In my last post, Results of Four Years of Teaching the Mechanism, I talked about the increasing ACS Organic Exam scores I have observed in my students over the previous four years of using the Karty approach. As I am preparing for the 5th year and the first time using the second edition this Fall, I have been thinking some things I wished I had known when I was using the text the first year I had adopted it. The most critical thing I learned that would have helped me that first year and I would tell anyone that is using this book for the first time would be: “Forget about what you are used to in terms of topical pace.”
The first time I used the Karty book, I remember putting my syllabus together and comparing it to my previous syllabi. I compared the relative pace and topics I would cover and what would be on each exam. It was a little nerve wracking because I felt like there were too many chapters to cover on fundamental information that went into more detail than I was used to. You have to get through about half the reactions in the first semester, right?
So, that first year was rough; I went through chapters 1-5 fairly quickly, trying to get to the “real” organic chemistry and the reactions that begin in chapter 8. The rest of the year, I saw my students struggle with the same things that they had struggled with when I was using a functional group focused textbook – they were trying to memorize all the reactions! The second semester dragged on and it took more time than I had hoped to cover chapters; each chapter seeming to take longer than the last. In the end, we barely had time to touch on chapter 24 (Diels-Alder and other pericyclic reaction) and I had covered fewer reactions in my course than I had with my old textbook. I had switched books to try to get away from this but the result was the same because I had not adapted my approach! I made some small changes to my own approach that second year and started to realize the importance of the first several chapters in the book to student success overall.
Fast forward to years 3 and 4. I now go at slower pace in chapters 1-7. If I wanted my students to understand organic chemistry from a mechanistic approach, I had to spend as much time as they needed to master the concepts of molecular orbitals, hybridization, electronegativity and its effects on bond polarity, and quickly determining and comparing anion stability of different species. My students can expect pop quizzes on early topics at any point in the course, whether it is a quiz on identifying functional groups, reproducing and predicting elementary steps, or rationalizing a series of acids or bases in terms of relative strength; all early concepts that they need to have mastered in order to succeed in grasping the later chapters.
This past year I allowed more time than before on these formative chapters. I really let my student’s pace determine how quickly I would move through the material. I was prepared for the fact that we might not get as far as I had hoped in the second semester and I didn’t worry about getting to every chapter. In year 3, we had almost finished every chapter (including the interchapters). In year 4, the year I slowed the pace in order to make sure that students truly mastered the foundational concepts, I saw the pay-off: the highest ACS second semester scores I have had on average.
What I didn’t talk about in the last blog post was that the class finished the textbook a week before the end of the school year. We had several class periods where we could talk about advanced topics that I don’t normally get to! What I found is that when students really understand the concepts in chapters 1-8, chapters 9-26 go a whole lot faster. My students are mastering the reactions much quicker than previous years because they are finally approaching organic chemistry by trying to understand the reactions mechanistically rather than memorize them. Overwhelmingly, my students the past two years have said that in the second semester, organic chemistry gets easier and more accessible. This is a huge change from my classroom experience with my previous functional group-focused book. This is how it should be if we are really teaching our students that organic chemistry is a science that is meant to be understood and not simply memorized!
-Nathan Duncan, Maryville College