Science & Research

Organic Chemistry receives makeover, yields higher midterm scores

Prof. says class has been revamped and will use new textbook

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, March 3, 2014

Professor of Chemistry Paul Williard last taught CHEM 0350 in 2004. Returning to the course, Williard says this year’s content covers a wider range of topics and will not focus as heavily on specifics.

With a new professor, different textbook and an unusually high average on the first midterm, the material of the infamous weed-out course CHEM0350: “Organic Chemistry” underwent marked changes this year.

Paul Williard P’11, professor of chemistry, currently teaches one section of the class, which he last taught in 2004. Williard said the Department of Chemistry has rebooted the course to focus less on specifics, so as to cover a wider range of topics that were previously left out of the curriculum, such as carbohydrates, amino acids and polynucleotides. In previous years, there was “way too much in terms of irrelevant information,” he said.

Many students have been talking about the high average on the first midterm — 86 percent, compared to last year’s 78.2 percent. This semester, between 40 and 45 students also scored perfect 100s.

Abid Haseeb ’16, a teaching assistant for the course, said the purpose of the first midterm was to establish the basics of the course, and that the professor had expressed that the class would pick up in the coming weeks.

Williard has not yet determined the grade cutoffs for the course and will base these numbers on the performance of the class as a whole, Haseeb added. “It may end up being as difficult to get an A in the class as before,” Haseeb said.

Williard said of the course’s tests,  “I think it’s a different style of what we’re asking in the questions.”

May Siu ’15, who took the course last year, said she heard that students found the test easy, even turning in their exams before the allotted time was over.

Darius Chyou ’16 shopped organic chemistry last year and is currently taking it this semester. He said the course this year is much simpler, adding that exam questions are no longer as tricky or specific. “Everything we learned is the same, it’s just that the testing is different,” Chyou added.

Chyou said the challenge orgo presented last year motivated him to work harder for a better grade. “It was more exciting, but at the same time really stressful,” he said.

Siu said she enjoyed the course when she took it because the tricky questions taught her to problem-solve and students taking the course this year may not learn the same critical thinking skills.

Ashley Wu ’16 also took organic chemistry last year and said she enjoyed the class for being challenging and fast-paced, but that it provided unnecessary stress for students. “Sometimes it’s dangerous to their mental health,” Wu said.

Widespread dissatisfaction among former students brought about the decision to change the textbook, Williard said. Previously, the University used an edition by Joseph Hornback, a professor at the University of Denver, but has since switched to one written by William Brown, emeritus professor of chemistry at Beloit College, and a team of co-authors, Haseeb said.

Wu said she was glad to see a development in the curriculum this semester. It shows that “we’re growing, and the curriculum is growing,” Wu said.

But not all agreed. The changes in the course are not fair to students who took it in previous years, Chyou said, though he admitted it is extremely difficult for universities to standardize their courses, especially with different professors.

Siu said the fact that the course used to be so difficult was unfair. “Some of my friends say there should be a note on the transcript,” indicating that the course was changed, Siu said, adding that she thinks there should be a more challenging class for chemistry concentrators and a less intense route for non-concentrators.

Kareem Osman ’14, head teaching assistant for organic chemistry, said it is currently too early to judge the difficulty of the course. Many students still struggle with the material, he added.

Both Williard and Haseeb also noted that the first midterm does not necessarily indicate the overall difficulty of the course.

Ultimately, professors aim to make students understand and appreciate organic chemistry, and the means of achieving that this year may simply be different than before, Haseeb said.


Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the creators of the textbook that students in CHEM 0350: “Organic Chemistry” are using this semester. The textbook was created by William Brown, a professor emeritus at Beloit College, and a team of co-authors, not Brown University. A previous version of this article also stated that Darius Chyou ’16 dropped organic chemistry last year and is retaking it this semester. In fact, he shopped the course last semester. The Herald regrets the errors.

  • JWSuggs

    Professor Williard and I are teaching this course together and all the test questions are the result of he and I working together. Every year the course works this way, not withstanding which two faculty teach the two sections. Having taught organic on and off since I came to Brown in 1981, I know that the first exam is always the easiest since much of the material (such as bonding) is a repeat of general chemistry and we never get to any organic reactions. The second and third exams always have averages lower by 15 or 20 points than the first.
    I know some students think we work to write tricky questions. Since my wife was a RUE student and graduated in 2004, I got a good look at other science courses including Biol 200 and 800 and I would say organic exams are not any tricker than other science exams. There is a lot to organic, including mechanism, regiochemistry, stereochemistry and limitations on reactions that makes the subject challenging. Its a little like medicine (I think, not being a doctor). For example, men can get breast cancer as well as women, but not too often. So if a man shows up with the characteristic symptoms, one would be faced with a tricky diagnosis, an example of life being complex, not necessarily unfair.
    This year we decided to talk faster so there would be time in CHEM 0360 to cover molecules of biological importance. This may make the 2014 version different but not, I think, easier. Since all Professor Williard and I want is for students to understand the material this is an excellent start and we will endeavor to keep it going, not by asking unusually easy questions but by giving as clear lectures as we can. The class in S02 has been doing a better job than any other 350 course I have ever taught by asking lots of perceptive questions during lecture and I suspect the questions have helped a lot.

    • MD/PhD student

      I really hope this is actually Suggs. Back in 07 Zimmt said you must have been on acid when you came up with the practice questions for a ch36 midterm.

      As absurdly difficult as your class was, I have to say that it made the MCAT feel like a joke.

      • JWSuggs

        Yes, it was I. I always think highly of Brown students’ intellects, sometimes too highly perhaps.

    • BEmory2012

      If only the Brown students could see the exams given by Dr. Weinschenk or Soria down here at Emory (of which there is tons of stress but not many complaints). I don’t know if your exams have changed too much, but I had a friend show me one from like a year ago, and it seemed as if it had a challenge to it ( problem solving/critical thinking components), but was not nearly as intense. Dr. Weinschenk, gives 3 difficult midterms (between 30-60% of exam will have some scenario or application with content and problem types that students must derive) and an easier final and Dr. Soria uses you guys scheme with a “foundational” first exam and then the others become significantly more challenging with the types of content and problem types (his exams approach nearly all application, mechanisms and derivation sorts of problems by his 3rd exam and final). Brown students need not complain and should appreciate the fact that you guys are certainly trying. Afterall, I feel most schools now address those “more relevant” (the biologically relevant material) issues in their courses as well. I know we did (it actually added to the intensity of the 2nd semester). I feel that if our instructors trust us teaching and assessing at the level they do, you can trust Brown students to handle your course, no matter the difficulty.

  • Daniel

    This was a great article and I’m happy to read that students are doing well and the scores prove it. Our program at focuses primarily on the reactions to be sure students are prepared for any exam questions.

  • AHaseeb

    Quick note to clear up a little bit of confusion: The textbook currently being used in the class is not produced by Brown University itself. The main author of the textbook is named Brown.