3 ways to improve your A Level organic chemistry

If you’re taking A Level exams this summer then no doubt you’ve started looking at past papers and might be feeling a bit overwhelmed – especially with the sheer volume of content that seems to be needed for organic chemistry! Even if you’re just starting out it can seem overwhelming, especially when exam questions appear to be so much more complex than what you were expecting. In this post I’ve brought together my top three tips to get ahead in organic chemistry.

Don’t underestimate the power of retrieval practice

Firstly, my advice is don’t underestimate organic chemistry in general – we sometimes don’t set aside the time we need to work on it, because it can seem less pressing than practising those really challenging titration or enthalpy change questions. If you leave it too late, it will only get harder – and organic chemistry is definitely one of those areas that you have to keep revisiting throughout the course.

Even if you’ve let your revision slide and your exams are just weeks away – don’t give up on yourself. The good thing about organic chemistry is you can make very big gains from learning those key reactions. Get some paper in front of you and get practising. How many functional groups can you remember? What reactions do they undergo? How do you draw the reaction mechanisms? Write them out from memory, check for errors, and repeat repeat repeat. Ignore that little voice that tells you it’s not making a difference, and just keep at it. Flashcards, brain dumps, mini quizzes – whatever retrieval practice you can find.

If you haven’t already downloaded my retrieval practice activities for AS and A Level chemistry, get them here now – they’ve got plenty of organic examples to try.

Get the bigger picture

As with any part of chemistry, it’s important to start making connections and thinking synoptically as soon as possible with organic. Instead of treating every individual set of reagents and conditions as a separate entity, try to spot the patterns within functional groups and even from one functional group to another. For example, although haloalkanes react with water, sodium hydroxide, ammonia and sodium cyanide, they are all nucleophilic substitution reactions.

Try making lists of all the functional groups you have covered and writing the types of reaction they do. You will even find that many different functional groups do similar things – for example, aldehydes and ketones both react with hydrogen cyanide in the same way, and esters and amides both undergo hydrolysis using the same reaction conditions. Look for patterns and overlaps wherever you can. Another revision exercise you can try is to pick two functional groups and make a ‘similarities and differences’ list. For example, aldehydes and ketones both undergo nucleophilic addition and reduction, but only aldehydes can be oxidised.

For more general advice on revising synoptically, you might want to read my earlier post on the subject.

Look at it from different angles

This last piece of advice is pretty specific to organic chemistry. In order to reduce the panic of those unfamiliar contexts, you need to start practising seeing organic molecules in different ways. Find questions with relatively complex molecules (i.e. not just things with one or two carbons!) and practise drawing those molecules upside down, back to front, structural, displayed and skeletal. Practice focusing on the bond angles for one part of the molecule – this will help when you need to consider stereoisomers. Turn it into a game – how many different ways can you draw the same molecule? Believe me, it’s a game examiners play every year, so it’s time to beat them at it!

How many different ways can you draw the same organic molecule?
Claire Costello-Kelly

Claire Costello-Kelly

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