Sapling Learning

Some thoughts on learning organic chemistry

Organic chemistry is not a spectator sport.

Some principles of organic chemistry can be absorbed quickly, by simply watching and listening, but these are relatively few in number. Most must be worked with for a period of time and applied in various ways (practice) before they can be absorbed and become useful. Moreover, the principles rest on experimental observations (facts) and you also need to learn these. On top of that, you need to learn which facts can be generalized, which cannot, and why. Many facts appear to form patterns that chemists find useful. So you also need to learn these patterns, and how chemists account for, and use, these patterns.

And, on top of all that, you must learn the pictorial and verbal languages — structural formulas, chemical names, molecular models — that organic chemists use to describe all of this information. And you are still not done.

I say all this not to make you despair, but to impress upon you the importance of problem-solving and practice problems as tools for learning. In order to master organic chemistry you must spend time every week (I recommend multiple sessions) solving problems, receiving feedback on your work, and solving still more problems. It’s the give-and-take, the two-way street, of problem-solving that will build the neural connections in your brain that are needed for mastery of organic chemistry. When you can look at a problem and immediately translate it into a useful drawing, almost as quickly have useful thoughts about possible answers, immediately make the drawings that express your ideas, and can quickly evaluate which ideas are useful (solve the problem) and which are not, you have arrived. But none of this can happen without practice, that is, without repeated efforts to show your understanding under the watchful eye of a master.

We will use the Sapling online homework system as one of our tools for developing mastery of organic chemistry. The system works inside your web browser and provides you with problems to solve, instant real-time grading, response-specific coaching, improvement of problem-solving skills, and detailed explanations of answers. Equally important, it is easy to use, even when an answer requires a complicated drawing. The following sections tell you how to get started with Sapling assignments and complete homework on time.

(Notes on practice: Our Sapling web site offers two kinds of practice: graded homework with a deadline, plus ungraded practice problems that are available all semester long. In my experience, doing only the graded homework is insufficient. As much as you can, engage wholeheartedly with: group work during class, ALL of the textbook problems that I recommend (listed in each day’s Supplement), the ungraded practice problems that Sapling provides, 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.)

Have fun!

Getting started with Sapling (Fall 2019)

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 were 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.

Create an account > Set your institution > Select your course > Need help?

  1. Go to to log in or create an account. If you already have a Macmillan Learning account you can log in with your existing credentials and skip to step #3.
    1. Create your password and set all three security questions.
    2. Start typing in your institution (Reed College) to select from the options that appears in the Primary Institution or School name field. If your institution does not appear, you can add it by typing in the full name.
    3. Accept the terms of use and click Sign Up.
    4. Check your email for the confirmation link to complete your registration and return to the login page.
  2. Set your institution by searching using your institution’s full name (Reed College) and selecting the appropriate option from the menu that appears.
  3. 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.
  4. Click on the term (semester) to expand the menu further. Note that Semester 1 refers to the first course in a sequence. and not necessarily the first term of the school year.
  5. Once the menus are fully expanded, you’ll see a link to a specific course (look for something like Reed College – CHEM 201 – Fall19 – Shusterman). Click the link to begin enrollment and registration.
  6. If applicable, to access your ebook click on the image of the cover on the right sidebar of the course site. Create an account or log in with an existing Macmillan Learning eBook account.
  7. Need Help? Our technical support team can be reached by phone, chat, or by email via the Student Support Community. To contact support please open a service request by filling out the webform:


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

2. 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.

3. Each graded 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. However, all ungraded practice problems are available for the entire semester (just scroll down to see them).