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Education Medicine Science

Why Organic Chemistry Is So Difficult For Pre-Med Students 279

Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "Science writer and 42-year old pre-med student Barbara Moran writes in the NY Times that organic chemistry has been haunting pre-meds since 1910, when the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching released a landmark report calling for tougher admission standards to medical school and for medical training based on science. "The organic chemistry on the MCAT is chemistry that students need to know to succeed in medical school," says Karen Mitchell, senior director of the MCAT Program. Basically, orgo examines how molecules containing carbon interact, but it doesn't require equations or math, as in physics. Instead, you learn how electrons flow around and between molecules, and you draw little curved arrows showing where they go. This "arrow pushing" is the heart and soul of orgo. "Learning how to interpret the hieroglyphics is pretty easy. The hard part is learning where to draw the little arrows," writes Moran. "After you draw oxygen donating electrons to a positive carbon a zillion times, it becomes second nature." But the rules have many exceptions, which students find maddening. The same molecule will behave differently in acid or base, in dark or sunlight, in heat or cold, or "if you sprinkle magic orgo dust on it and turn around three times." You can't memorize all the possible answers — you have to rely on intuition, generalizing from specific examples. This skill, far more than the details of every reaction, may actually be useful for medicine. "It seems a lot like diagnosis," says Logan McCarty. "That cognitive skill — inductive generalization from specific cases to something you've never seen before — that's something you learn in orgo." This takes a huge amount of time, for me 20 to 30 hours a week writes Moran. This is one thing that orgo is testing: whether you have the time and desire to do the work. "Sometimes, if a student has really good math skills, they can slide through physics, but you can't do that in orgo," says McCarty ."
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Why Organic Chemistry Is So Difficult For Pre-Med Students

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  • Re:I agree... (Score:5, Informative)

    by EvilSS ( 557649 ) on Sunday November 03, 2013 @10:48AM (#45317661)
    It's funny because organic chemistry was one of the easiest classes for me. Many of my classmates thought I was insane but I enjoyed it. Now P-Chem, that beat me up in left me in an alley for dead.
  • by gatkinso ( 15975 ) on Sunday November 03, 2013 @10:58AM (#45317719)

    (Actually I switched to Math in my senior year).

    Organic Chemistry was a breeze compared to Physical Chemistry. Just my opinion.

  • Re:College too hard? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Samantha Wright ( 1324923 ) on Sunday November 03, 2013 @11:24AM (#45317921) Homepage Journal
    Pre-meds at my alma mater were required to take a second-year stats course, and were also exposed to Bayesian thinking in a special pre-med focused math course (which was mostly calculus but had some extras.) Mind you, this is in Canada.
  • by windwalker13th ( 954412 ) on Sunday November 03, 2013 @11:30AM (#45317965)
    After having talked to numerous doctors on whom have been part of admission selection committees for different medical schools this is the consensus I have reached as to why Orgo is required for medschool. Orgoanic chemistry is looked at as a weed out class. In particular, they believe that good grades from second semester (quarter 2,3) in Orgo prove the ability of the student to be able to solve complex problems because the later part of most organic chemistry courses focus on synthesis. They believe that good grades in second semester orgo will translate into a doctors ability to see the long term solution and that good grades are indicative of an ability to plan a multistep process for patient recovery.
  • by cranky_chemist ( 1592441 ) on Sunday November 03, 2013 @12:10PM (#45318297)

    P-chem is difficult because it's students' first immersion into quantum mechanics.

    You learned the sanitized version of quantum in gen chem---all those rules about electron configurations and the funky shapes of atomic orbitals. But you simply memorized it. In P-chem, you were confronted with the actual wavefunctions from which all of that stuff is derived. If you've never seen a wavefunction or eigenvalue before, it's a total mind trip. And virtually nobody has encountered such things prior to P-chem.

    And then you learn that, once you move beyond a one-electron atom, must of the equations become impossible to solve. And now you must introduce a series of assumptions and limitations to arrive at any solution whatsoever. And that's when the goo starts oozing out of your ears.

    Somewhere at the end of it all, you realize that chemistry and theoretical physics are not distinctly different subjects.

  • Re: I agree... (Score:5, Informative)

    by siride ( 974284 ) on Sunday November 03, 2013 @02:32PM (#45319311)

    That is incorrect. It has nothing to do with "would", but rather an alternative form of "will" which was "wol", quite common in Middle English (Chaucer uses it a lot).

  • Re:College too hard? (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday November 03, 2013 @03:08PM (#45319527)

    Until last year I was a member of a medical school admissions committee (I have since changed institutions). The point you raise about med students not understanding statistics is true and is being addressed on a nationwide scale. Statistics are being further integrated into the MCATs and many medical schools are requiring it as a pre-requisite for admission. Furthermore, curriculum are changing at the medical school level to ingrain statistics into coursework. That said, the level of statistics that a physician needs to comprehend a medical journal article is not the same level as a more hard core researcher. This point gets lost on many professors and scientists; however the correct balance has not been struck on the medical side yet either.

    As for organic chemistry, its a weed out course and nothing more. It is believed to require some 2nd and 3rd order thinking rather than the route memorization in biology and even in Gen Chem. From my own experience, I do not quite grasps the emphasis that people place on memorization here. For me, I found that in organic chemistry once you have a few basic rules, the rest was intuitive derivation. A couple exceptions here and there, but nothing strenuous. Gen Chem seemed more challenging.

  • Re:Physics (Score:4, Informative)

    by sjames ( 1099 ) on Sunday November 03, 2013 @04:15PM (#45319935) Homepage Journal

    If it's green and slimey, it's biology.

    If it stinks, it's chemistry.

    If it doesn't work, it's physics.

  • WRONG! (Score:5, Informative)

    by mcmonkey ( 96054 ) on Sunday November 03, 2013 @10:41PM (#45322197) Homepage

    Wrong. Wrong. wrong.

    Sometimes, if a student has really good math skills, they can slide through physics, but you can't do that in orgo," says McCarty

    1) Orgo? WTF? There is no course in the chemistry curriculum called "orgo". It's o-chem, or organic, or organic chemistry, if you're not into the whole brevity thing. There is no orgo.

    2) "You can do blah in physics, but you can't do that in o-chem???" Please, deity, make sure this person never becomes a doctor. Or a parent.

    Chemistry is not magic. It is not random. It is not subject to the whims of mystical forces. The atoms and molecules one studies in o-chem are governed by the rules of physics. Those rules are described in the language of math. It's like saying knowing English will help you read plays, but it won't help you with Shakespeare.

    If you have the background, and are good at math, then pchem is easy. But orgo is just lots and lots of memorization.

    What is this I don't even know. I expect that sort of attitude from someone who hasn't taken p-chem, but you should know better. Especially if you take p-chem before o-chem.

    As for memorization, I somehow managed to get through organic without it. Even before years of /. and fark wrapped my fragile little mind my memory was shiat. In high school trig there were a bunch of equations we were supposed to memorize--sin2a, cos(a+b), cos(a-b), that sort of stuff. Well, like I said, my memory was shiat. Turns out, if you remember the definitions of sin, cos, and tan, all those other equations and identities can be derived.

    So that's what I did. I memorized those 3 definitions, and derived everything else as needed during the exam.

    Organic is the same way. Sure, you could get through by rote memorized of a list of facts and statements without bothering with understanding. But the same could be said of just about any course or class.

    But it's a lot easier (or it was for me at least) to remember a small set of simple rules, and then apply them. Of course, that requires a step beyond rote memorization to some actual understanding of those rules to know how and when to apply them. So where do you get those rules and that understanding?

    Take p-chem. Take p-chem first, and then o-chem. O-chem is just an application of the rules you'll learn in p-chem. O-chem requires no more memorization then any other college course (and perhaps less).

    It's all about charges--electrons are negative, hydrogen ions are positive. Like charges repel, different charges attract. If you have a positive charge, that's where your electrons will go. If you have a negative charge, that's where your hydrogen will go. Draw arrows as needed.

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