Building a Solid Foundation Gives the Student More Confidence

When I was in ninth grade, my family built a house. I remember my dad, who is an engineer, regularly checking on the progress and quality of the foundation. He knew that the foundation was the most important part of the house. Building a proper foundation took a lot of time, but it was important if the house was going to be sturdy and durable. So it is with organic chemistry. A solid foundation in certain general chemistry concepts is required in order for students to truly succeed in organic chemistry. The importance of this grounded foundation was really made apparent to me when I switched from a functional-group organization to a mechanistic one.

Most organic textbooks have one “review” chapter. Because I too considered the material in these chapters to be review, I would spend only one or two lectures on such topics as drawing Lewis structures, VSEPR, resonance, bond polarity/electronegativity, bond strength, hybridization, and Brønsted acid/base properties. However, this one- or even two-chapter “review” would not be sufficient, I discovered, and I would often see my students struggling throughout the course because, since these topics reappear in almost every subsequent chapter, without fully understanding these foundational topics, the superstructure of organic material that students constructed was often flimsy and faulty. Strong foundational knowledge, like a housing foundation, is essential to the success of whatever you are building on, and the functional-group texts I was using were not adequately laying this foundational knowledge.

Joel Karty’s mechanistically organized textbook provides more ample support in the beginning chapters (Chapters 1–6) than other organic texts, and this more robust support helps to ensure that students have the desired, proper foundation. In general chemistry, students are introduced to the topics that organic chemistry builds on, but then they quickly move on to other topics that have less bearing on organic. Furthermore, even with the topics that are organic related, seldom are students taught these topics in the context of organic chemistry. I have found that Joel’s book addresses my two concerns regarding student preparation: 1.) It bolster’s students’ understanding of organic-related foundational general chemistry topics, and 2.) It discusses these general chemistry topics in context of their application in organic.

For example, when I began using a mechanistically organized textbook, I observed for the first time students actually understanding electrophilic aromatic substitution and ortho/para versus meta directors. This one reaction topic incorporates many of the basics (resonance, inductive effects, free energy diagrams, charge stability, Lewis structures, molecular orbital theory/bonding) I used to treat as review. In the past, students wanted to memorize a list of ortho/para and meta directors. Rote memorization for organic chemistry leaves students frustrated, overwhelmed, and often underperforming. When the students had the proper foundational knowledge they were able to understand why the product distribution for the nitration of toluene is 63% ortho, 3% meta, and 34% para.

Electrophilic aromatic substitution uses MANY of the foundational topics.

Since I also teach general chemistry I know that students at that stage in their coursework are not really ready to understand all of these topics at the level we expect in organic. By covering these topics at the beginning or Organic I in context of organic chemistry, my students are better prepared. To my (pleasant!) surprise I no longer ask, “Didn’t you learn this in general chemistry?” Even if I decide not to cover some of these foundational topics in class, I can feel confident that they are covered extensively in Joel’s book, and with the emphasis and care that these students need.

Having a strong foundation builds one’s confidence. Whether you’re buying a home or learning organic chemistry.

— Marie Melzer, Old Dominion University

Marie Melzer teaches a mechanistically organized course at Old Dominion University. She plans to use Joel Karty’s book in the fall (2014)Click here to learn more about Prof. Melzer.

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