textbook, the rules for establishing suffixes based on functional group are presented alongside the order of functional group priorities, so students have little trouble making the connection.

Yet a third benefit for students comes when it’s time to review for an exam, especially a cumulative final exam. If a student wants to review a particular nomenclature rule in a textbook that is organized according to functional group, how does she know which functional group chapter to turn to? Doing so is much easier and more straightforward when the nomenclature rules are all collected together and organized logically.

The way that I treat nomenclature in my textbook also offers a tremendous advantage to me as an instructor. Because I have found that my students are better capable of learning nomenclature on their own when it is separated from the main chapters, I save considerable class time. That means I have more time in class to spend on the things that truly matter to me—the chemistry.

— Joel Karty

3 comments on “On Nomenclature

  1. Jeremy Wessel
    October 18, 2012 at 12:48 pm #

    This semester I’ve had to reorganize topics to teach Organic as a one semester Fundamentals course as opposed to the traditional 2-semester sequence. One of the things I did was to teach nomenclature all at once. The test results were a little disappointing. I’m thinking next time of having a test/quiz just on nomenclature.

    • Joel Karty
      October 24, 2012 at 3:33 pm #

      Jeremy,

      I was wondering if you could elaborate a bit on the way you organized nomenclature when you taught it this way. Did you extract the nomenclature sections from functional group chapters and keep the same basic organization? Or did you do any reorganization? Also, do you have any insights into the reasons your students’ test results were a little disappointing? Do you think your students had ample problems to work on leading up to the test(s)?

      The reason I ask is that when I teach nomenclature separately, I do it in such a way as to have new rules build on previous rules, so students remain focused on the rules. But I think that in books with functional group chapters, the focus is geared more toward associating rules with particular functional groups, so I wonder if students might lose sight of the rules themselves. And, in addition to the nomenclature problems I assign on my problem sets, the nomenclature sections in my textbook have 300 or so nomenclature problems that students use for practice/feedback.

  2. Syed R Husssaini
    October 19, 2012 at 6:51 pm #

    I agree that nomenclature should have separate chapters. I spend about seven lectures on nomenclature (including R and S and E and Z). Except for Z/E, cis/trans and R/S I teach the rest of nomenclature separately. The above topics I teach with stereochemistry. I think they fit nicely there. However, I can see Dr. Karty’s point and I think students will indeed learn better if all the nomonclature is discussed in separate chapters.
    By the way, it is very hard to leave a comment here as the window for leaving the comment is very small and I cannot see what I am writing. It can be a big deterant for people who want to leave a comment.

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