What Motivates the Top-Scoring Students in Organic Chemistry?

Is it getting the best grade? Nope.

Is it feeling like organic chemistry is relevant to your career? Try again.

Is it feeling like you worked hard and prepared well? Surprisingly, no again.

The students who perform the best on organic chemistry are most motivated by a high confidence that they can and will succeed in organic chemistry (a principle generally called self-efficacy).

From an article published this year in the Royal Society of Chemistry, 2648 college organic chemistry students were given a survey, and their answers were correlated with their organic chemistry scores.

The survey consisted of 19 questions, which were split into 4 general motivational categories– relevance (eg, “My career will involve organic chemistry”), self-determination (eg, “I study hard to learn organic chemistry”), self-efficacy (eg, “I am confident I will do well on organic chemistry tests”), and grade motivation (eg, “Getting a good organic chemistry grade is important to me”). The full survey is shown at the very end of the article.











The results show that self-efficacy was most highly correlated with score in organic chemistry (correlation scores of 0.65 and 0.62 at 2 colleges). Therefore, the critical factor that motivates the highest scoring students is a simple belief that they can indeed get an A. Simply put, if you are highly confident you can learn organic chemistry, you are more likely to do better in the course.


The second highest correlated factor was self-determination, which is an indication of hard work and preparedness (correlation scores of 0.41 and 0.29 at 2 different schools). Look how much lower the correlation is between this and self-efficacy!


What does this mean for me?

  1. The highest correlation with organic chemistry grade is self-efficacy (essentially self-confidence that you can learn organic chemistry). This suggests that being confident in your ability to crush organic chemistry is more important than feeling like you study hard and prepare diligently.


Confidence is everything! This was by far the highest correlated factor that the study authors looked at.


  1. Students always say, “It’s stupid I have to take organic chemistry—it has nothing to do with medicine.” But guess what? To do well in organic chemistry, you don’t need to feel like it’s relevant to your future field at all! Because the top scorers in your class certainly don’t.


  1. Grade motivation was low! Interestingly, students across the board in this study said that they were highly motivated to get good grades. However, this was not correlated with organic chemistry scores.


Put another way, the students who were doing poorly were just as motivated to do well as students who actually did well. Many students feel that this is their major source of motivation, so it’s important to know that this doesn’t correlate well with success in the course (AKA: find another source of motivation).


Take Home Message:

Confidence is key in organic chemistry. If you don’t believe that you are capable of learning this tough subject, then the cards are already stacked against you.



Austin AC, Hammond NB, Barrows N, Gould DL, Gould IR. Relating motivation and student outcomes in general organic chemistry. Chem. Educ. Res. Pract. 2018, 19, 331.


Full survey:

Does Gen Chem Grade Predict Organic Chemistry Grade?

At this point, you’ve likely heard it a hundred times—organic chemistry isn’t like any other course you have taken/will take in college. And this includes general chemistry, right?


Well, it’s complicated. So let’s take a look at some data. Since organic chemistry is such an infamous course, a surprisingly large amount of research has been done on different methods to teach the course most effectively.


One study looked at performance in general chemistry versus organic chemistry and found that there is a statistical difference between “A” and “B” students (p=0.000) and “A” and “C” students (p=0.000), but no difference was found among “B” and “C” students.


In plain English: if you did well in general chemistry, you are more likely to do well in organic chemistry.


What should we make of this?

The data clearly show that there is an undeniable relationship between organic chemistry grade and general chemistry performance. If you did well in general chemistry, you are more likely to do well in organic chemistry.


But it get’s more complicated when you try to think about why. Do general chemistry and organic chemistry share the same problem-solving abilities? Or is there simply just a group of highly motivated students who study a lot and therefore do better in general chemistry and organic chemistry (and probably their other courses too)?


Most likely, it is a combination of these. General chemistry is much more math-focused, while organic chemistry isn’t, instead relying on an understanding of conceptual application (you won’t need to use a calculator to do an organic chemistry problem). But if a student is a great problem-solver in general, then this skill might help in both organic chemistry and general chemistry.


Furthermore, if a student is extremely motivated to achieve A’s, then this student is of course more likely to score higher in both organic chemistry and general chemistry.



So what does this mean for me?

  1. If you did well in general chemistry, then great! There is a clear relationship between the grades in general chemistry in organic chemistry.
  2. If you did NOT do well in general chemistry, then that’s still okay too. Because there are other factors at play (such as intrinsic motivation) that certainly impact your grade.


Stay tuned next week for an in-depth review of the motivational factors that lead to the most success in organic chemistry (hint: simply getting an “A” in organic chemistry is low on the list).

The 3-Step Method to Successful Organic Chemistry Studying

Studying for organic chemistry isn’t like studying for any other classes you’ve taken so far in college. It’s all about concept application, rather than the fact regurgitation of biology and physiology classes.

To efficiently study for organic chemistry, we recommend a 3-step method: learn, retain, and apply.



1. Learn (~30%)

Read the textbook and go through your notes

This time should be devoted to gaining familiarity with the concepts and putting the material into a form that is digestible for you. This could be flashcards, outlines, etc.

Many students live in this phase of studying. They read the textbook once. Read it again. Then read it again… Not a good way of studying.


2. Retain (~15%)

Review the material you’ve already covered, so it’s not forgotten

This is the time where you retain the knowledge that you have organized so nicely in the learning phase (step 1).

Flashcards are an extremely effective way to ensure fact retention as you can rapidly test yourself on information very actively. You can quickly review definitions, reactions, or other key concepts that need to be memorized for the course.

Without this step, everything you learned in step 1 will simply be forgotten.


3. Apply (~55%)

Practice problems, practice problems, and more practice problems

This is where the money is made. Organic chemistry is all about doing practice problems.

On an organic chemistry exam, you will not be asked a definition or an isolated concept. Instead, you’ll be forced to apply a concept to a practice problem that you’ve likely never seen before.

Memorizing the definition alone is not enough (step 2). Knowing the concept is not enough (step 1). You need to apply your knowledge and memorized information to the practice problem you are given on the exam. This goes one step further than many of your previous college classes.

This application step is where you can separate yourself from the class. Do TONS of practice problems, and review every single answer (both correct and incorrect). Ideally, you would use a resource that gives you a full explanation for each question.

Exhaust all the questions in your textbook, and then find more questions.



There are many reasons students struggle in organic chemistry but living in the learning and retention steps above is one of the major ones. In courses like biology and physiology, it was possible to get by or even do well by only doing step 1 and step 2.

But to succeed in organic chemistry, it’s all about practice problems.

The Secret to Maximizing Office Hours


If you’ve ever been struggling with a college course (such as organic chemistry), someone has likely recommended “going to office hours” as a stock piece of advice.


But going to office hours by itself will not help you succeed in a college class. Not even if the Professor drops some gems about what will be on the test (although that might get you a few points…).


In reality, the benefit of office hours actually has very little to do with the time spent with the Professor. Instead, the vast majority of the benefit occurs in the preparation for office hours.


How could that possibly be? Let’s talk through a situation.


Today’s Friday. You’ve officially decided you’re going to be proactive this year in organic chemistry, so you’ll be at office hours on Monday.


But first, you have to find some good questions to ask. So you study throughout the weekend, and really pick apart the material you’re reading. You’re looking for thoughtful questions that won’t cause eye-rolling from the Professor and other students. When you come across a potential question, you first think it through, and try to solve it before writing it down as something to ask.


This is an example of active learning, the most effective and efficient way to study material.


Creating thoughtful questions is an extremely effective active study technique and going to office hours forces you to create these deep questions. Of course, while the answer to these questions is valuable, the most critical part of the whole process is the deep learning you do to think of the questions.


TL;DR: Coming up with thoughtful questions for office hours is a highly actionable way to force yourself to study actively.