Organic chemistry students' ideas about nucleophiles and electrophiles: the role of charges and mechanisms
Organic chemistry students struggle with reaction mechanisms and the electron-pushing formalism (EPF) used by practicing organic chemists. Faculty have identified an understanding of nucleophiles and electrophiles as one conceptual prerequisite to mastery of the EPF, but little is known about organic chemistry students' knowledge of nucleophiles and electrophiles. This research explored the ideas held by second-semester organic chemistry students about nucleophiles and electrophiles, finding that these students prioritize structure over function, relying primarily on charges to define and identify such species, both in general and in the context of specific chemical reactions. Contrary to faculty who view knowledge of nucleophiles and electrophiles as prerequisite to learning mechanisms and EPF, students demonstrated that they needed to know the mechanism of a reaction before they were able to assess whether the reaction involved nucleophiles and electrophiles or not.