What's the best way to study for organic chemistry and/or anatomy?
September 15, 2009 6:09 PM   Subscribe

What are your best study strategies for learning organic chemistry and/or anatomy?

I'm doing a post-bac premed year, and I'm taking anatomy, organic chemistry and physics (plus labs) all at once so that I can enter medical school next fall. (I was conditionally accepted pending the necessary GPA/MCAT scores this year.)

I'm finding myself become overwhelmed by the shear breadth of material to learn. I'm trying to break it up but it's still rather difficult to learn these subjects at once -- because for two of them, at least, I'm basically memorizing everything (orgo and anatomy) and am finding myself not able to retain everything.

I'm sure a lot of people here have taken these subjects. So...if you have...what should I do (considering it's early September) to make sure the year is successful? Any helpful little tips? Anything to do in particular?

Thank you in advance.
posted by melodykramer to Education (19 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Can't help you with o-chem. Just finished the first anatomy and physiology course here, though.

What kind of anatomy are you taking? Is it regional, systematic? Are you doing cadaver stuff as part of it? I don't know if my tips will necessarily be relevant to you - my study skills recommendations here are based on a combined a&p sequence that uses a systematic approach. our first term was skeletal system, intro to histology, gross muscle anatomy, muscle cell physiology, and intro to the peripheral nervous system and neurophysiology. we get a fair amount of pathophysiology in there too.

For the skeletal system: we worked with real skeletal remains for the bone section, and were allowed to take really excellent plastic models home with us. That, more than anything, was incredibly important for me - to see, touch, hold, to feel femur and run my finger along the linea aspera. or to hold up the atlas and the axis vertebrae and really see how they work together as a joint. Also, we have lots of old xrays in the lab, so I worked at being able to identify bones and features on x-ray.

For histology: unfortunately, practice. stare in that microscope until you see spots, until it's just really, really familiar to you. stupid visual associations are good, like "hmm elastic cartilage makes me think of fried eggs".

For gross muscle anatomy: I like mechanics. Thinking about it in terms of leverage was really the key - thinking about what action the muscle performs, where it originates and inserts, and most importantly what joints and bones it crosses, that was really was cinched my knowledge. To think about it as a mechanical system of leverage and movable/immovable points ... learning gross muscle anatomy will be much easier after doing the skeletal system, because the bone features are generally places where muscles originate or insert!

microanatomy of nervous system and muscles ... it's hard to separate the physiology and the anatomy, but I drew lots of silly, silly pictures of oligodendrocytes and schwann cells and myosin and troponin .. again, mechanics helped me quite a bit (your muscle fibers are racheting mechanisms! so cool!). Your chemistry background will help.

Study groups were great - talking it out with other people out loud was great. This is a good way to make friends in your cohort of students, also, as you share the agony of memorizing massive amounts of material. Our instructor encouraged us to do silly review games (jeopardy, pictionary, have someone make you a crossword with terms) with each other.
In a pinch, near exam time, I make flash cards, punch a hole in them, put them on a ring and just take them EVERYWHERE with me. Those flash cards you can purchase are awesome, but I find that making and organizing my own flashcards to be immensely helpful.

Being able to organize and classify the information in lots of different ways is, I think, crucial, and my instructor does a fantastic job of showing us how to think about these structures and systems in different ways.

admittedly, I'm loving anatomy and physiology, so being really excited about it helps a lot :).
posted by circle_b at 6:34 PM on September 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

For orgo - make lists of all the reactions until you remember them. Just over and over, by hand. Then also make a flash card of every reaction, and write in very clear, clean handwriting in a marker. I find that looking at flash cards give me a photographic memory that helps me recall the reactions, so not crossing stuff out and writing in big letters helps create a clearer image in my head.
posted by KateHasQuestions at 6:36 PM on September 15, 2009

For orgo - make lists of all the reactions until you remember them.

Then, importantly, pick up those lists/flash cards every few weeks thereafter (don't over revise) in order to retain the knowledge. Sometimes learning everything by rote isn't too hard if you dedicate yourself to it, but it scares me how quickly you can also forget unless you do a periodic revision. (I know this technique is probably assumed, but my experiences got me feeling pretty strongly about it ;-))
posted by wackybrit at 6:43 PM on September 15, 2009

When I took o-chem my tried and true method for memorizing all the reaction mechanisms was as follows. I would first write them all down in a vertical line on a piece of paper. I would then learn the first one (and be able to reconstruct the whole mechanism to myself in my head). Then I would learn the second one, but then go back and do the first one followed by the second one. Then the 3rd, but then repeat 1st and 2nd, etc. Basically it forced me to keep *everything* I had learned in active memory while learning new material as well, so I was constantly reinforcing even the very first mechanism. If I was, say, at mechanism 20, and going through 1,2,3, etc to work my way up to 20 and I messed up at, say, mech 16, I would force myself to relearn mech 16 and start all over at the beginning until I could get all the way to 20 without failure. Then I would go on to learn mech 21.

Take my word for it, I was definitely one for cramming the night before, and this method (I've tried the whole flashcard thing and the whole write-everything-down-3-million-times thing) was by far the most effective. Interestingly enough, I was taught to do this by a Russian studies major (it as what he used to memorize new words/definitions).
posted by kthxbi at 6:49 PM on September 15, 2009 [4 favorites]

I've heard positive things about this piece of software for memorization (this being an open source equivalent also based on the Leitner system).
posted by phrontist at 7:01 PM on September 15, 2009

Response by poster: I'm not a crammer at all and I can't pull all-nighters. Basically, I'm trying to do 1-2 hours/subject/day, and reinforce on the weekends. My anatomy class is basically the one they give to undergrads who are contemplating careers in the hard sciences but seems to cover almost everything my brother's class did in his first year of med school (we have boxes of bones; they're sitting on my lap.) Creeptastic. :P
posted by melodykramer at 7:03 PM on September 15, 2009

For orgo - make lists of all the reactions until you remember them. Just over and over, by hand. Then also make a flash card of every reaction, and write in very clear, clean handwriting in a marker.

Speaking as somebody who teaches orgo, please please please do not do this, unless your goal is to barely scrape by with a low grade, or hope you turn out to have a particularly easy prof. I see struggling student after struggling student who has a huge stack of flash cards, but no ability to apply them. The best students rarely have anything of the sort.

Organic chemistry is all about patterns. The question you see on an exam will look, at first glance, absolutely nothing like the example that you've studied, which is why the flash carders rarely do well. The trick to doing well is to learn the types of reactions, why they happen, and then seeing which of those apply to molecule/conditions in question. In most cases, a large molecule can be reduced down to a single functional group that's doing a very simple reaction, and the rest of it that's just along for the ride. Once you do that, there are usually a very narrow set of possibilities for a given problem.

The way to do this is to work many many problems. If you're not actively drawing structures on a paper, you're not actually studying organic chemistry. If you can get problems made up by your actual orgo prof (the ones from textbooks are a real mixed bag), even better.

The good news is that, once you learn to do this, you'll spend way less time on studying orgo, because everything will be related and part of a pattern. You won't have to memorize more than four or five things all year, if you do it right.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 7:08 PM on September 15, 2009 [14 favorites]

Frankly, the best way to learn orgo is to do as many practice problems as you can. Memorizing the rxns is one thing. And not very effective at all--you remember everything you need to know for one test but come the next exam, you'll find yourself trying to cram everything in again.

A more sustainable strategy is to apply that knowledge and putting it to use by doing exercises at the end of every chapter in your text or use an exercise book (eg. Organic Chemistry as a Second Language written by my Orgo I instructor at Johns Hopkins Univ., David Klein). I can not emphasize this enough. Practicing problem solving is probably the highest yield study strategy you can use to rock the exam.

This advice is based in experience.

As for anatomy, there is no substitute for plain old memorization, unfortunately.
posted by scalespace at 7:09 PM on September 15, 2009 [3 favorites]

Bingo on the Orgo advice from Dr. Enormous and scalespace above. Wish I'd had that when I was taking it.

I just remember that it seemed like a two-step process for me. First, learning this brand new bizarre language and then having to learn the content for which it was developed. Difficult and time consuming, but I actually liked it (?!) and made A's after practice, practice, practice. That book referenced by scalespace sounds like just the workbook I wish I'd had (& which may have helped reduce the amount of study time).

Good luck and good question - sounds like a tough schedule.
posted by ourroute at 8:05 PM on September 15, 2009

Bah. Organic. I had a test on it this week...

What works (mostly) for me is a combination of flash cards, rewriting reactions I understand, and doing problems. Yes, you do need to memorize certain things. And so what I do is I go through the notes I've taken from the book/class and rewrite the reaction/mechanism. Once I completely understand it I'll make a note card with a pretty general example of that kind of reaction. Once I understand the basics of the reactions and have made flashcards to sort of memorize the general type of problem, it is time for practice! Practice tests, book problems, homework problems, everything you can get your hands on. What I find the note cards useful for are when I am first doing the practice problems and maybe don't necessarily remember what does what. It's helpful to be able to spread out the note cards and get reminders instead of having to go through a notebook or textbook each time. Certainly you'll have to memorize plenty of things but a lot of it (at least in terms of reactions) becomes intuition, if you will, after a while. At least, in theory. Because though all of my advice works, it only works if you follow it. And...it's much easier to give advice than to follow it....

Good luck!
posted by lucy.jakobs at 8:27 PM on September 15, 2009

Organic is easiest if you learn where the electrons want to be and figure out what will put them there. It's the difference between trying to memorize exactly where the shores of Lake Superior are and remembering that water flows down hill.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:59 PM on September 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Have to remember stuff? For anatomy, the following worked for me:

Screen/desktop background/wallpaper randomizer. Load up the backgrounds as brain images with the parts labled.

Could possibly work with org chem 'trivia.'

For me, at least, it was repetition and randomness that helped; when doing the exam, think back on the screen and what it looked like to pull up the names. For the org chem trivia, make them up in photoshop or whatever (or in powerpoint and take screenshots) and save them as backgroundable images.
posted by porpoise at 9:21 PM on September 15, 2009

Organic! It wasn't fun, but I made it through, and so will you. My working strategy was:

1) LOTS of practice problems. I pretty much did every problem in the book (about 80% of them were assigned anyway, so at that point it wasn't a big stretch to do those few extra problems that hadn't been assigned.) You really, really, really will not learn organic unless you are working the practice problems. I say this as someone who, in other classes, tended to skip practice problems unless they were going to be graded. For organic: do the problems.

2) I am a very visual learner, so I drew lots of color-coded diagrams for various reactions and patterns. I am a big fan of color coding. I also made a lot of lists (along the lines of "All of these reactions are similar and here is why"). This is because I learn by organizing and categorizing things. This may not be the best way, but it worked for me. On preview, I think kthxbi's method would work well if you are the kind of person who already tends to study via some kind of list-making method.

3) In addition to the textbook for the course, I made good use of Organic Chemistry as a Second Language (already mentioned above). That book made a heck of a lot more sense to me than the textbook did, so it was a good way to get a groundwork in a new topic before going to the textbook for more detail.
posted by pemberkins at 9:22 PM on September 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Dr. E, scalespace, and Kid C have it right. The continuum of memory vs. thought is anatomy-orgo-physics. By the time you get to physics, one index card could probably fit every theorem you need for the final.

For organic chemistry, if you're into reading extra books, try Organic Chemistry by Clayden, Wothers, and Greeves; Stereoelectronic Effects by Kirby; and The Art of Writing Reasonable Organic Chemistry Mechanisms by Grossman.
posted by d. z. wang at 9:45 PM on September 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

For both anatomy and o-chem, having a study partner was invaluable.

For o-chem, enjoying spending time trying to figure out synthetic pathways to whatever classes of organic molecules interest you most.
posted by Good Brain at 10:13 PM on September 15, 2009

For anatomy: Get yourself a copy of Word Roots and Combining Forms and look up everything you have to memorize. That may seem like extra work, but it will cut your study time dramatically. It is somehow much easier to remember the roots than the whole terms, and they pop up over and over. And if you know roots you can at least guess. For example, "brachial plexus"? brachi the arm + al pertaining to + plexus interwoven, a network. "Steatopygia"? steato fat, suet, tallow + pyg the rump + ia condition.

For O-chem: As has been said, do lots of mechanisms. What you particularly want is synthesis problems: do as many of these as you can.

For physics: Laugh to yourself that this is your easy class. Unless it's electricity and magnetism -- that shit is bananas. I don't know how people learn that.
posted by Methylviolet at 10:45 PM on September 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

I did very well in organic chemistry by doing a lot of practice problems where I followed how the electrons moved. It's all about the electrons. I had to memorise a few names of classic reactions, but there is very little memorising in organic if you study it intelligently, and it's much easier to do it when you understand why the reactions go as they do instead of just having to remember that they do.
posted by jeather at 4:47 AM on September 16, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks everyone.
posted by melodykramer at 2:47 PM on September 16, 2009

Dr. Enormous is completely 100% correct. I took orgo with all my best friends and they are all *very* smart people. The person I would argue was the smartest out of our group did terribly in orgo because he was studying wrong - memorizing things when he needed to be getting into the *roots* of the problems. One time I was thrilled to pieces that I got an 83 on a test. I look over and he had a 7. Orgo freaks people out because it is different than what they are used to.

If you're memorizing things constantly, you're doing it wrong.

Like others here said, do the practice problems. ALL THE PRACTICE PROBLEMS. I believe this is what made the difference between my friends and me. They memorized and I worked problems. If you finish and you've gotten a lot wrong, go back and do them over. Besides, professors love to pull test questions from problems at the back of chapters, particularly the ones they *haven't* told you to do.

Good luck - it's going to be a rough semester.
posted by AquaAmber at 12:51 PM on September 18, 2009

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