An Enlightening Experience

Three years ago, as a first-time teacher, I took over for the previous organic chemistry professor at our university, including the textbook he was using. It was one of the most popular books organized by functional groups. After surviving through my first-year teaching, I sensed that it was confusing mechanistically. Seeing how the reaction worked behind the picture was challenging and frustrating to students. Books organized by functional groups are like a dictionary organized by alphabet; it is organized and easy to look information up, but might not be the best or easiest way to learn. Throughout the book, mechanisms were interspersed among different chapters. Some reactions were given without mechanisms, just for memorizing purposes. This reinforced the biggest misconception in most students’ mind: that organic chemistry is all about memorizing.

Inspired by a friend who specialized in chemical education, I decided to look for a textbook organized more like the organic chemistry ACS exam study guide, which is more mechanistically based. After briefly going through a few books on my inherited shelf, Joel’s book caught my eye. I liked how the book was structured and decided to give it a try.  While working our way through the first semester, going into chapter 7 was definitely a life changing experience. I remember exactly how I felt at the moment the class and i started the chapter, “An overview of the Most Common Elementary Steps.” WOW, organic chemistry indeed can be taught like this! It was absolutely enlightening.  For a while I couldn’t calm myself down. Now all the complicated mechanisms can be broken down into building blocks. Just like how we can identify functional groups in a structure instead of individual atoms, we can identify elementary steps for all the complicated mechanisms. Students don’t have to memorize multi-step mechanisms from scratch anymore.

To me organic chemistry is about two things: electronegativity, and nucleophile attacking electrophile. I liked that the book emphasized asking students to identify electron rich and electron poor sites for each elementary step; which trains them to be sharp on identifying nucleophile and electrophile. This helped students to develop a much better chemical intuition and see that organic reactions are all part of a big game. All the memorization is based on logical patterns.  Throughout the rest of the book, I kept on asking students to identify elementary steps, nucleophiles and electrophiles. Students think it’s fun to be in class, and enjoy exploring mechanisms, either independently or under guidance, for new reactions.  To help students navigate the large quantities of reactions, I also gave them reaction maps and quiz maps that are organized through functional groups. This turns out to be very effective as they’ve already got the mechanisms down by then.

Overall, I am really thankful for Joel’s textbook and for his innovative method of teaching. It made organic chemistry teaching and learning a much more effective, easier, and fun experience for both teachers and students.

-Jing Hao, George Fox University
Click here to learn more about Prof. Hao


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