A few days ago I returned the second exam of organic II, the bulk of which covered nucleophilic addition and nucleophilic addition-elimination reactions. The following day, a student came to my office to ask questions about the problems she missed. This particular student got off to a rocky start at the beginning of the semester (earning a D on the first exam), but has been steadily improving ever since—on this exam, she earned a C. There’s no question that she has been putting forth more work as the semester has gone on, and she has been quite encouraged seeing her hard work pay off.
Nevertheless, when we finished going over her exam, she had a nervous look. I told her that, as long as her work ethic continues, she’ll be fine. I reminded her that the concepts she’s worked hard to understand to this point are going to continue to be beneficial as we learn new material. On top of that, I told her that the next material we’re covering—electrophilic aromatic substitution—gets a bit easier. When I said that, her face immediately lit up, and she left our meeting encouraged and invigorated.
My student’s reaction reminded me that I chose to cover aromatic substitution reactions after I cover nucleophilic addition and nucleophilic addition-elimination reactions because I believe that the latter reactions constitute the most challenging material that students face all year. Years ago, when I was teaching under a traditional functional group organization, I covered nucleophilic addition and addition-elimination reactions in the final few weeks. It wasn’t pretty; I found that students didn’t digest those reactions well in large part because they felt the need to shift focus toward the looming final exam. As a result, the year kept ending on a sour note.
By moving those reactions toward the middle of the semester, I now find that students have time to digest those really challenging reactions at the same time they are learning the less-challenging aromatic reactions, which lets us end on a positive note.