Organic Chemistry: Principles and Mechanisms (Second Edition)
Focused on the Student, Organized by Mechanism
When an organic reaction is presented to a novice, only the structural diﬀerences between the reactants and products are immediately apparent. Students tend to see only what happens, such as the transformation of one functional group into another, changes in connectivity, and aspects of stereochemistry. It should therefore not be surprising that students, when presented reactions, are tempted to commit the reactions to memory. But there are far too many reactions and accompanying details for memorization to work in organic chemistry.
This is where mechanisms come into play. Mechanisms allow us to understand the sequences of elementary steps — the step-by-step pathways — that convert the reactants to products, so we can see how and why reactions take place as they do. Moreover, the mechanisms that describe the large number of reactions in the course are constructed from just a handful of elementary steps, so mechanisms allow us to see similarities among reactions that are not otherwise apparent. In other words, mechanisms actually simplify organic chemistry. Thus, teaching students mechanisms — enabling students to understand and simplify organic chemistry — is an enormous key to success in the course.
At the outset of my teaching career, I fully appreciated the importance of mechanisms, so during my ﬁrst couple years of teaching, I emphasized mechanisms very heavily. I did so under a functional group organization where reactions are pulled together according to the functional groups that react. That is the organization under which I learned organic chemistry, and it is also the way that most organic chemistry textbooks are organized. Despite my best eﬀorts, the majority of my students struggled with even the basics of mechanisms and, consequently, turned to ﬂash cards as their primary study tool. They tried to memorize their way through the course, which made matters worse.
I began to wonder what impact the organization — an organization according to functional group — had on deterring my students from mechanisms. I had good reason to be concerned because, as I alluded to earlier, functional groups tend to convey what, whereas mechanisms convey how and why. What kinds of mixed messages were my students receiving when I was heavily emphasizing mechanisms, while the organization of the material was giving priority to functional groups? To probe that question, I made a big change to my teaching.
The third year I taught organic chemistry, I rearranged the material to pull together reactions that had the same or similar mechanisms — that is, I taught under a mechanistic organization. I made no other changes that year; the course content, course structure, and my teaching style all remained the same. I even taught out of the same textbook. But that year I saw dramatic improvements in my students’ mastery of mechanisms.1 Students had control over the material, which proved to be a tremendous motivator. They were better able to solve diﬀerent kinds of problems with conﬁdence. Ultimately, I saw signiﬁcant improvements in student performance, morale, and retention. I was convinced that students beneﬁt remarkably from learning under a mechanistic organization.
My goal in writing this book is to support instructors who are seeking what I was seeking: getting students to use mechanisms to learn organic chemistry in order to achieve better performances and to have better experiences in their organic courses. Using a functional group organization to achieve these outcomes can be an uphill battle because of the high priority that it inherently places on functional groups. This textbook, on the other hand, allows students to receive the same message from both their instructor and their textbook — a clear and consistent message that mechanisms are vital to success in the course.
A Closer Look: Why is a Mechanistic Organization Better?
Consider what the novice sees when they begin a new functional group chapter. In an alcohols chapter, for example, students ﬁrst learn how to recognize and name alcohols, then they study the physical properties of alcohols. Next, students might spend time on special spectroscopic characteristics of alcohols, after which they learn various routes that can be used to synthesize alcohols from other species. Finally, students move into the heart of the chapter: new reactions that alcohols undergo and the mechanisms that describe them. Within a particular functional group chapter, students ﬁnd themselves bouncing among several themes.
Even within the discussion of new reactions and mechanisms that a particular functional group can undergo, students are typically faced with widely varying reaction types and mechanisms. Take again the example of alcohols. Students learn that alcohols can act as an acid or as a base; alcohols can act as nucleophiles to attack a saturated carbon in a substitution reaction, or to attack the carbon atom of a polar π bond in a nucleophilic addition reaction; protonated alcohols can act as electrophiles in an elimination reaction; and alcohols can undergo oxidation, too.
With the substantial jumping around that takes place within a particular functional group chapter, it is easy to see how students can become overwhelmed. Under a functional group organization, students don’t receive intrinsic and clear guidance as to what they should focus on, not only within a particular functional group chapter, but also from one chapter to the next. Without clear guidance, and without substantial time for focus, students often see no choice but to memorize. And they will memorize what they perceive to be most important — predicting products of reactions, typically ignoring, or giving short shrift to, fundamental concepts and mechanisms.
Under the mechanistic organization in this book, students experience a coherent story of chemical reactivity. The story begins with molecular structure and energetics, and then guides students into reaction mechanisms through a few transitional chapters. Thereafter, students study how and why reactions take place as they do, focusing on one type of mechanism at a time. Ultimately, students learn how to intuitively use reactions in synthesis. In this manner, students have clear and consistent guidance as to what their focus should be on, both within a single chapter and throughout the entire book.
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|October 27, 2019|
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