Accumulating a foundation

Workers building a foundation. (Wikimedia Commons)

Full Title: “Accumulating” a foundation: The philosophy behind organic cumulative exams1

Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time, put it best when he said, “Get the fundamentals down and the level of everything you do will rise.”

Cumulative exams are about setting the foundation for your training. They are a signature part of the early years of grad school and widely considered a rite of passage among organic chemists.2 Here at UConn they’re given on one Saturday morning of the month during the academic year. An exam may be written with a certain theme in mind, but each one really boils down to an opportunity to put the fundamental strategies of complex problem solving into action. To succeed is to collect five points in 19 tries (you can even get one of your points by earning half-passes on exams). The [low] expected success rate early in the process scares some trainees; it shouldn’t! Imagine a goal keeper in soccer; the average success rate for blocking penalty kicks has been estimated at around 18% . That means if you were a 5-for-19 defender, you’d be a superstar. So, like blocking PKs, a good bit of failure is not just tolerated when taking cumes, it’s expected.3 In a way, the process is an old-fashioned example of mastery-based learning. The system is designed to get everyone’s facility with the fundamentals of organic chemistry set by a certain point in the training timeline. Some may get there faster than others, but few ever take the whole 19 exams.4 The goal is to get those fundamentals “down” as Michael Jordan emphasized in the quote. Setting that foundation will enable you to rise in all the parts of your training.

Cumulative… “cume”…. accumulate. The word itself reveals the philosophical motivation driving this method of assessment. The name of the game is to collect “them” up. Initially, you want to collect points; as you grow as organic chemists you come to appreciate that you are collecting experiences in thinking through puzzles related to the concepts in organic chemistry. The rationale for cumes is implicitly rooted in a “growth mindset”. Failing, especially failing early, is designed to be an opportunity to learn from the failure. There is no shame in failure; it happens all of the time in research. What makes great science and scientists is persistence and cumes provide early practice in developing that “grit.” Cumulative exams should be a tool that you use to map out what you know and what you don’t know across the wild world of organic chemistry.5 Embrace this opportunity to go from a point of knowing less to knowing more.  The repetitive nature of struggling to learn, over time, builds strength. You accumulate knowledge and problem solving skills by taking cumes.

Typical student concerns about cumes may take the following manifestations. Be honest; these are some of the complaints that you have probably made in your own head!

Student: I’m not prepared. How can I be expected to succeed until I’ve been taught the concepts?

Response: Take a growth mindset (see above). Failing shows you what you don’t know… yet. Use early struggles to take ownership of your learning. Importantly, the content of cumes draws from the courses you take. So, you’re already preparing and collecting up skills!

Student: Exams are given at an inconvenient time. Why are exams given on Saturday mornings?

Response: Agreed. They’re inconvenient for everyone involved. On the other hand, they’re also predictable; you know that there will be a test eight times every academic year. The experience is valuable enough to dedicate a few hours one Saturday a month. There’s a big return on that investment of time.

Student: Other divisions don’t evaluate students this way. Why is organic different?

Response: Organic is better. /That’s a joke!/ This post is an attempt to share the philosophical context of why organic division faculty believe the cumulative exam format is valuable. The rewards that come from consistent challenges – the hallmarks of the exams – are manifold. Essentially everyone who goes through the process sees the value once they’ve made it through the process. Just ask any of the organic graduate students who have finished their cumes!



1) Thanks to Professor Amy Howell and senior organic division grad students Nishya Mukthar and Caleb Griesbach for input on the title. Other titles that were considered for this post included:

“The cumulative manifesto” (my personal favorite) or “Let’s do this! A guide to forward thinking about cumulative exams” or “No pain, no gain”

2) Full disclosure: I did NOT go through a cume process (Tsk, tsk Pitt Chem!) and I regret it.

3) In major league baseball, 5-out-of-19 is about the same as the mean batting average for any given year. That was the original analogy, but it became clear that is was a little too esoteric to get traction with the full breadth of junior trainees. It’s nonetheless an accurate one.

4) “[I] think the pressure emanates from the students themselves, especially when they realize they do not pass them as quickly as they would want in comparison to their peers. If they could avoid such comparisons and focus on their personal growth and learning, then they wouldn’t feel the pressure considering the 19 chances they’re given!” -Dennis Sulwey, senior organic division grad student

5) Another golden quote came from senior organic division grad student Julia DiSapio. It hits this point right on the head, “You learn a lot about what you might need to work on and you get better at them with the more classes you take/the more your understanding of organic chemistry deepens.”

6) Photo, “Rebar tying in Beijing” from Wikimedia Commons.