A number of years ago I had a student come to me at the end of Organic II and ask, “What happened to the SN2 reaction?” She wanted to know why we had spent so much time on this one reaction in order to move on to the next unit and then never discussed this reaction again. I found this to be common when I organized my course by functional group. Students viewed each reaction as a unique mechanism and did not see the common elementary steps that comprise organic reaction mechanisms.
I recently saw the Royal Birmingham ballet perform during the Virginia Arts Festival. The dancers moved with such grace in what appeared to be effortless and different motions. Having taken ballet as a child, I know the work the dancers put into their art. Ballet classes start with fundamentals at the barre, and ballet choreography incorporates these fundamental steps over and over. Like organic chemistry, in ballet, one must practice the fundamentals and understand the basics in order to perform well. I use the same “moves” over and over throughout my organic course. How do we get students to recognize these patterns and use these same moves? I believe a key component is the order that we teach the material, and by explicitly pointing out to students the common ties in the mechanisms.