Before the beginning of each semester, I ask, “Am I making significant changes in this course?” Usually, the answer is “Nope. No big changes this time around.” Because of the number of courses I may have to prepare, job demands outside of teaching, and/or teaching an additional course due to staffing issues, a tweak to my existing course is all I can manage.

This fall, for example, the tweak to my organic lecture will focus on students’ ability to draw molecules. This tweak, like many, fits a stimulus–response model. Last spring, students’ questions about the structure of morphine and their difficulty with some stereochemistry issues in Organic II demonstrated that their understanding of dashes and wedges fell short of my expectations. In response to this, we will have “art class” this fall, where students will examine a model of a complex molecule and draw it from several perspectives.

This tweak is manageable and low-risk. Major changes, however, are different. The difference can be summarized easily:

Change = Work

The larger the change, the more work required.

The most common major change in an organic lecture is adopting a new textbook. Frequently, textbook changes can be painful. This is especially true if the change is arbitrary (e.g., the new edition just came out, or your colleagues outvoted you on the selection committee) and does not provide any significant benefits.

During the past seven years, when I have talked to instructors about teaching a mechanistically organized course, the issues associated with a major change permeated the conversation. These issues range from timing (“I just made a major change in my course.”; “I’m retiring soon.”) to external concerns (“How will this affect transfer students?”; “How will my colleagues feel about the text?”) to silent rejection.

However valid these concerns, I have found that the benefits of teaching a mechanistically organized course outweigh the issues raised. For example, my colleague, whose taste in organic textbooks has differed significantly from mine, tried Joel’s textbook, found that it was effective, and agreed that continued use was in the students’ best interests.

How difficult is it changing to a mechanistically organized organic lecture? Joel has done the hardest part. Complete revision of the organic curriculum is not a task that will ever reach the top of my to-do list. So, without a book like Joel’s, I would have continued making tweaks. Instead, I have had access to a major revision that helps students view chemical reactions as organic chemists view them.

That’s a change worth pursuing.

– Steve Pruett

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