Sapling Learning

Some thoughts on learning organic chemistry

Organic chemistry is not a spectator sport. Some of the principles of organic chemistry can be absorbed easily, that is, by hearing them described in a lecture or by seeing them drawn in a book, but these principles are relatively few in number. You also need to learn the facts that organic chemistry rests on and there are many of these. On top of that, you need to learn which facts can be generalized and which cannot (and why), and you need to learn what patterns chemists have noticed among these facts, and how they explain these patterns. We are not done yet. You must learn the language — structural formulas, chemical names, molecular models — that organic chemists use to describe all of this information. And there is still more …

One might despair and imagine that nothing is as hard or strange as organic chemistry, but this isn’t true at all. Consider what it takes to learn how to count in a new language. You begin memorizing the language’s words for ‘one’, ‘two’, ‘three’, and with a little effort, you find that you can combine these number words to make the correct word for any number you want: ‘twenty-one’, ‘hundred and ten’. It’s work, but it seems manageable.

Then you discover that the language also contains other kinds of number words: “first”, “second”, “single”, “double”, “pair”, “trio”, “dozen”. The language is complicated. Memorizing is necessary, but it isn’t enough. ‘One’, ‘single’, ‘first’, ‘unique’ have similar meanings, but they can’t be used interchangeably. You must also study what situations make a word useful or useless.

Your ultimate goal, of course, is to be able to communicate in this new language. So you must also learn to write and speak each new word. Furthermore, communication should never be a chore. Beyond knowing words, their usage, and how to write and speak them, you want to be fluent. You want the right word, and the right understanding of that word, to pop into your head effortlessly at the precise moment when it is needed. When fluency has been achieved and you can communicate effortlessly, you can justifiably say, “I have learned this language.”

The study of organic chemistry has much in common with the study of a foreign language. Memorization. Usage. Drawing, writing, and speaking skills. Fluency. To achieve all of these things, whether in organic chemistry or in a foreign language, you must practice what you are learning by trying things, receiving and making corrections when needed, and challenging yourself through varied and systematic repetition.

We will use the Sapling online homework system to address one part of the Chem 201 puzzle, that is, to provide problem-solving practice. The system works inside your web browser and provides real-time grading, response-specific coaching, improvement of problem-solving skills, and detailed answer explanations. In addition, it contains simple methods for creating and assessing answers to sophisticated problems. (Note: To reiterate, Sapling practice is almost certainly not enough by itself. As much as you can, engage wholeheartedly with: group work during class, textbook problems that I recommend (listed in each day’s Supplement), and just coming to talk with me about what you are learning and what might puzzle you. Throw yourself into this and you will learn organic chemistry.)

The following steps tell you how to get started with Sapling so that once classes begin you will be able to access Sapling assignments that have been specially created for our course.

Have fun!

Getting started with Sapling

I have been told that the bookstore can sell you one-semester or full-year access codes to Sapling. It may also be possible to buy these codes through Sapling. The following enrollment/registration instructions are provided by Sapling. If you need assistance, and Sapling’s support system is unresponsive for some reason, please contact me but start with Sapling’s system first. They are far more knowledgeable and can access things that I cannot.

1. Go to to log in or create an account.

2. Under Enroll in a new course, you should see Courses at Reed College. Click to expand this list and see courses arranged by subject. Click on a subject (‘chemistry’) to see the terms (semesters) that courses are available.

3. Click on the term (semester) to expand the menu further. Note that ‘Semester 1’ refers to the first course in a sequence.

4. Once you have fully expanded these menus, you’ll see links to specific courses + terms. Find our course (look for a label that includes ‘Reed College – CHEM 201 – Fall18 – Shusterman‘) and click this link to begin enrollment and registration.

5. Make sure that the computer you are using meets the computer system requirements. Also, confirm that Flash is updated and enabled in your web browser.

6. Need help with registration? You can reach Sapling’s technical support team by phone, chat, or by email via the Student Support Community. To contact support, please open a service request by filling out the webform:

7. The following link includes more detailed instructions on how to register for your course:


1. Complete all of the Sapling Learning training materials. The activities, videos, and information pages they provide will familiarize you with the Sapling Learning user environment and serve as tutorials for efficiently drawing molecules, stereochemistry, etc. within the Sapling Learning answer modules. Most of the problems that students have reported with Sapling over the years have been traced back to an incorrect or incomplete drawing that the student made.

2. Each homework assignment ‘opens’ and ‘closes’ on specific days (see Homework). Once you have registered and enrolled, you can log in at any time to complete or review open homework assignments.