Why is organic chemistry so difficult?

Inspired in part by this thread, why do many (I think) people have inordinate trouble with learning organic chemistry?

I’ve gone through the rigamarole of taking these courses, but I could never understand peers who griped, whined, and bemoaned the classes. While I though the material was challenging, it was also a great deal of fun. Each problem was like a little puzzle: you have this unknown molecule, this reagent, and you get to figure out what you should get out of it. I had a great time with the mechanisms because I could chase electrons all around the molecule. True, I liked studying for the darned exams because I got to spend hours with these neat little puzzles. Yes Virginia, I am a card-carrying nerd, can you tell?

Hey, I liked organic chemistry too. I found it easier than inorganic which IMO was just a bunch of rote memorisation. I also rocked at probabilities and set theory in math class, which seemed to trip up everyone else, but I couldn’t do calculus to save my life and so I was tragically screwed in the exams, where they managed to work calculus into every damn section. (There were two high-level math units, “calculus” and “not calculus”, and most card-carrying nerds did both, but I’d only taken one to specifically avoid having to do any calculus… sigh.)

Which part?

I suck at memorization, so the problems along the lines of “design a synthesis for XYZ without class notes” killed me dead, but excelled at mechanisms… give me a bunch of substances and I can figure out which reactions they’ll undergo and in what ratios just fine. Most of my classmates were the opposite.

It depends a lot on the teacher, too. If I’d had the teachers for Orgo I and II in the opposite order that I had them (i.e., the one who never talked about mechanisms first) I never would have chosen to “intensify” Orgo (we had to choose a specialty to stress in the last 2 years of uni, between Orgo, Industrial and Analytical - the degree was always in Chem Eng).

I felt about like you did through the first semester of it, but by the second semester I found it pretty overwhelming. The molecules got increasingly complex and, IIRC, the reactions became increasingly subtle rather than relying on the application of familiar principles. Plus, while I enjoyed some of the chemistry you can do on paper, I don’t enjoy interacting with chemicals that can burn you, smell bad, can make you ill if you inhale them, etc. So the labs were pretty miserable and more of an ordeal than a learning experience for me.

Well, being one of the ones that bitched about it, I’ll answer.

First of all, we had a horrible teacher. He was never available for any office hours, and if you asked him for help he would say, “This is college, not high school, you need to grow up sometime.”

Secondly, it was the concept. I have never been strong on math, but once I understand the concept behind it the work follows behind. I was slow on Calculus and once I picked up what it was supposed to be, BAM!

Organic chem was this…nebulous, strange new concept, of the way molecules were built, and what you should do with them. The teacher never really taught the concept, I never really caught it, and so I could never progress on my learning. Once I got halfway through the class I was so far behind it was moot anyway.

I never should have taken it. I never should have let my mom pressure me into going for any kind of science degree. I should have gone into IT, IMO.

Aye. I’ve helped lots of people with their orgo, and one of the things I learned very fast was to ask them to bring their classnotes, and to ask them a few questions to figure out what was it their teacher wanted to see.

I’ve had people who thought “a ketone” is “a line at 3600 in the infra red” (one, that’s like saying an actress is a blonde chick whose skirts are blowing up; two, give me the unit; three, that line can indicate any keto group; four, that’s not the definition of ketone, or its reactivity, or its charge distribution… it’s a factor on how to identify a ketone, but it’s definitely not “a ketone”). I’ve had people whose teachers asked in the exam stuff they hadn’t explained in class and which was also not in the book. I’ve had teachers myself who taught as Absolute Certainty And Total Precision methods for guessing reactivity which were considered useless when my great-grandfather was in medical school…

Orgo is easy if, like our OP, you know it’s all about electrons playing Jumping Jack Flash and Ring Around The Rosie. If you don’t, it’s impossible.

In my experience, it was because organic (esp the intro) class is quite different than the more typical chem classes that precede it.

IOW, chem classes prior to organic are more mathematical and involve much more in terms of calculations and equations. Organic is more of an abstract, theoretical class that involves visualizing 3-D structures and how they interact. This is not only a pretty abrupt change from previous classes and thus hard to readjust to, but it also seems to go against the selection pressure of the lead-in classes where analytical and mathematical skills are more useful.

I always said that a first semester organic chem class would probably be enjoyable for an art student, which is not at all the case for chem 101 or quant or, god forbid, p-chem.

I also suck at vizualizing 3-d anything. My direction sense is less than to be desired, for example, and if you get me into a building where i can’t see the windows I can’t generally point in a specific direction.

Basically in this class I needed extra help, and he gave me less than even the norm.

Since I was another one in the referenced thread who said they had trouble with Organic Chemistry I’ll put in my two cents.

This more or less states my problem. I could understand atoms, protons, neutrons, and electrons. Once I needed to really be able to understand how all these units would interact under various circumstances though I was a goner. The fundamental concepts of chemical interactions made no sense to me, and the systems and notations commonly used to describe them were no help, so everything that built on those concepts was essentially impossible.

Oddly enough I ended up switching majors to molecular biology/genetics, and have never had trouble with any of the concepts I’ve encountered in either courses or work. One of my favorite courses was called Biophysical Aspects of Macromolecules and I just ate it up.

Generally the molecules I deal with (enzymes, substrates, antibodies, DNA and RNA) are big enough that you can just think of them interacting like discrete little machines that obey the same macroscopic physical laws that we do, so I’m good to go.

Another problem I had although I didn’t realize it at the time is that my first couple of years of college I really didn’t know how to study, never having had to before. I sometimes now wonder idly how well I would do in some of those early courses I had so much trouble with if I went back and took them using the studying and learning tricks I learned later.

I’ve never wondered enough to actually try it though.

A lot of it is because many schools purposely use it as a weeder class. There are a lot of folks who want to be doctors and take Chemestry as a major, or minor to a pre-med major, planning to be rich bastards someday. Plus the folks to actually want to do Chemestry, have to find out that High-school chemestry- in terms of workload= attention to detail, + meticulous standards + tedium- is magnitudes different than acedemic or Industrial Chemestry.

Organic Chemestry is where a lot of Doctor dreams die, and top researchers are born. And they like it that way. Cream of the crop and all that.

-A once upon-a-time Chemestry major who made it through Organic, but had just one to many titrations fail for no goddamn reason in inorganic and switched to Math(Math never fails because “Someone must have polluted the bottle”)-

This is true of me, also, and may have been what pushed me over the edge in the second semester. I could study it, but when it came right down to it, I couldn’t really understand it. I had the little multi-colored kit to build the molecules (that was kinda fun) but to this day I really don’t think about physical objects in 3D very well.

Interesting; I had the exact opposite experience. I found organic chemistry to be an exercise in rote memorization of pages and pages of generalized pathways, all found in the handy-dandy textbook index. I could do the problems if I were allowed access to the indices, but I couldn’t shove all the reaction types into my puny brain for the exams. If there were generalized sets of rules explaining why particular molecular configurations and outcomes were favored over others under various reaction conditions, I was either never taught them or never picked up on them.

Inorganic had quite a bit of memorization too (orbitals, orbitals, ORBITALS!) but I always felt the rules were simpler and that there were more common patterns among the rules.

O. Chem is hard because so much seems so arbitrary, or at least that’s the way my prof taught it. It seemed like lots of memorizing which functional group would act a certain way under a certain condition, except when it didn’t. Even Physical Chem (aka “Guess Where the Electron Is” or “Demon Orgy or Electron Cloud?”) had more well defined rules.

Hah, well I guess physics and maths nerds would argue that chemistry in general is an exercise in rote memorisation :stuck_out_tongue: