My biggest failure of 2012

by James

in Teaching

Happy New Year!

The title of this post is actually a misnomer. My biggest failure of 2012 was in not being able to win even a single game at our annual pond curling tournament in Muskoka. Since I am still not mentally prepared to talk about this disaster, I am going to talk about my second biggest failure of 2012 instead.

It might seem weird to start off 2013 by talking about a failure, but I think stories of failure often have some valuable lessons.

This time last year I finally started doing a project which had been in my mind for a long time. Daily organic chemistry tips.

Year after year, one of the biggest regrets students students have at the end of the course is that they didn’t study the material every day. The result is that they try to cram a lot of material in at the last minute, often with poor results. Secondly, there are a large number of students who say that they want to prepare for organic chemistry over the summer before they take the course.

So following the example of people like Chris Guillebeau and BeatTheGMAT, I thought it would be a terrific idea to offer a service that sent a daily tip by email that covered the arc of a typical course from beginning to end. By dripping the course out daily, instead of cramming it all into one chunk, this could spread out the learning process. Furthermore, since it was all automated, no action would be required on the student’s part. It would be like having a guided walkthrough of organic chemistry arriving in your inbox each day.

I offered people on my email list the opportunity to sign up for this service as a test run (for free). About 50 obliged.

Now that there was interest, I needed to actually write the darn emails. 12 weeks times seven days times two (one for Org 1 and Org 2) is a lot of emails to write. 168 to be exact!

I tried to cover key topics for each course in the most common sequence that I’ve observed:

Org 1 – Structure and bonding, resonance, acids & bases, conformations, stereochemistry, nucleophilic substitution, elimination, reactions of alkenes, reactions of alkynes.

Org 2 – alcohols/ethers/epoxides, oxidation & reduction, conjugation, aromaticity, reactions of aromatics, aldehydes & ketones, carboxylic acid derivatives, enols & enolates, synthesis, amines & carbohydrates

By April, the email sequence was complete. Of the 50 who signed up, about 15 really made it through the entire sequence. Most of the others lost interest somewhere along the way.

Undaunted – “what sane student of organic chemistry would not want this service?”  – and buoyed by positive feedback from some of those who did make it through [confirmation bias!], in May I offered this service at what I considered to be a very reasonable price: $15/month for three months (about 50 cents per email).

I launched it on my email list and as a blog post.

The result: crickets.

Over the next six months, out of hundreds of thousands of site visitors, a total of 17 individuals signed up for Daily Email Tips. Six of those were special offers to get the first month free.  Maybe 1 in 30000 visitors to the site signed up overall.

I think it’s safe to say that there simply wasn’t a huge desire for this kind of service. That was disappointing. But still, very interesting.

A tempting conclusion to draw from this is: many students don’t want strategic, long term solutions to problems. They mostly want last-minute fixes. That’s certainly true for some, although I think on the whole that view is overly self-serving and cynical. For one thing, that view assumes that students actually perceive the service as a desirable and effective solution for them. Maybe there’s something about the offer that just wasn’t appealing.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far, from talking to some of the students who were brave enough to try it out:

  • The emails didn’t always follow the arc of the course exactly. So it was rare that the “right” tip would arrive at the right time.
  • Searching through your email inbox to go back and find the “right” email is a huge pain in the ass.
  • A daily email every week for 12 weeks (many with figures and tables) gets to be pretty overwhelming.
  • There were still “gaps” in the material, despite best efforts to cover the major topics.
  • Payment was annoying, as Mailchimp (my email provider) only accepts payments through Amazon accounts.

Mostly, though, I’m still scratching my head. I thought this would be a slam dunk, and I was very wrong.

So fare thee well, Daily Orgo Tips, Jan 2012-Dec 2012. May ye be repurposed in some other form in the future.


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That’s a good idea… to be honest I was thinking about something like a book.



I have enjoyed the daily tips. I read them when I wake up and it has been a help letting me know in what areas I need to become stronger. I want an A in orgo and this is one way to keep quick material with me at all times. I have the emails on my phone and read thru them instead of checking social media when I have a few minutes to spare.



Thank you!



I thought it was a great idea! It’s just a problem of how you pay for it and understanding how exactly what you would get each day. I think the law of ‘student idealism’ will get the better of concientious study every time though – the ‘I’ll be better this year’ mentality that turns into the ‘I don’t need help cos i’l study every night’ -> ‘it’s ok If I missed studying this week, i’ll do douube the study next week’ -> ‘crap’.


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