UCI’s Organic Chemistry Crisis: Why Excessive Memorization isn’t Conducive to Student Learning

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Toward the end of March, an article published in Chemical & Engineering News addressed a session at the American Chemical Society’s national meeting, titled “Is There A Crisis in Organic Chemistry Education?”.

While many speakers believed the contrary, educators in the audience firmly argued that organic chemistry faculty overestimate their students’ level of preparedness.

I have to agree with them, both as a former student of the class and as a current organic chemistry tutor for UCI’s Learning and Academic Resource Center (LARC).

In the past two years as a tutor, I’ve always told students that organic chemistry is an art. To fully understand the complexities of the various reaction mechanisms and their products, we must appreciate the simplicities that bring them about.

This is only possible with an understanding of the basic fundamentals. The year-long organic chemistry series is really just a class that follows the general story of two components — an electrophile and a nucleophile — reacting together with a supporting cast of acids and bases to form some end product.

However, like at many other universities nationwide, these fundamentals are glossed over at UCI.

As a result, when any science major hears the term “organic chemistry,” the first few phrases that come to mind are “brutal”, “too much memorization” and some colorful terms involving the death of someone’s GPA.

To an extent, we can all agree that any UCI class is challenging and requires some memorization.

But an excess of memorization shouldn’t be the focus of organic chemistry. Still, students are inundated with concepts on a weekly basis without really understanding the reasons behind them.

The way organic chemistry is presented to students at UCI has to change. Professors simply cannot assume that the first quarter of the series is enough for students to figure out the patterns and intricacies of the subject.

For example, synthesis and mechanism problems, which involve determining the steps from the starting material to the end product, have always been the biggest challenges for students.

Professors draw out the steps in class from beginning to end, but they always fail to explain their thought processes. In my last quarter of organic chemistry, I ditched class often because I wasn’t seeing the reasons why one step would occur before another.

This is a common theme among students. In class, we aren’t questioning and analyzing, which is the level of understanding needed to succeed on exams. Instead, we’re too busy copying the board and blindly accepting what is presented as truth, and, as a result, we are bombarded with seemingly incoherent concepts.

As a tutor, I’ve tried to bridge this gap by occasionally giving tutees challenge problems to test their true understanding. Most of the time, I get blank stares because students are so overwhelmed at the problem’s complexities. Despite a reminder to return to the fundamental concepts, their strategy usually is to stare at the lecture notes.

In other words, the creative thinking is lacking. The fundamental patterns are overshadowed by the memorization of a ridiculous amount of reagents, organic compounds, real-life applications and anything pertinent to the exam.

This isn’t helped by teaching differences between professors. With most students taking a different instructor each quarter, I’ve noticed as a student and as a tutor that each professor brings their own interpretation to the class. Some like to oversimplify, while others like to cram as much detail as possible.

However, the organic chemistry series is cumulative. Each quarter builds upon the knowledge taught in the previous one. As a result, midterm and final exams have a tendency to go haywire. On top of losing points on problems that demand more in-depth analysis than presented in class, easy points are lost because of the inconsistencies in baseline concepts.

The textbooks aren’t helping, either. With all the new editions that come out every few years, it would be safe to assume that changes are being made to improve the quality of learning.

However, this actually isn’t the case. According to Jerome Haky, organic chemistry professor at Florida Atlantic University, textbooks’ approach to the concepts have not changed in 50 years.

That’s 50 years of student struggles that have not been adequately addressed.

One of my own professors even pointed out that a particular reaction mechanism in our textbook was drawn completely wrong. The reason? Simplification for easier understanding.

This short-run thinking by the book eventually leads to confusion when that exact same concept pops up again in later quarters. Students don’t have an explanation for this sudden change. There is no consistency.

According to Logan McCarty, the director of Harvard University’s physical sciences education, approaching organic chemistry is like making a diagnosis to a patient — you need to be able to look at the problem and make an inductive generalization. Students must be able to piece all the provided information together to form an educated hypothesis.

This is why organic chemistry is such an important prerequisite for graduate professional schools like medical and pharmacy school.

Yet, future doctors and pharmacists are not properly building the foundations in organic chemistry that will enhance their future skillsets.

It’s time to create a consistent curriculum at UCI that centers on understanding the fundamentals instead of pure memorization. The key to mastering organic chemistry is knowing what to look for, not what to remember, and this is a concept that must be more highly emphasized by our professors.

Alexander Le is a UCI graduate, with a Bachelor of Science in Pharmaceutical Sciences. He can be reached at amle2@uci.edu.

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