Reimagining Weed Out Classes In STEM
Written by Jasper Lincoln '25
Edited by Lisa Liong '25
Organic Chemistry, Physics Mechanics, Introductory Biology, Electricity & Magnetism, General Chemistry—as students, some of these course names may have spiked anxiety or disturbed unpleasant memories from earlier on in your college career. If they did (sorry), you might know that these classes often are given the name “weed-out” or “weeder” courses to imply that they determine whether students will or will not be able to pursue their interests in STEM. They are often described as having large class sizes, with many students interested but undeclared in a major that requires passing the course, are difficult enough to help determine whether one can continue the major well, and result in many students dropping their major altogether. Timothy Weston and Elaine Seymour, researchers of STEM education, conclude in their book Talking About Leaving Revisited, that “the majority of issues contributing to [switching from STEM or changing STEM majors], and to the ongoing difficulties of persisting, converge on student experiences in what are commonly referenced as “weed-out” classes” .
Weed out classes are the primary reason students chose to switch out of STEM. But what function does making these courses“weed-out” classes actually serve, and can we support this model of education?
Proponents of “weed out” classes may argue that they are a necessary evil that serve an important role ensuring that students are adequately prepared for demanding college coursework and later being successful practitioners of their field. As mentioned by a pre-med student in at Penn State, one opinion piece about the classes, they push students into difficult situations to gauge how really committed a student is to their profession they are pursuing. In response to being let go from his position teaching Organic Chemistry NYU, a class many claim is the weed out class for pre-med, Dr. Maitland Jones Jr. writes in an op-ed in the Boston Globe: “it is more important than ever to dedicate ourselves to the high standards of education. Without those standards, we as a nation will not produce those individuals — doctors, engineers, scientists, – citizens! — who will guide us toward a better future” . Ideally, these classes are much more than a test of knowledge, but a mechanism to shape a learning mindset in students. To do this they need to be just as challenging as any other STEM course in college. But let’s be clear, though we need high standards and expectations in education, confusing them with large portions of the class failing out “grossly manipulates what rigor means”.
From an ethical standpoint, there are a few concerns that arise with weed-out classes. One issue is that they create a competitive and stressful environment for students. This can be damaging to students who are already facing difficulties outside of classes such as financial or mental health challenges. Most notably, however, the nature of these weed-out classes disproportionately affects students of disadvantaged backgrounds, Black, Native American, Latinx, women, and LGBTQ identifying students. Thus these classes have a societal impact that extends beyond a personal matter. Because STEM degrees often lead to higher and reliable wages, inequality within STEM creates and reinforces socioeconomic inequalities. A study conducted by Northeastern University surveyed chairs of STEM departments across the U.S. about this issue, on how specifically how introductory STEM classes discourage women and minorities in STEM. When surveyed, these professors agreed that this was an issue, but simultaneously, they saw it unnecessary to change their teaching methods.
In one NY Times article, Anissa Ramirez ‘88, now a renowned material scientist and science communicator, recounts how she was very nearly forced to leave STEM while she was a student at Brown because of the nature of the introductory classes. It was typical to hear discouraging remarks from professors in the first lecture about how a third of the students would be weeded out. Dr. Ramirez points out that the need to weed-out students is quite archaic, dating back to the 1800s when there was a limited amount of openings for STEM students. This, of course, is no longer the case, but it left behind a culture surrounding introductory classes. Instead of relying on weed out classes to identify the most promising students, we should focus on creating a learning environment that is fair, inclusive, and supportive of all students, regardless of their ability to pass challenging courses.
But believe it or not, Brown does not have the intention of weeding out students, says Professor Rubenstein, former student and now professor of Chemistry and Physics at Brown. “Certainly in the chemistry department our perspective is to encourage student’s interest in our field[…] we want all our students to succeed and we try to design our courses to do so.” In fact, Rubenstein believes that professors in general rarely if at all intend to eliminate students. “That’s not their job at all… It’s not my job to determine whether one becomes a doctor or not, and I don’t think an organic chemistry question, for example, should have any bearing on whether one pursues medicine.”
But if professors generally do not want students to drop, why do we have these issues with introductory classes in the first place?
“They’re structurally large,” says Professor Rubenstein. “This is a hard problem to deal with because we do need to teach large numbers of students. We would love to have many parallel instructors for these classes to create an intimate teaching setting, but schools don’t have the resources to reach out to every individual student,” an issue that is exacerbated at larger schools. Further, Professor Rubenstein adds, these are often the first classes students have been challenged in a real way before. “All students should be using resources provided by the class. But not every student takes advantage of the resources available equally. Often those who need it the most do not make use of these resources. Some students are not used to having resources. We try to provide as many tutors as possible, we have tons of TAs, but it’s hard to get around that as people come from different backgrounds.”
Thus, the issues with introductory classes are an issue of size, resources, and mentality. Most college level students today have likely heard of the term “growth mindset,” but recent successes in STEM education research has affirmed that success in an introductory STEM class is largely aided by collaborative learning and building social connections within the class that restructure and improve the student’s mindsets. One solution, called the SCALE-UP model, emphasizes small, usually three person groups, for collaborative learning. This model was created by North Carolina University, has been adopted by MIT for its courses, and fulfills demands created by one study, which found greater social interaction in classes to increase academic performance .
The point is, introductory STEM classes have a societal impact hindering diversity in the field, but there are options that could make introductory classes better, and the responsibility of succeeding in so called “weed-out” classes lies both with professors and students.
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