James Leighton

This professor has earned a CULPA gold nugget

May 2021

This class was really hard. Honestly, it kinda sucked. Sure, we covered a lot of interesting material and Leighton has his moments as an engaging lecturer, but I think I would've been better off in the large orgo lecture. Although the class is only ~20 people, it was hard to keep up and ask questions at the risk of seeming stupid. There were so many lectures where I was super lost and just wrote down what was on the board and had to study it on my own. The people in the class are pretty intense about chemistry, and some of them have already learned all of the material before. Since the class is completely graded on a curve (your raw scores don't matter, just where you are compared to the average), it felt really discouraging to try your best but be slightly below average because it was inflated by people who had already learned all this in high school. On the point of the grading system: the class was so small and exams were graded subjectively by the TA (no multiple choice, all free response that were given seemingly random partial credit points), so there was such a weird competitive vibe when people were studying. People would put in inhumane amounts of time for this class (like 30 hours over 3 days!) because all that mattered was where you scored relative to the average. If you put in a solid effort and take orgo seriously, you will definitely get solid grade in the regular orgo lecture that reflects your efforts. Here, the average will be inflated and the material will be heavier, and you could try your hardest, but unless half the class does worse than you, you won't be in the A-range. His problem sets aren't graded, but you literally don't learn how to do them in class. The material on there isn't just like a level of abstraction harder than the lecture, rather they have completely new material (new reactions, new reactants) and examples that just relate to the concepts lecture. Almost impossible to take a real stab at them without seeing the solutions. My year, he'd release the solutions Sunday night, and we had a quiz on that week's material in recitation Monday morning at 9am. It was so hard to keep up and actually absorb the content, considering how fast we were going. The exams were really problem-solving based. On one of them, we had to derive the structure of Vitamin D (Google it) from a precursor. Leighton had drawn the molecule on the board once for us, but it wasn't the main focus of the lecture nor was it a key concept of the unit. Literally everything said in that lecture hall is testable material, making it an extra challenge to memorize all of the random, complicated stuff he mentions in class on top of keeping up with the actual orgo material that we were zipping through pretty rapidly. Leighton also did this thing where he made his TA teach how to read an H NMR spectra during reading week (???) because he wanted it to be a 20-pt question on the final. All he did in class about NMR was explain the concepts behind how the machine works. We literally had to learn and practice how to solve that type of problem after the last lecture of the class. Super cute of him to do that. Bottom line: Unless you loooove chemistry and/or have solid orgo background and/or need to skip Gen Chem to get your major(s) done, I would seriously consider doing the regular orgo lecture. Otherwise, prepare for a semester of Googling homework questions and only seeing PubMed articles from 1980 (when Leighton did his thesis) show up.

May 2013

It's been a while since someone's reviewed Leighton, but for the most part everything the past reviewers have said are true. Compared to Breslow, Leighton's a lot younger, and subsequently more dynamic and engaging. He enunciates his words. He draws molecules that are actually easily discernible. He won't miss your hand if you thrust it up, eager to ask a question of clarification or to show your peers how intellectually curious you are. To do well in his class, 1) Come to lectures. 2) Take good notes during lecture. Make sure you're not just copying down molecules and ignoring the context/explanations that he's giving them. 3) Study the notes regularly, memorize the reactions, and understand the mechanisms. Leighton gave us psets regularly throughout the semester, and if you can do those psets without having to look at your notes, you should be fine for the midterm. Leighton's exams are quite conceptual; though the problems are hardly ever straight from the notes, if you know your notes well and can explain/comprehend just about everything he talked about in class, you should have no problem getting an A or an A+ in the class. Seriously. He likes to test a) proposing mechanisms, b) reaction predictions (ugh...stereochemistry comes back with a vengeance this semester), c) designing syntheses (which all involve some sort of retrosynthetic analysis of the product). In the end, the class averages still weren't that high; the averages for the midterms were 64, 65, and 76 respectively, while the average for the final was a 69.7. Don't try cramming for this exam; my friends who were most successful in this class all put in a little time daily for the first couple of weeks, until they were able to get a hang of Leighton-style orgo. Nate's also a pretty good TA. He's a funny and chill guy. His recitations were a lot more helpful first semester (since understanding Breslow's lectures required more effort than deciphering the Rosetta stone), but second semester they were merely rehashes of Leighton's lectures. Nate's pretty approachable for questions, and is willing to help you do well in the class. Now for my experience: I am by no means great at organic chemistry. As whole, the class got better at orgo as the semester progressed, while my grades stayed pretty stagnant. It took me a while to realize that was because I wasn't putting enough time into the class. So I swallowed my pride, starting recopying notes, and then did quite well on the final. Somehow, I ended up doing better than I expected in the class. Unlike the previous reviewers, Leighton didn't send us an end of the year email, and I'm pretty sure he curved my class to a B+. But the bottom line is, if an idiot like me was able to get through this class with a grade much higher than I had hoped for, with steady effort, you can too.

May 2010

This was hands-down my favorite class freshman year. It can be kind of intimidating at first - Professor Breslow is a genius (you learn about the Breslow intermediate second semester) and some of his lectures can go pretty quickly - but take solace in the fact that everyone feels lost. If you stick close to your TA first semester, you'll be FINE. Plus, because both Breslow and Leighton consider the class "above average," it's fairly easy to make an A+ (I made one both first and second semester). I think the class is itself scaled to an A-, which is a lot better than the gen chem or regular orgo classes. So if you are placed into this class, TAKE it. Also, orgo just gets easier as you go along. I must say that I spent a lot of time on orgo first semester (you need to read and understand the book chapters VERY WELL). But if you get through first semester, second semester is a breeze. Leighton doesn't care about the book (although he took some exam questions verbatim from his "recommended homework" so if you're smart, you'll look at those problems) and his exams come STRAIGHT from his notes. He's also really good about extra office hours and his class notes are very clear. Both semesters and both professors were absolutely fascinating. I am really going to miss this class - it made me a chem major, I loved it so much. So take it! It'll be the best decision you make freshman year. The final in Breslow's class was not that hard, although the average ended up being really low - he just asked you to do a lot of "application" problems rather than synthesis. Make sure you know what anthracene looks like and how napthalene reacts! The final in Leighton's class was a piece of cake. Just take the time to review your notes and it's super easy.

Jan 2010

This was my absolute favorite class freshman year (I'm a sophomore). If you get in to this class, take it take it take it. I have a bunch of friends who got in but took gen chem and regret it now. First semester: Yes, Breslow teaches very quickly. Yes, he does tend to skip chapters he doesn't care about and tell you to read them at home. But he is really an amazing teacher. He is very clearly excited about what he's teaching, loves to make jokes (which often catch you off guard), and always takes the opportunity to tell you about real-world applications. I brought my English-major sister to sit in on the class when she came to visit me, and even she was entertained all class. He is honestly one of the smartest people I have ever ever met. I don't think I ever looked at the clock ever all semester. His tests are hard, and are sometimes about applying what you've learned to things you've never seen before, but the curve is extremely generous. He said at the beginning of the semester that in order to not discourage students from taking the class, he tried to give them what they would have gotten had they taken gen chem (A or B range, and frankly, if you're in this class, a B is still pretty damn impressive). Second semester: Leighton is a really good teacher. After Breslow, his lectures definitely seem slow, but his drawings seem like the most beautiful things you've ever seen. He also manages to teach this semester WITHOUT A BOOK, which, thinking back on it now, is pretty amazing. He's just that good at explaining things. And what's really nice is that, because the class is so small (in what other organic class can the teacher learn your name??), you can ask questions, to which he is very responsive.. The tests are definitely hard, but again the curve is generous. I have heard of people getting C's in this class, but the majority of the kids my semester got in the A range. Note: From seeing my friends take organic now, the book Breslow and Leighton use is SO MUCH BETTER than the one used in regular orgo classes. It's extremely readable and explains things with really funny cartoons sometimes. It was worth reading first semester just to see resonance get compared to rhinos and dragons and unicorns. No kidding. I get my old one out to explain things all the time. Warning: Bio is a HUGE LETDOWN after this class.

Mar 2009

Beware--this class is full of premeds, overachieving engineers, and future chem majors. And it's at 9am. It's especially useful for premeds and chem majors, since it saves you a full year of gen chem, but some background in orgo is definitely helpful. Mostly, people don't realize that for synthesis questions, you have to ask yourself "what can I make with X and Y," "how do I make this kind of molecule," "what do I add to X to get Y," etc.--it's NOT just memorizing X+Y=Z. Breslow teaches the first semester. He's totally brilliant (google him for some fun facts, as well as amusing pictures of him when he was young), but should NOT teach undergrads. Don't bother showing up to class--I went to every class, wrote everything down, tried my best to stay awake, and should have slept in every morning and just done everything out of the book. Luckily, Michelle Hall was the TA our year and she is FANTASTIC. I have no idea how any of us would have passed without her. Also note that while the midterms are all fair material out of the book, the final is INSANELY hard--he wants you to "apply your knowledge" to stuff you haven't seen or something, but it's totally impossible. In my class, about a third of the class ended up with some kind of an A. If you can make it through first semester, James Leighton is totally awesome. He's super organized, draws large, clear molecules/mechanisms on the board (Breslow drew lots of tiny scribbly drawings--it's a nice change!), and is dynamic/engaging enough to keep almost everyone awake. Class attendance is absolutely necessary, since he lectures from his own notes and covers things not in the book (the book is still helpful for review and practice problems, though). Our TA was not very helpful, but it didn't matter since Leighton is such a badass. Exams are definitely mechanism-heavy (unlike Breslow's), but mostly fair. At least you know what's coming, since he posts practice tests. The final is pretty hard, but not as crazy as Breslow's. 2/3 of our class got some kind of A.

May 2006

I was quite impressed with Leighton as a professor. His lectures were extremely organized and he did a very thorough job of explaining the material. He also had helpful TA's, gave homework far enough ahead of the due date to allow students to get help in office hours or recitations, and was very good about answering questions. I would clearly recommend him for second semester orgo if you want to come out with a good understanding of the material. However, all of these benefits come at a significant price. The grading, while very fair, is brutally tough. An earlier reviewer who said that you can still end up with a B+ even with above average scores on all the tests is absolutely right. And you if score above the mean but by only a few points, you'll probably end up with a B. While Leighton does give you a chance to earn some points on his tests (means were in the 60's and 70's, much higher than the ones I've heard from the Nuckolls section), scoring in the 80's and 90's is still extremely difficult, which may come as a bit of a shock for people coming out of Katz's 1st semester section (I was one of those). Despite the tough grading I would still recommend Leighton for the quality of the lectures. But be prepared to sweat for 16 weeks and then just hope the final goes well if you want a decent grade.

Dec 2005

Leighton is probably the best professor I've had here. His lectures are amazingly clear and organized-- I wish he taught first semester orgo and biology. As one of my friends said, you may even find that you "wish you could take Orgo for the rest of your life." His notes are so good that you'll probably never consult your textbook again, except maybe for practice problems. The course is difficult, mostly because there's a LOT of mechanistic details/reagents to remember (if Orgo were open-book, there wouldn't be so much to it) and because everyone in the class seems to study an inhuman amount, but exams and grading are extremely fair. If you spend enough time studying, you'll be fine. If you only leave yourself one day to study, you will probably struggle for a B-range grade unless you have an amazing memory.

Jun 2005

I took Professor LeightonÂ’s class because my TA from last semester recommended him to me. He said that he was a clear and well-organized lecturer and he was right. I have to admit before I started taking Orgo II I was already a bit apprehensive. I heard awful stories from the premeds before me that Orgo II would be the worst class I would have to take to get into medical school. By the time I finished the class, I didnÂ’t find that the case at all. Perhaps Professor Leighton went out of his way to make it enjoyable. I found myself less confused than last semester and the reason could be his teaching. He went by his notes and I didnÂ’t use my textbook at all. His notes are really the bible to organic chemistry II and if you want to do well in the class I suggest you write over the reactions numerous times until you see electron movement in the mechanisms when you sleep. Even though Professor Leighton is an awesome professor it doesnÂ’t save you from the other premeds you see at the library everyday with their o chem books and notes. I have to say in this class there is almost no curve. The other downside is that the final can ruin your grade if you have been doing well all semester, since itÂ’s worth 45%. It may seem unfair, but with a class size of almost 200 students it is hard to grade everyone fairly. All I have to say is study really really hard for the final, so it doesnÂ’t bring you down. If you want to learn Orgo II well take it with Professor Leighton because the class will be only a few of the premed classes that you will actually enjoy.

May 2005

Leighton is a great teacher. His lectures are filled with a ton of information so make sure to come to every class and take very good notes if you want to do well. If you write down everything he puts up on the board, and study it for the tests you will probably do well. Although everyone says Orgo II is harder than I, I found II to be much easier because Leighton is such a good teacher. HW doesn't count for more than 5% of the grade, the 3 midterms are 45% and the final is 50%. Take Leighton.

May 2005

Prof. Leighton is the best orgo teacher you can have! He gets through all the required material and the notes are amazing and organized. He is very clear and does not digress. He doesnÂ’t expect you to memorize useless pKa values like Cornish did but there is still tons of memorization, but thatÂ’s orgo for ya. The only bad thing about the class is it is total cutthroat competition. Grading is BRUTALLY fair, which ends up disappointing. I did above avg on every midterm (except for the one I dropped) and the final and ended up with a B+ meaning that the class is curved around a BÂ…very brutal. But I guess this is the way it is at Columbia, when a teacher is good they expect their students to know their stuff and it is more likely that they will, so it is crucial that you stay ontop of the material. Despite this I highly recommend Leighton. If you take orgo do not miss out on an opportunity to be in his class.

May 2004

We can glorify Professor Leighton for all the things listed below, and oh how true they are, but one key difference between Leighton's Orgo and just about every other class in the department has not been brought to light. The things he emphasizes in lectures are given exactly proportional attention on the exams, granting students the satisfaction of knowing that long study hours paid off. And he doesn't do this by taking exam questions straight out of the lectures -- rather, he makes it perfectly clear in the problems, often with a friendly hint, which of the many concepts he teaches he wants you to apply. Exams vary in difficulty, and so do the grades -- one of the consequences of such organization and clarity is that you'll really kick yourself for not getting something when you realize looking at the key that it was so simple and straight out of the notes. One more thing -- when you finish Orgo 1 with Cornish or Katz, just burn your textbook, because its convoluted and incomplete, and Leighton's material is so much better and more interesting, and of course, much more relevant to exam stuff.

May 2004

Prof Leighton is THE BEST professor I have ever had. You know that he is not out to get you because he says so: "I am not here to keep you out of med school." He is very well prepared for the lectures. I think out of all the lectures he conducted, he made only 3 mistakes, which he was quick to catch. He responds to email very promptly. During office hours, he is very approachable. I would HIGHLY RECOMMEND taking him.

May 2004

If you are going to take the 2nd semester of organic chemistry, take it with Professor Leighton. He is a very straightforward lecturer, and his sort of intense clarity may make him seem a little cold, but he turns out to be a very nice guy as well as a good teacher. A lot of material is covered in this class, but Professor Leighton gets through everything, and makes it all as simple as it can be. He is definitely helpful in office hours (as are the TAs), and like the other reviewers say, he is interested in helping you, not in failing you. His test questions can be a little tricky, but they are fair. Professor Leighton seems to know everythign there is to know about the subject, and he expresses his knowledge extremely well. He is always very prepared, which makes him easier to follow. After taking organic chemistry II with him, I wouldn't want to take it with anyone else.

May 2004

Professor Leighton is by far one of the best pre-med professors I've had. I agree with the other review that there is a great deal of competition in this class but that's true of any class, especially the pre-med requirements. Leighton's concern for his students is evident from day one when he tells you that he is not out to make this a pre-med weeding out course but is more interested in you learning the material. He takes his time to draw out mechanisms carefully and throughly explain things. If you still have questions, his TA's were great and he is always available either by email or in his office hours. He also would hold extra office hours before exams and tried to ensure that you had every opportunity to get all your questions answered. He's a great lecturer and cracks the occassional joke. I HIGHLY recommend taking his course. I really enjoyed it and I know a lot of other people that did too. From his class, I've started to consider becoming a chem major (a sentiment felt by others as well).

May 2001

If you're not a pre-med or some sort of science major then stay as far away from this course as possible. Expect high levels of competition amongst students as many are vying for spots in highly competitive med schools. Professor Leighton is a great teacher. You probably won't realize it until the end of the course when you're studying for the final, but he really does a great job of tying together an enormous amout of material. Professor Leighton breaks from the traditional mold of a teacher of a pre-med required class in that he's not out to get you, he's there to help you.