Tag: Understanding VS. Memorizing

No Pain, Lots of Gain

When I was an organic chemistry student, I learned from a functional group based textbook. Fast forward fifteen years, and I was teaching organic chemistry from a functional group based textbook. As a chemistry department, it was what we knew and what we were comfortable with, but the department as a whole was ready for

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Higher Understanding but Not “Higher-Level”

When talking with chemist friends about their organic chemistry experience as students, many of them remember the mechanism questions as the most difficult; the last questions on each exam, the “A-student versus B-student” questions, were always mechanisms to struggle through. When I’ve explained that my school follows a mechanistically driven approach to organic chemistry, the

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Mechanisms in Class, Mechanisms in Lab

I have always used a mechanistic approach when teaching organic chemistry. Every class I have taught, I started the first day saying, “Do you want to try to memorize hundreds, if not thousands, of individual reactions, or do you want to learn to understand how about ten reactions take place, so you can apply them

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Teaching Solvent Effects Early Helps Keep Students’ Heads From Spinning

We started Chapter 9 in class a couple weeks ago, where we learn how to predict the outcome of the SN1/SN2/E1/E2 competition. Similar to how it’s done in most books, we do this by first learning about the major factors that influence the rate of each reaction in this competition. But unlike other books, this

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Surprising Scores in Unit 4

At the end of the semester the students are typically burned out, busy with all of their final assignments, and in general do not perform as well on the last unit exam compared to the other three units. At Old Dominion University we teach addition to alkenes and alkynes in the last unit, a very

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Free Energy Diagrams Help Free Students from Memorization

Most organic professors can agree that we want our students to understand concepts and big pictures rather than memorize a list of facts. When determining the outcome or major product of a reaction, I’ve found that using free energy diagrams is a great way to facilitate concept based understanding over memorization. But despite their long-term

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Helping Students Learn How to Learn

I had been going through Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do with a new faculty member this semester. The overarching theme of Bain’s book is that the best college teachers are student-centered. These “best teachers” are constantly trying to get into students’ heads to help them learn how to learn. It is not

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Is Learning Organic Chemistry like Learning a New Language?

Over the years, I’ve heard many organic faculty use the phrase: “Learning organic chemistry is like learning a foreign language.” I’ve certainly used the phrase myself to give advice to my own students, in an attempt to convey that both subjects are cumulative and require a lot of practice. This year, however, I find myself

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Why a Mechanistic Organization Improves Understanding in Large Lectures

One of my favorite TV commercials is the AT&T, “Bigger is Better, It’s Not that Complicated” ad that features unscripted responses of elementary school children about why faster, bigger, larger, etc. is better.  Unlike cell coverage, bigger lecture size is not necessarily better. Over the years, I have done a number of things to make

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A Mechanistic Organization and Learning Synthesis: Having Cake and Eating It, Too

When I began teaching organic chemistry over twelve years ago, I adopted a traditional textbook organized according to functional group. The concept of organic synthesis was introduced in a short section in Chapter 4, as was retrosynthetic analysis. The intention, I think, was good: with these aspects of synthesis introduced early, students would incorporate new

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