Orgo Woes: Student Withdrawals from Organic Chemistry

Students and professors discuss the high number withdrawals from Dartmouth’s notoriously challenging organic chemistry sequence.

by Gretchen Bauman | 3/2/22 2:10am

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by Christina Chen / The Dartmouth Staff

Many chemistry majors and aspiring doctors hear the words “organic chemistry” and shudder. The completion of CHEM 51 and CHEM 52, “Organic Chemistry,” is a rite of passage for these students — if they can make it through the courses without ruining either their sanity or their GPA, that is. The classes are notorious for their difficulty and recently have been characterized by an especially high number of student withdrawals.

Grace Farr ’24, who withdrew from CHEM 52 this term, noted that the difficult nature of CHEM 51 and CHEM 52 stems in part from their differences with CHEM 5 and CHEM 6, the prerequisites to CHEM 51. 

“I think it’s comparing apples to oranges when comparing it to CHEM 5,” Farr said of the organic chemistry sequence. “CHEM 5 was really math-based, and we used our calculators on all of the midterms and finals. For this class, it was heavy memorization.” 

Vaishnavi Katragadda ’24, a current student in CHEM 52, agreed that the organic chemistry classes have been more demanding than the other pre-med classes she has taken. 

“If you don’t put a lot of time into it and do every single practice problem assigned, it’s very hard to feel that you know what’s going on,” Katragadda said. “It’s definitely a disproportionate amount of work compared to the rest of the pre-med classes.” 

These difficulties are exacerbated by the quarter system. Chemistry department chair Dean Wilcox stated that Dartmouth’s unique schedule makes the sequence more challenging at Dartmouth than at other top schools. 

“It’s a little bit more challenging because of the pace at Dartmouth,” Wilcox said. “No other school takes a semester’s worth of material and squishes it into nine and a half weeks.” 

Katragadda added that the quarter system leads to an almost unmanageable amount of information being covered on each exam. 

“For the second midterm that we had, we needed to be comfortable with 21 textbook chapters of reactions, so almost a thousand pages of information,” she said. 

Due to the demanding material, compounded with the time pressures of the quarter system, it’s no surprise that many students choose to withdraw from CHEM 51 and CHEM 52 for various reasons. For example, while Farr successfully completed CHEM 51 in the fall, she withdrew from CHEM 52 after the first exam. 

“I took the first midterm, and I got below the median,” she said. “The professor told me that I wouldn’t fail the class, but I’d have to do really well on the next midterm and the final. With the material getting harder, I knew that was unrealistic, so I decided I would drop prematurely before the second midterm.” 

Although Farr was one of the first students to withdraw from the class, she explained that she was not surprised by the high number of students who withdrew later in the quarter. 

“A lot of people drop out because it’s a weed-out class, so it’s meant for people to drop out,” she said.

Furthermore, Farr suggested that the professor teaching CHEM 52 this term may have exacerbated what was already a difficult class. 

“Originally, [this professor] taught CHEM 58, which is Honors Organic Chemistry, so he wasn’t familiar with the gaps in our learning from our CHEM 51 professor to him,” Farr said. “He expects us to know a lot more than we did.”

Katragadda added that the unforgiving grading systems of CHEM 51 and CHEM 52 might also contribute to the high number of withdrawals. 

“The way that the class is graded, it’s just dependent on how you do on the three exams,” she said. “A lot of people take the class for pre-med [requirements], and GPA matters a lot for pre-med; if you don’t do as well on one exam, it tanks your entire grade. After people dropped, the median on the first exam went up to almost 90%. Since the class is being curved to a strict B+, it’s really stressful for everyone in it.”

Although students may choose to withdraw from these classes for a myriad of reasons, Wilcox indicated that the Chemistry department believes the recent uptick in withdrawals is due to the pandemic. 

“I won’t deny that the number of students that have withdrawn from organic chemistry courses over the last year and a half has grown. Prior to the coronavirus, the number of withdrawals were typically one or two per course,” Wilcox said. “As soon as the coronavirus arrived and we shifted to online teaching, it didn’t work as well as in-person [teaching], and the students knew that too, and so they struggled.”

Both CHEM 51 and CHEM 52 returned to in-person teaching this academic year. However, Wilcox attributes the continued high number of withdrawals to the lasting effects of COVID.

“I’m thinking that there may be a spillover from the coronavirus,” Wilcox said. “Learning last year was a struggle, and we have to get back into the in-classroom learning situation. I sense students are struggling with it, and even faculty are readjusting to what it is like to be back in the classroom.” 

Ultimately, the department hopes that dwindling case numbers and an eventual return to normal will put an end to the rush of withdrawals.

“We haven’t taken any action to address [the number of withdrawals] because we think it’s just a situation-specific phenomena,” Wilcox said. “As the coronavirus numbers go down and it maybe becomes more endemic … I’m thinking that we’re going to be returning to the situation we had before the coronavirus.”

Despite all of the challenges of organic chemistry, Wilcox stressed the importance of finding enjoyment in the course. 

“It was in an organic chemistry course for me that chemistry really started to make sense,” Wilcox said. “If students can suppress the anxiety and the anxiousness and see the beauty of understanding the properties of molecules, it can be pretty exciting.”

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