The volume of content and abstract nature of organic chemistry is challenging and potentially intimidating for students. I describe a strategy for facilitating student development of heuristic tools for engaging with the subject. By using experimental and researched data on carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen, the bulk chemical elements of organic chemistry, my students were encouraged to develop a “character reference” for each. The heuristics of characterization enabled them to relate more easily and engage more creatively with the work, including when working with complex organic molecules later on. I used this approach when teaching carbohydrates, alcohols, fats and proteins to 12- to 14-year-old students.

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