Taking Summer Organic Chemistry Course Online: What to Expect and How to Prepare

Summer organic chemistry classes are generally tougher than the regular fall or spring ones. A typical semester is 12 to 16 weeks long. However, you’ll be covering the same amount of material in 8-10 weeks in the summer. Additionally, some summer classes aim to jam the entire 2-semester sequence over the summer making it extremely information dense.

During a regular organic chemistry semester, you can expect to cover about one chapter per week. So, talking about it from the perspective of the textbook pages, you’re looking at reading 50-70 pages per week. This averages to about 10 pages per day, give or take. We’re also talking about organic chemistry, which is a science. So, those are not “easy” 10 pages like in a history or social studies textbooks.

Plus, of course, you’ll have homework to do, lectures to watch, and notes to take every week. But this is a regular semester. In the summer, you’ll be covering close to a whole organic chemistry chapter per day or two! Sometimes even more. Which means that all the work you are used to do for your classes throughout the week, you’ll have to be doing daily. You won’t have much time for anything else. Be morally prepared to it! Yes, some instructors will omit a few topics or concepts here and there for the sake of time. But don’t expect it to make the class much easier.

Organic chemistry is a hard class. And by taking it in the summer, you’re making it even harder. So, what can you do to manage all the work and succeed in your summer organic chemistry?
Well, I have a few suggestions!

Schedule Everything

Summer organic chemistry will require a lot of scheduling.

Schedule the time when you’ll be watching the online lectures. Put it on your calendar as if it was a regular class. And what’s more important, stick to your schedule!

If you’re planning on taking notes while watching your online organic chemistry lectures (and you should), allot yourself more time than the lecture length. It’s easy to pause the video for a few moments to jot down a note. And it may seem like it won’t take much time. However, a moment here and a moment there will pile up fast and you’ll spend a lot more time in your virtual class than you initially expected. My rule of thumb is to give yourself extra 15 min for each hour of the lecture time to accommodate notetaking.

Resist, however, taking the verbatim notes or copying everything off the board word-by-word. First, it’ll take you forever. Second, it’ll get you to the mindless copy mode. Instead, pause the video every 5-10 minutes or whenever it’s logical, give it a little thought and reflect on what you’ve heard by summarizing the key points.

Many of my students found the following approach to online organic chemistry classes to be very productive:

  1. Quickly skim through the video and jot down reactions and examples giving ample space in between those for additional notes.
  1. Watch the video again focusing on what instructor is saying adding the comments and annotations to your reactions and examples that you wrote down in the first run.

If your instructor gives you the powerpoint slides that you can fill in during the online lecture, you can skip the first part.

Schedule the time you’re going to spend on the homework.

Yes, it may sound a little weird, but it is particularly important! Many online organic chemistry courses are self-paced. So, it is easy to put off some work for later. But remember what I have mentioned at the beginning of this post? Summer courses are really concentrated and labor-intensive! Your slack today means twice as much work tomorrow… which is going to be next to impossible to accomplish physically, so you’ll postpone more work, and them more work, and then more work… till it avalanches and buries you under. Don’t do it to yourself!

You’ll also have a lot of organic chemistry homework. Between reading your textbook, reworking some lecture examples, doing the online homework (sapling, webassign, or whatever else you might be using in your course), and updating your notes, you’re looking at a week-worth of work done in a span of 1-2 days! It’s a lot of work. Most of this work won’t be easy either. So, make sure you’re not trying to cram it all in one sitting. I know some students are quite used to doing the 8-hour study sessions. Don’t do it! We have years of research evidence showing that this doesn’t work. Break your study and homework sessions into small manageable chunks. I suggest study sessions no longer than 90 minutes before you have to take a 15-20 minute break.

Add All Important Dates to Your Calendar

Summer classes are fast paced, so make sure you don’t get behind with any assignments or due dates. Use a calendar of your choice and add all due dates to it as soon as you get your syllabus or the dues date it announced.

Unfortunately, some instructors use the same syllabus template without specific dates every semester. It’s frustrating and, in my humble opinion, show what a lazy 🍑 your instructor is, but there’s nothing you can do about it. So, scour the learning management system (blackboard, canvas, moodle, etc.) you’re using in your organic chemistry course for this information. If you’re using the online homework system, you’ll have the due dates on each assignment. Once you have this information,

Add all due dates to your calendar and set reminders!

Adding all those dates to the calendar will save you from spacing out and forgetting an important date. I can tell you from experience, most instructors are not going to be forgiving of your tardiness. So, don’t expect an extension because your instructor is nice.

Now, what if you don’t have any due dates and everything is due the last day of classes? Situations like that happen too and you may have a setup just like that in your summer organic chemistry class. If that’s the case, give yourself deadlines and add those to your calendar. Treat those as if your instructor gave you those deadlines. I can guarantee that if you don’t space out your assignments and try to cram them all at the end of the course, you’re going to get overwhelmed and you’ll fail many of them.

Doing the assignments along with the course will also help you gauge where you are in terms of your understanding of the material and if you’re struggling with any topics. Nothing is worth than the realization that you don’t know the material very well at the end of the course! Listening to lectures or watching YouTube videos may give you the false sense of understanding. Don’t kid yourself, you need to work through plenty of examples before you can say that you feel comfortable with the material. This is where working on the organic chemistry homework assignments daily helps the most.

Make an Online Study Group

Taking organic chemistry classes online limits your social outreach and your opportunities to work with other people. Or so it may seem! In reality, you can just as easily make online study groups and work through problems via Skype or Zoom calls. Pretty much every online class has a class list or a discussion forum. So, if you’re looking to make an online discussion group, you can always give a shoutout via the class list or class forum.

Actively participate in online discussions!

Once you have your organic chemistry study group in place, schedule the regular group meetings with you peers. This will accomplish two goals. First, by working with other people and brainstorming during these sessions, you can find answers to questions when you’re stuck. You’ll also understand the material way better if you explain the concepts to someone else. And second, it will help you keep up with your schedule since you’ll be feeling responsible to show up and participate in the group.

Your instructor may have a group chat, or a forum dedicated to the class. It’s an excellent idea to participate in those as well. You’ll see what problems other students are having and you’ll be able to help others with the stuff you understand well. And as I’ve mentioned above, this is a good place to make a permanent online study group.

Line-Up Help Ahead of Time

Summer organic chemistry classes are demanding and fast paced. Organic chemistry has a rep of a “weeder” class for a reason—it is one of the hardest classes in a college curriculum. So, make sure you line up help ahead of time.

Are you planning on getting an online organic chemistry tutor? Then make sure your tutor is available and not taking a summer vacation during your class time.

Do you know a few friends that are taking online organic chemistry this summer? Get in touch with them and make an online study group. It doesn’t matter if you guys are taking the same class or are taking your course from different instructors. Organic chemistry curriculum is relatively uniformed between the schools, so you all are going to be covering same topics.

Do you have all your textbook and supplemental materials ready? Do you have your textbook? Your molecular model kit? Your workbook? Get them as soon as you can. Remember, summer organic chemistry flies fast, so you don’t have a week at the beginning of your class to get your stuff together, so act now.

Are you taking organic chemistry this summer? Let me know in the comments below and tell me what you’re most excited about!

How to Prepare to the Second Semester of Organic Chemistry

Organic chemistry is an extremely interconnected science. As you have already seen in the first semester of your organic chemistry sequence, one topic connects to another in such a way, that mastering consequent topics is very hard without mastering previous ones. Before we go further, let’s look at the typical first semester organic chemistry topics.

Typical Organic Chemistry 1 Topics

Typical organic chemistry 1 topics

There are many topics that you will typically see in the first semester organic chemistry course. Those are:

  1. Nomenclature
  2. Acid-Base Equilibrium
  3. Bonding and Resonance
  4. Stereochemistry
  5. Substitution and Elimination Reactions
  6. Alkenes and their Reactions

Then, there are some “maybe” topics that may be in the first or in the second semester of organic chemistry. It generally depends on the instructor’s preferences and the textbook they’re using. Based on my own experience, those topics are:

  1. Alkynes and their Reactions (usually OChem 1)
  2. Spectroscopy (I’d say it’s a 50/50 split between the first and the second semester. Although, I’ve seen more and more instructors pushing it in the first semester in recent years.)
  3. Alcohols, Thiols, Ethers, Epoxides, and Sulfides. (More often than not, it’s a 1st semester topic. But again, it really depends on the instructor and textbook).

So, I’m going to keep those “maybe” topics out of our conversation for now and only focus on those that you have definitely seen in the first semester. In case you don’t quite remember what those are all about or maybe are used to calling them differently, I’m going to briefly go over those to refresh your memory.

Nomenclature

an example of a nomenclature question

This is one of those topics that goes through the entire course and resurfaces once we start every new chapter. Nomenclature is the language of organic chemistry, so knowing how to properly name molecules is important. Some instructors emphasize it more than others. However, you absolutely want to know the fundamental of nomenclature for any standardized exams like MCAT or ACS.

Conclusion: Nomenclature is a type of topic that’s good to know but it’s not a “must-know” if you want to succeed in the second semester.

Acid-Base Equilibrium

an example of an acid-base reaction in organic chemistry

This is a big one. While you have seen acid-base related questions in the first semester, those usually were separate questions. In the second semester topics, you’ll be using Acid-Base Chemistry (ABC) concepts very often as a part of a question. So, if before we would always point out that you need to choose the strongest acid, or rank those acids, or find the best base, etc., now we will expect you to be able to do it on your own. THEN, we’ll expect you to use this information to solve the next bit in the problem.

Conclusion: ABC is a must! So, make sure you brush up on those concepts over the break.

Bonding and Resonance

benzylic carbocation. Example of resonance structures.

Remember all those pesky resonance structures you had to draw for all those carbocations? Well, those are not going anywhere! Moreover, you’ll be using resonance more than even in the second semester organic chemistry! You’ll be explaining a vast number of reactivity and mechanisms using the resonance structures. So, make sure you review your resonance structures and how to deal with those.

When it comes to bonding in general, you’re not going to be learning much of a new information. It’s going to be same ol’ σ- and π-bonds. It will be somewhat important to remember the 3D orientations of the orbitals. But those will be same types of questions we’ve already seen when dealing with resonance.

However, like in the case with ABC, we’ll expect you to apply the concepts of bonding and resonance towards solving the problems! Those are no longer going to be separate questions. So, identifying resonance structures and recognizing different bonding patterns will be very important.

Conclusion: Bonding and resonance is a must for the review.

Stereochemistry

Examples of stereochemical relationships

While stereochemistry is important, you’re not going to see much of it in the second semester. Well, ok, not true. Let me rephrase that. You’re not going to see anything new regarding stereochemistry among the second semester topics. Stereochemistry is always going to be a topic that you want to keep on the backburner since it can pop up at any point. While most reactions you’ll be doing in the second semester organic chemistry are not stereospecific, they can still make chiral centers, so you must be vigilant.

Conclusion: Stereochemistry is a good topic to review but won’t be the dealbreaker if you are a little rusty on it at the beginning of the semester.

Substitution and Elimination and Reactions of Alkenes

an example of a substitution reaction

Topics that deal with reactions are not actually “fundamental” topics. They build on top of the fundamentals like bonding and ABC. Nonetheless, reactions are important! Don’t make a mistake thinking that you’ll never see alkenes or alcohols again because they were a part of the last semester material. As organic chemistry builds new topics on top of the old ones, everything you’ve covered up to date is a fair game. And yes, we do expect you to remember what was covered in the last semester. And now the kicker: no, we are NOT going to review the first semester, so it’s all on you!

One of the main goals of organic chemistry is the synthesis of new molecules. You can expect a 3-5 step synthesis as a “regular Tuesday” by the end of the semester. And those syntheses are going to be cumulative. So, if you’re rusty on the first semester reactions, you’ll have a really hard time with the end of the second semester material. I’m not going to sugarcoat it: if you don’t remember the first semester topics, there’s a very high chance you’ll fail organic chemistry 2. In my experience, I have not seen a single student to pass OChem 2 successfully without a decent foundation in the OChem 1 topics.

Conclusion: while you’ll be learning plenty of new reactions, don’t forget the old ones.

Typical Organic Chemistry 2 Topics

I’ve talked a lot about the first semester topics but what about the second semester organic chemistry topics? What are you going to be covering? Like in the case of OChem 1, there are some “classics” that everyone does in the second semester:

  1. Aromaticity and Reactions of Aromatic Compounds
  2. Chemistry of Aldehydes and Ketones (plus enols and enolates)
  3. Chemistry of Carboxylic Acids and Their Derivatives
  4. Amines and N-containing compounds

You may also see some “maybe” topics that will be there based on your school’s curriculum and instructor’s preferences. I’ve talked about those a little earlier in this post. You may also see some elements of biochemistry such as introduction to proteins, carbohydrates, and lipids. So, which OChem 1 topics are going to be most relevant to the topics in OChem 2?

Aromatic Compounds and Aromaticity

Resonance, resonance, and more resonance! You’ll be explaining >90% of reactivity of aromatic compounds via resonance. Aromatic chemistry is also a typical first (or among first ones) topic you’ll see in your second semester organic chemistry course. So, I suggest you review resonance and bonding first before the semester hits.

Chemistry of Aldehydes and Ketones

There will be two major branches here. The first one will deal with nucleophilic addition reactions to C=O bond. So, you may want to brush up on the concepts of electrophiles and nucleophiles that you have seen in the substitution and elimination chapters. Do you remember what makes a good nucleophile? You’ll need all that again!

The second branch of the carbonyl chemistry will deal with the chemistry of the adjacent to C=O carbon (we’ll call it the α-carbon or α-position). In this module you can expect a lot of ABC and equilibrium in general. So, along with the acid-base chemistry we’ve already seen in the first semester, you may want to blow the dust off your general chemistry notes and check those out for the equilibrium and Le Chatelier.

Chemistry of Carboxylic Acids and Their Derivatives

While you’ll see a lot of different reactions, they will be all very similar to each other. This is going to be a very diverse chapter, so I can’t really highlight a single most important “fundamental” topic here. You’ll see plenty of ABC, you’ll see some bonding and resonance, there will be plenty of equilibrium… it’ll be all over the place. But as I’ve mentioned a moment ago, reactions are going to be very similar to each other and you won’t be learning any new fundamental concepts at this point.

Conclusion

So, in conclusion, your break to-do list should have the following topics for review:

Must Review

  1. Bonding & Resonance
  2. Acid-Base Equilibrium

Should Review

  1. Reactions
  2. Stereochemistry

Wound be Good to Review

  1. Nomenclature
  2. Spectroscopy (if you covered it in OChem 1)

I also suggest you send a message to your instructor and ask them what they suggest you review. While (at least in my experience) they may just tell you to review your old notes, it won’t hurt to ask. It’s especially important if you have a different teacher this semester or are using a different textbook.

What Is the Difference Between a Good Question and a Bad Question?

Imagine yourself doing your homework or reading the textbook and something doesn’t make sense. What would you probably do in such a case? Correct—ask your teacher. Next day you go to school, go to your teacher’s office hours or visit with them after the class, you ask your question and… you get an answer… not necessarily a helpful answer or the answer that you would’ve liked to hear.

So why didn’t you get the answer to your question? Is it because it was a bad question? Is it because you asked a good question, but your instructor is in the bad mood? Or maybe the reason for you didn’t getting the answer you wanted is in the way the question was phrased? I believe, it’s actually a combination of all those factors.

Often, I hear from students that their teacher doesn’t answer their questions, or he makes them feel stupid, or he makes fun of them, or anything in between those lines. And yes, I agree that getting the famous Gene Wilder’s “Tell me about it” face for an answer is not a very pleasant or encouraging experience.

Let me be the devil’s advocate here and say that sometimes it’s not really your instructor’s intention to act like a jerk. Of course, some of them are jerks and there’s nothing you can do about it, but that’s a completely different story. More often than not, however, your teacher genuinely can’t answer a question because it’s a bad question! So, let me help you to avoid the typical pitfalls of a bad question and get the answers you want.

In this post, I will explain how to avoid bad questions, how to construct good questions, and how to trick jerk professors into answering your questions and not giving you a condescending smartass reply.

A quick disclaimer: this post is written from the perspective of an instructor. So, it might seem like I’m ranting here and there—I’m not. In this post I’ll tell you what your instructor is most likely thinking when he or she hears a bad question. How do I know that? I’ve been a college instructor for many years before I became a professional organic chemistry tutor. After teaching in several schools across the US and Europe, I can tell you the typical “ticks” and pet peeves that many instructors have.

What Is a Bad Question?

There are a few types of bad questions out there. We’re all guilty of asking them sometimes so don’t be too hard on yourself by asking a bad question here and there. What’s more important though, is to make a conscious effort to avoid those as much as possible, especially when you’re asking your teachers for help or clarifications. Now, what exactly are those bad questions? Let’s break them one by one.

Definition Questions

A definition question is something that you can easily look up. For instance, “what is the structure of an acetic acid?” This is a bad question because you can simply google it. You don’t need to ask your professor that. If you ask your teacher such a question, it simply tells them “hey, I’m too lazy to pull out my smartphone and google it, so I’m going to use you!” I can guarantee that when you ask a “googleable” question, your instructor will think you’re lazy. Here are a few more examples of questions like that:

  1. What are the characteristics of an aromatic compound? –google it or look up in your textbook!
  2. What are the reactions of alkenes? –open your textbook at the table of contents!
  3. What are the structures of compounds X & Y? –google it!

So, if you don’t want your instructor treating you like you’re lazy and wasting everybody’s time, don’t ask questions before googling or checking your textbook for an obvious answer.

Are there good “googleable” questions? Absolutely! An example of a good “googleable” question would be something like: “I’m trying to find the structure of this compound, but I couldn’t find it on the Internet. I’m not sure if I’m not spelling the name correctly or I just don’t know how exactly to look it up. Could you help me out?” Names like phthalimide and thalidomide sound very similar but are, in fact, very different molecules. If you’ve never seen the name spelled out, you can easily misspell it and google might give you a wrong suggestion based on your spelling. This way, you’re clearly showing to your instructor that you’re not lazy and you’re quite capable of looking up the information, but you do have an unrelated obstacle preventing you from getting that information on your own.

Remember, if you come to me and say: “hey, what’s the structure of phthalimide?” I’m not going to think: “Oh, Sue is having troubles finding the structure of this compound because she probably doesn’t know how the molecule’s name is spelled,” or “Sam has probably never heard about search engines on the Internet, so I’m going to introduce him to the world of googling!” What I actually think is more like:

Do tell your teacher why you couldn’t look it up (or you did and didn’t find anything related). Otherwise, you’re making your teacher to do their best impersonation of Jean Luc Picard (but silently and in their imagination).

Very Broad or Vague Questions

This is a type of a question when you’re asking your teacher to summarize into two sentences something that takes 50 pages in the textbook. This is just impossible to do. The best your instructor can do in this case is to give you some vague or go-and-read answer.

Let me give you an example. If you come to your teacher and tell him: “I don’t know how to do mechanisms. Can you help me?” it would be an equivalent of saying: “I don’t know how to cook. Can you teach me?” and expect to become a good cook after a 15-minute demonstration. It is unreasonable to expect a concise answer to a broad question. When you say that you don’t get mechanisms, you’re making a fair statement. And you might indeed be thinking: “That’s right! I don’t get mechanisms! Help!

Let’s step back for a moment and think about organic chemistry as a course first. A huge part of organic chemistry course is devoted to the development of a mechanistic thinking. So, things like mechanisms, acid-base chemistry, stereochemistry, or spectroscopy are not just a concept you may have troubles with. They are big topics that include lots and lots of bits and pieces. It is fair to be confused by a topic and struggling with its applications. “Explain to me the whole topic,” however, is not a fair question. Try something a little more focused instead.

When you’re asking an organic chemistry question, always remember to ask a specific question. For instance, instead of asking for a help with “mechanisms” you can always explain to your teacher that you’re working on a mechanism of, say, an alkene hydroboration and you’re confused on the electron flow or stereochemistry of a specific step. This gives an instructor a context for your question, so he would know what exactly you’re struggling with.

Do yourself a huge favor by first understanding if you’re struggling with a concept or a big topic. How you can easily do that? Is your question is something that takes a book chapter to explain or one or two passages? If something takes more than a couple of pages in your textbook, that’s a topic—break it down!

By the way, asking your teacher to help you break down the topic so you can see the “moving parts” is a totally legit question. Sometimes the topics are presented in such a way that it is difficult to figure out all bits and pieces on your own.

Is That Going to Be on the Test?

Yes.

Or, as an alternative: “What’s going to be on the test?”

Everything.

I cannot even begin to explain how irritating those questions are! As an instructor, I at least want to believe that you’re taking my course because you’re interested in the content. If you’re constantly asking me what’s going to be on the test, you’re just telling me that you’re only interested in a grade. Remember, your teacher is a human being. Most of the professors out there love what they do! If you hurt their feelings by showing them that you don’t care about the subject, they won’t care to help you to succeed.

You can argue that you’re only asking what’s going to be on the test because you want to do your absolute best and be prepared. Let me repeat: every professor hates the “is it going to be on the test” question! Usually the chapters and/or topics for each test are outlined in the syllabus. If they are not, your instructor will mention which topics are on the next test a few days before the test. Often, everything that has been covered up to date is a fair game. In other words, “what’s going to be on the test” is a fair yet potentially a dangerous question. Use it if you absolutely need to clarify the things but use it very sparingly and carefully!

Just Tell Me the Answer

This is the worst offender of all bad questions. Never ask your instructor for an answer. Your instructor is helping you to build the skills needed to get the answer. Just giving you the answer would be a betrayal of this goal.

What should you ask instead? Tell your instructor that you want to understand how to get to the answer. Ask them to show you a step-by-step approach to the problem’s solution. We love students who ask us the “how” questions! Just make sure it’s not the exact same question they did in class last Tuesday. When I get a student, who tells me that they know the answer, but they want to make sure they know exactly how to get it, it’s like:

So, I hope that this helps you to get a sense of what a bad question is and how to avoid those questions.

What Is a Good Question?

A good question is always targeted. Use the following formula to construct a good question:

  1. I was working on my homework/reading the textbook/listening to the lecture,
  2. …and I came across this reaction/concept/problem.
  3. I’ve tried googling/working it out/read some more (show them your work!)
  4. …and I am confused about this specific thing.

This is, of course, not a set-in-stone formula that you have to use. Rather, it gives you a general idea of what a good question looks like. You should always give your instructor some context for the question:

  • Is that a homework question?
  • Is that a passage in the textbook?
  • Is that something they mentioned in the lecture? etc.

Always tell your instructor what you’ve done to answer your question on your own. More importantly, show them your work! Nothing tells me more that you’re working hard than a stack of paper of mechanisms and reactions. It works on teachers like magic! When you show them all the work you’ve done, they will subconsciously try to match your effort in helping you with your question. Your teacher can also easily spot a problem in your mechanism or a synthesis if you show them your work. Otherwise, they have to “poke around” till they figure out what exactly is giving you such a hard time. Bringing your work to your instructor will save you both a lot of time and frustration!

By asking a targeted and specific questions with a context you will also “force” even the worst jerk teacher to give you a specific answer. For instance, if you come to your instructor and ask him “What makes a good nucleophile?” the first thing that is going to go through his head will be something like:

  • Read the textbook!
  • Google it!
  • We’ve talked about that on Monday in the lecture, were you paying attention?

It’s hard to expect a good answer from a person who just thought some (or all) of those things. They might give you a quick generic answer to shoo you off and be on their way. Don’t expect a thoughtful or enthusiastic answer though.

Now, instead ask something like: “I’ve been researching more into nucleophilicity and here are the things I’ve learned in the lecture, here are the things I’ve read in the textbook, and here are the things I’ve picked up on the Internet. They all seem very similar and I was getting a little confused about what’s more important and what’s less important. So, if you were to summarize the factors that make a good nucleophile in the order of their importance, what would it be?

BAM! They are cornered! You’ve given them a context, you’ve knocked out every possible “go to” answer they might give you, you’ve showed them your work, and you’ve specifically told them how you want the answer to be.

Yes, it does take more effort to ask a good question. In the process of writing a good question, however, you’ll easily see the gaps in your understanding and be better prepared the next time you visit with your professor. By asking good questions and avoiding the bad ones, you’ll learn more, build a better relationship with your teacher, and get the answers you need to ace the next test!