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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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  • I agree... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mjpaci ( 33725 ) on Sunday November 03, 2013 @11:43AM (#45317629) Homepage Journal

    I wasn't pre-med, I was a chem major and the hardest class for me was orgo due to the same reasons mentioned above.

  • by Shoten ( 260439 ) on Sunday November 03, 2013 @11:55AM (#45317703)

    Students learn organic by memorization. It is unfortunate but it's the truth. That said, we expect med students to excel at memorization and regurgitation so OChem is a good tool for learning that. The problem though is that we de-incentivize actual comprehension as the students learn that they won't need >90% of what they memorized in OChem later on (if we exclude that which is acceptable to look up in a reference later).

    Quite true. My father is a clinical chemist, having a Ph.D. on the topic and even having taught at an Ivy League university. As a child, I read some of his tomes on things like toxicology and diabetes, just out of boredom. (I read a lot as a kid.) His advice to me when I was going to college? "Don't take organic chem if you don't need it." I've always been good at science, but the gist of it is that orgo is just a long litany of exceptions, like a nightmarishly inconsistent language. Hence the memorization...and the difficulty. Yes, mapping out the electrons helps a bit, but in truth that's more used like a requirement than an aid in keeping straight what is really going on at the molecular level. At one point I took a peek into orgo, and entirely understood the advice I'd been given all those years before. Holy crap...

  • Half true (Score:5, Interesting)

    by pla ( 258480 ) on Sunday November 03, 2013 @12:09PM (#45317805) Journal
    First, a disclaimer to prove I don't mean this as bragging - I sucked at gen chem. I found it painfully tedious - Basically 100% having humans do things that computers do much, much better.

    But I aced Orgo with fairly little effort. It just makes sense, once you master those basic rules - You have your carbon skeletons, your functional groups, your resonances, then mix in chirality, spice it up with a few inorganic substitutions, and bam!, the rest becomes like a good, satisfying puzzle - Spin the structures around in your head, and see where the electrons "want" to go.

    If Orgo has a reputation for being hard, it has that only by virtue of having boring ol' gen chem teachers trying to explain something outside their comfort zone. I consider myself lucky to have had something of a "reformed hippie" for a prof, with a godlike skill for getting us to see not what happens, but why.

    Put another way - If you can't solve the problems without consulting lookup tables and using a calculator, you have no shot whatsoever at understanding something at an intuitive level. When you can memorize all the rules in your first month or two, the rest becomes just fun.

    Then again, a "friend" of mine did a lot of psychotropics back then. That might have helped. ;)
  • Re:College too hard? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ZeroPly ( 881915 ) on Sunday November 03, 2013 @12:11PM (#45317815)
    The question is not whether organic chemistry is too difficult, the question is whether it is even necessary. My brother is a practicing physician, has been out of premed for 20 years, but can still look at a sketch of Ibogaine and understand what he's looking at. Which is completely useless in the context of his job.

    However, he has no clue what Bayes' theorem is, or how it is relevant to his decisions. If I'm seeing a doctor who's evaluating me for an angioplasty vs Lipitor, I damn well want someone who understands Bayes' theorem and has a good intuitive handle on probability, not someone who can sketch complex molecules.
  • by Billly Gates ( 198444 ) on Sunday November 03, 2013 @12:11PM (#45317817) Journal

    The same C like syntax in almost all modern languages that are desktop oriented where you need to keep track of things like registers on the cpu, bottlenecks, and then in advanced object oriented classes how abstract java based frameworks work.

    What makes success? Time and desire to finish your program.

    Hibernate and java 2 EE or Drupal can take months to learn how they work before you can do anything useful which I find irritating.

    Journalism and art majors have things quite easy compared to chemistry, medicine, engineering, or computer science ones. Business can be easy too if you do not focus on finance or statistics but even that is half way between the time and hardness of art vs medicine.

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

    by Samantha Wright ( 1324923 ) on Sunday November 03, 2013 @12:16PM (#45317859) Homepage Journal
    First-year general chemistry wipes out a lot of students, largely because it's when you discover your high school learning strategies are no longer valid. I squeaked by with a cool C- when I took it, but it was sufficiently scary to make me take all of my other classes seriously after that. Clearly, if the life sciences curriculum has this much synergy in it, it hasn't been molested enough by well-meaning politicos and deluded parents.
  • Re:I agree... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Sunday November 03, 2013 @12:17PM (#45317865) Homepage

    He kept baiting us by saying he taught O-Chem via synthesis of various drug compounds (LSD, MDMA, etc.).

    Heh. I liked that part too. Unfortunately, you start with three tons of acetone and end up with 0.2 grams of cocaine.

    But organic chemistry has been nothing more than the crunch course for pre meds. The way it's taught in most places it is just rote memorization. Lots of rote memorization. And med school is little more than that (other than gross anatomy which is rote memorization in a fog of wintergreen-flavored formaldehyde.)

    Which is a shame because organic chemistry is interesting in it's own way. However, the intro courses are typically not designed to initiate some love of inquiry and reasoning - they're designed to see how much you can stuff in your brain for a couple of weeks. The end result is lots of doctors who remember broad swathes of oft time trivial facts, but can't figure out basic statistics to save somebody's life.

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

    by cranky_chemist ( 1592441 ) on Sunday November 03, 2013 @12:19PM (#45317879)

    In many respects, its unfortunate that chem majors (I was one, too) take O-chem alongside pre-med students.

    The most useful aspect of O-chem is learning to interpret the various spectroscopic results used to characterize organic compounds (particularly NMR spectra). This information is quite useless, however, to those who are not chem majors. We instead spend an inane amount of time learning hundreds of chemical reactions that neither the pre-meds nor the chem majors really need to know.

    Even then, the course doesn't have to be as difficult as it's made to be, which I finally figured out the first time I taught organic chemistry. We simply make it that difficult to weed students out. Many students who probably would have made fine chemists saw their chemistry careers end in Organic II---all in the name of convincing a lot of pre-meds that they were never going to become doctors.

  • by the gnat ( 153162 ) on Sunday November 03, 2013 @12:44PM (#45318059)

    Orgoanic chemistry is looked at as a weed out class.

    Yup. As someone who both attended classes with and later taught pre-meds, I had an immediate gut reaction to the article title: "maybe because so many pre-med students are retards?" Seriously, after seeing some of the people who wanted to be doctors, I've never been able to fully trust the medical profession. Like some of the other posters, I thought orgo was relatively easy, and I've always felt that anyone who found it an impossible obstacle had no business making decisions about other people's health.

  • Doctor's perspective (Score:5, Interesting)

    by cosmin_c ( 3381765 ) on Sunday November 03, 2013 @12:57PM (#45318155)
    I've graduated from med school about 9 years ago and I still remember organic chemistry just as if I've closed the book yesterday. I had to learn it in high-school, I had to learn it in medical school. It is hard to learn, but it does help a lot. Fact is you can't know all the drugs that are out there being prescribed. But if you ask the patient for the box and have a look at the active ingredient name, you can immediately place it in one of the major groups. At least you will not confuse a pain relief drug with a psychotrope or an anti-hypertensive. It's just as useful as most of the disciplines studied in medical school. It helps a future doctor form reflexes towards substance recognition that will baffle even some of their colleagues and impress the hospital pharmacist :)
  • by Mr. Underbridge ( 666784 ) on Sunday November 03, 2013 @01:07PM (#45318243)

    I have a PhD in chemistry, so I've been through all the classes mentioned.

    Organic is, in fact, the only one you absolutely CAN memorize. Unlike the math-based chemistry classes where you have to learn principles, which the pre-meds struggle mightily with, the memorization-heavy organic chemistry is the one that is considered to be similar enough to medical school that it is used as a weed-out.

    This is particularly true of organic *synthesis*, vs. organic *mechanisms*. Mechanistic organic is often presented as a first semester organic class, and that does actually require knowledge and understanding. Synthesis, however, is nearly straight memorization, even if you don't want to.

    I was happy when the pre-meds stopped taking the major-level chemistry classes (mostly after organic). It made my physical chemistry classes much more interesting. It didn't keep the one pre-med in the class from whining the entire time that he wasn't getting the answers spoon-fed to him from the book, though.

    So I don't know where the author is coming from, because they completely got it wrong.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday November 03, 2013 @01:40PM (#45318533)

    PhD chemist here. Organic chemistry is perfect to weed out people who will not make it as doctors. In truth, organic chemistry is not a "hard" science: it does not come from basic principles, like say phys. chem. The only way to succeed at organic chemistry is to memorize, memorize, memorize. The more you memorize, the easier it is to see similarities between the cases, which are just like law cases or medicine cases. Hence, I would support mandatory organic chemistry for pre-med students. For chemistry major students, not so much...

  • Re:Physics (Score:4, Interesting)

    by HornWumpus ( 783565 ) on Sunday November 03, 2013 @01:55PM (#45318653)

    Medical students are great memorizers. All of them. Some of them are also smart.

    Dad is a professor emeritus of chemistry at a University that includes a medical school. He has a lot of stories about med students who NEEDED and A but couldn't reason for shit. They just didn't get that there was nothing they could memorize that would get them As. Some of them couldn't even plug and chug but somehow got into a 6 year medical program, which implies an A in HS chemistry.

  • Re:I agree... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday November 03, 2013 @03:07PM (#45319159)

    The way it's taught in most places it is just rote memorization. Lots of rote memorization. And med school is little more than that (other than gross anatomy which is rote memorization in a fog of wintergreen-flavored formaldehyde.)

    Organic chemist here (currently working in drug discovery). During my time in grad school I TA'd ochem courses for both majors and non-majors (pre-meds), and the thing that created the most difficulty for the pre-meds was that they tried to learn the material simply through rote memorization. The problem with this is that there's simply too many reactions in organic chemistry to try to memorize each and every one of them with all the details. Because of this, the way most professors (that are any good) teach ochem is to focus not on memorizing reactions, but on drilling the fundamentals of chemical reactivity into the students (teaching one reaction after another is accompanied by pointing out the same fundamentals at work in each of these reactions). Once you actually start to understand these fundamentals then it's pretty easy to figure out what any reaction is doing, even if you've never seen it before. Like another poster further down put it, once you get a good handle on the fundamentals the rest of it just makes sense.

    The problem I observed many pre-meds had was that they usually weren't interested in learning these fundamentals- they just wanted to memorize all the reactions, get their grade, and move on. In part I think this came from how they learned in other courses up to that point (1st and 2nd year biology courses often involve a lot of memorization), so they were faced with not only having to learn the material in ochem, but also needing to change how they learned. Couple this with a general lack of interest in the course material (the difference between the major and non-major sections was pretty stark), and it's really no surprise that pre-meds tend to have such difficulty with ochem.

  • by rssrss ( 686344 ) on Sunday November 03, 2013 @04:39PM (#45319713)

    FTA: "I asked two medical school deans â" Dr. Robert Witzburg at Boston University and Dr. Lee Goldman at Columbia University â" about admission philosophies. Both are proponents of holistic review, the newish idea that medical schools look beyond grades and test scores to evaluate the whole applicant."

    What this really means is that we are getting to many Asians. We need slots for the children of donors, and big wigs, and for affirmative action cases.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 04, 2013 @01:03AM (#45322571)

    As a practicing physician I find organic chemistry that I studies (and aced) in pre-med is entirely useless and irrelevant to me. It certainly weeds out people who are not motivated to jump through hoops to get into med school. It is unclear, however, that it selects for the people who would benefit the medical profession (or who would derive benefit from it, for that matter). I personally think it would be a much more sane choice to require software engineering to be included in pre-med curriculum.

"More software projects have gone awry for lack of calendar time than for all other causes combined." -- Fred Brooks, Jr., _The Mythical Man Month_