You would not think of touring a foreign country without a decent phrase book in your hip pocket or, better yet, a good grasp of the local language. Yet many chemistry students stumble into the distinctly foreign territory of organic chemistry with no such preparation. Not surprisingly, many if not most regard it as a gruelling experience, a gauntlet to be run or abandoned rather than the gateway to an exciting scientific field.

Chemistry professor Alison Flynn has regularly witnessed this difficulty since she began teaching organic chemistry at the University of Ottawa almost a decade ago. After conducting formal studies to pin down why this area posed so many problems for students, Flynn and her colleagues began to argue that the curriculum should be redesigned to ensure that students have mastered the fundamental concepts behind organic chemistry before they ever approach a single reaction.

The group included professors Tony Durst, Keith Fagnou and William Ogilvie, who inspired and co-designed an entirely new approach to the way the university’s undergraduates are introduced to organic chemistry. By 2012, instructors were ready to launch a curriculum that put foundational chemistry knowledge front and centre. “We redesigned the curriculum in a way that reflects how professional chemists work right now,” Flynn says. “They think in patterns. They think in chemical principles. They don’t memorize facts as one-offs. Their ideas and concepts are really networked together.”

Once students began to tackle the subject matter in this way, however, Flynn made some unsettling discoveries. “We were seeing that students were not very good at naming molecules,” she notes. “They didn’t have opportunities to draw them and get feedback.”

Flynn recalls being even more shocked when she found out how comfortable most students were with downright incorrect moves such as arbitrarily reassigning electrons from one molecule to another without any respect for the limitations of the bond between those molecules. After encountering such basic misunderstandings, she began working closely with the Centre for eLearning, part of the university’s Teaching and Learning Support Service. Flynn recruited an undergraduate student, Melissa Daviau-Duguay, to help create Nomenclature 101, an open-access, bilingual, student-driven website that guides users through the intricate chemical language that is necessary to negotiate the challenging terrain of organic chemistry. “We’re now developing new modules in to further help students with the language and symbolism, how organic chemistry mechanisms work, as well as also core concepts like acid-base chemistry and even metacognition skills,” Flynn says.

Flynn’s analysis is continuing as she looks for ways of further improving learning strategies by studying the skills and behaviours that the most successful students demonstrate. Meanwhile, grades have risen and failure rates have dropped at uOttawa’s new organic chemistry classes. Over the past few years Flynn has published a variety of research papers on this development, which has attracted the attention of chemistry educators around the world. This past December she was the featured speaker at a colloquium at Columbia University in New York City where she outlined the progress that has been observed in the teaching of organic chemistry. “People are really curious,” she says. “They’re taking note of different pedagogies, different models that are being used in the classroom. People are trying things out who might never have tried things before. There’s a real movement toward changing how science and chemistry are taught.”