HOW TO STUDY ORGANIC CHEMISTRY
Educational psychologist recognize several stages of learning:
- Remembering (memorization)
- Creating new ideas
Try to judge where you fall in this hierarchy, and think about how you can progress to the next level. That is, think about how you think! Our goal is to get you to at least the third level in this class (and the fourth next semester).
You need to advance through these stages in organic chemistry so that you can:
- Learn to think logically about molecular properties and behavior
- Master the course ideas
- Be able to explain them to others and use them on examinations
You will need a well-organized approach and the commitment to stick to a fairly rigorous and time-demanding study schedule. Here are some suggestions.
1. Allocate your time and set study goals in advance. You will require no less than 10 hours of study time each week, beginning in the first week of the semester.
- You will get much more value for time and energy invested if you plan in advance what you intend to accomplish in each study session
- Use one of each week's ten hours to plan what you will do with the other nine
- Because you are trying to acquire useful habits, setting up your study sessions at regular times and in the same, comfortable place is a good idea
- Choose these times and places to minimize interruption and distraction: this means no television and no loud music, no cell phone (turn it off and place it out of reach), and preferably a place where multiple friends will not drop by multiple times.
- If you use your iPod, play calm, relaxing music.
- Focus on work from the moment you sit down; relax during breaks.
Your plan for each new topic should include the following activities:
- Read the Study Goals for that topic
- Read and outline the appropriate sections of the text prior to the instructor's discussing them in class; note anything that confuses you to pay particular atteention to in class
- Read through your class notes and merge them with the outline of the text, putting ideas into your own words
- I suggest a double page approach: take text notes on one page of your notebook and class notes on the facing page
- Write summaries of important points, as if you were explaining them to some one else
- Make and use flash cards
- Make reaction summaries - both of the reactions of functional groups and of reactions that produce a particular functional group
- WORK PROBLEMS; really work them. Psychologists have demonstrated that most individuals learn better by testing themselves (working problems) than be re-reading textual material.
Looking at the problem and then looking at the answer in the Study Guide and saying, "Yeah, OK, I get it!" is passive studying of the worst kind. It not only does no good, it makes you overly optimistic about what you know;
- List difficulties and questions to clear up with the instructor during his or her office hours;
- Drill with your summaries, flash cards, and reaction catalogs;
- Try to develop visual summaries, such a flowcharts and tables, in addition to the ones provided by your instructor; graphics are an aid to remembering content
For example, a student working with flash cards might notice that most the the reactions studied in the chapters on alkene and alkyne chemistry can be summarized in a simple chart:
[Can you fill in the reagents?]
2. Practice daily! Just as in studying a foreign language, multiple daily sessions yield better results than one marathon session each week (or even worse, the night before an exam).
- An important aid to efficiency is using your larger blocks of time for large jobs, like working problems, and your smaller scraps of time for small jobs, like drilling with flash cards.
3. Study actively, with pencil or pen in hand. Outline textual material rather than highlighting it. Highlighting is too passive.
4. Schedule short breaks at regular intervals during study. Ten minutes out of every hour is a good proportion. Use the break to stretch and walk around, get yourself a cold drink, make a short telephone call, or anything else that takes your mind off chemistry for a few minutes. Consider the break a reward for working hard during the preceeding 50 minutes.
5. Make sure your study plan includes reviewing for exams, but does not include "all-nighters" or frantic scrambling right up to the minute of the exam. These self-defeating measures only lead to panic.
- Instead, leave room in your schedule for an enjoyable activity in the few hours before the exam: a walk in the woods, dinner with a good friend (avoiding discussion of the exam), watching a favorite video.
- Students who are runners tell me that a short run before the exam is very helpful at relieving stress.
- You want to enter the exam room calm and confident that your organized preparation has you ready for the exam.
These suggestions and the other learning and problem-solving methods taught during the course [see for example the Web Page on flash cards] are based on long-term observations of (and by) many students, and on proven psychological principles. The approach works best if you support it in these ways:
Galina Miklosic has translated this page into Ukranian. To read it, click here.
- Put your study plan into operation immediately! Begin even before the first class meeting. Try to anticipate temptations to break your study schedule, and fight them actively. Skip a study session only if you have managed to complete the scheduled work in advance. If you plan ahead, major social events need not become impediments to good grades.
- Make a list of the reasons why you need good grades in the organic course! Fasten it to the inside of your notebook cover. Then, if you feel yourself losing momentum, or are tempted to give up your study plan, look at the list.
- Use all of the resources available to you. Many students don't. Some of the most important resources are:
- Your instructor. I am the most underutilized resource available to you. Change that! Use my office office hours! I also am available, like most faculty in this department, any other time I am in my office. In addition to getting answers to questions, you will learn more about what I consider important.
Office visits also give you the opportunity to show that you are taking the work seriously. But arrive prepared! Vague questions like "Could you go over NMR again?" imply that you have not done much for yourself. If you have followed the suggestion above and made a list of specific things you don't understand, and specific problems in the assignment with which you need help, your instructor can make effective use of your time together, and also will be impressed by your study habits.
- Recitations. The benefit again depends on your preparation. Watching someone else work a problem that you have not tried yourself is a passive experience with limited learning value for you. On the other hand, seeing confirmation of a solution at which you have arrived by your own effort, or seeing an alternative solution, is very valuable. Of course, seeing resolved a problem that you got stuck on also is valuable.
- Exam postmortems. Detailed study of your returned exam may be painful, especially if the instructor has written critical comments, but it is an excellent learning aid. Don't put the exam away until you know exactly how you made each mistake, and have learned how to avoid repeating it. Use the answer keys that the instructor will post. Work now any problems that you did not attempt during the examination period itself.
- Adopt a positive attitude about the course. Forget what you may have heard about the difficulty of the course or the personality of the instructor. Remember that many such comments originate with people not prepared or organized to do the work. Using the methods described here gives you a pronounced advantage.
The instructor's job is not to entertain you or build your self-esteem. It is to instruct you. Base your judgements of the instructor on how well the material is presented, what learning aids are made available, how accessible he or she is, and so on, rather than on the intangible of "niceness". Developing hostility toward a demanding instructor simply diverts energy from the important task at hand. The greatest enhancement of self-esteem possible comes from tackling a difficult job and doing well at it by hard work and perseverance.
- Try to make other aspects of your life as comfortable as possible while tackling this major course. If possible, schedule organic chemistry when the rest of your course load is relatively undemanding. Make time for exercise, which is the best stress reducer of all.
This page last modified 9:58 AM on Friday August 22nd, 2014.
Webmaster, Department of Chemistry, University of Maine, Orono, ME 04469