Our prompt this week was to write about one thing that we believe should change in higher education. I struggled for quite awhile to pick a topic. There are a lot of great ideas in higher education, but also a lot of issues. Some of them, like skyrocketing tuition and the abysmal salary:work ratio for many adjunct and instructor positions, are relatively obvious and straightforward to describe. Others, like the hypercompetitive academic job market and pervasive pressure on graduate students and faculty alike to shift work-life balance towards more work and less life, are more complex and difficult to put into words.
It is one of these more nebulous topics that I would like to write about in this post: the general “weed-out” culture in many fields of study. It’s the idea that only the best of the best can or should succeed in a program. It’s the courses that seem intentionally designed to thin out the competition, and force students who don’t make the cut to either retake the class, likely prolonging their time to graduation and adding another semester’s tuition to their student debt, or switch majors. It’s the fact that it’s acceptable for professors to assign grades based on students’ relative rankings as opposed to the merit of their work, i.e. the top half of the class gets a passing grade, and the bottom half does not.
These weed-out courses can be found in many fields, but seem especially common in STEM fields. Instead of encouraging students to think creatively, ask questions, and work together to achieve a common goal, these types of classes encourage students to focus on grades instead of actual learning, and compete with one another for top ranks. This weed-out approach sends a message to students who might be struggling with a particular topic that they are just not good enough, and should probably give up, instead of encouraging them to work through their difficulties.
It can also discourage students from taking class outside of their major and exploring new subjects, as Kara Sherrer describes in this article: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/college-weed-out_b_4717720
I’m not saying that all classes should be easy. Some topics are just plain difficult to understand. A key part of higher education is challenging ourselves to go beyond the basics, and this challenge is what eventually expands our thinking and understanding. I don’t think that professors should water down courses and shy away from tough topics. But I do think that they can change the way that they approach these topics and respond when not all students understand them. Instead of writing off these students as the x% who won’t get a passing grade, or just another engineering-turned-business major who couldn’t pass Physics 2, professors can acknowledge that the concepts are challenging, offer extra help to students who need it, and design their courses in a way that encourages understanding instead of frustration. When students come to them with questions, professors should offer patient guidance and encouragement, instead of responding with belittling comments and telling them to “just try harder.”
One of the most difficult classes I have ever taken was high school calculus. When it came time to choose which math course I would take, I was torn between two options. Having done well in Algebra 1 and 2, I had qualified for the International Baccalaureate (IB, our school’s equivalent of Advanced Placement) math track, and wasn’t sure whether I should take the lower level IB math course, which covered pre-calculus during junior year and moved into basic calculus senior year, or the higher level IB math course, which jumped straight into college level calculus junior year then moved on to linear and differential equations and multivariable calculus and a variety of other advanced topics senior year. I decided to take the higher level option, enticed by the promise of college credit. Within the first week, I was struggling. I had trouble grasping the material, and class seemed to move at lightning pace. The homework was time-intensive and frustrating, and the textbook was not much help. The teacher, Mr. Evans quickly noticed that I and a few other students were falling behind, and after the first test, several of us were on the verge of switching to the lower level IB math class or out of IB math altogether. Mr. Evans reassured us that it’s a difficult subject, and encouraged us to not to give up yet. We went through the test answers as a class, and he patiently explained the answers and thought process in detail. He also started offering after-school help sessions for homework, studying, and any other math questions we might have, and made sure students felt welcome to ask for help. A few students did decide to switch out of the class, but everyone who stuck with it passed and returned for the senior year continuation of the 2-year class series.
For comparison, the second most difficult class I’ve ever taken was a 1-credit, identification-based lab. My undergraduate major, Wildlife Science, required several lab courses focused on memorizing the Latin names of a wide variety of species, and being able to identify them in the field or using preserved specimens. Each lab course was focused on a specific taxa, such as mammals, herps, plants, trees, etc., with an emphasis on local species. One of these labs is a notorious weed-out class in our department. It’s not uncommon for students to repeat the class in order to graduate. While the TAs were very friendly and helpful, the professor seemed to take pride in the fact that so many of us struggled to pass the class. Instead of selecting test specimens that highlighted the key traits that we had learned, he would often use abnormal specimens that were missing distinguishing features, to make quizzes more difficult. Students avoided asking him questions, because he had a way of answering them that made you feel belittled.
I remember him shaking his head as he graded my quiz questions and telling me “Don’t worry, maybe one day you’ll get one right.” A few weeks later, he took it upon himself to remind me how poorly I was doing (it actually wasn’t that bad, maybe a B- at the time), and suggested that perhaps I was not cut out for science. He suggested that maybe I should “switch to an easier major, like communications. ” I mean no offense to communications folks, this is a direct quote from him. He often suggested this to people he deemed unfit for science, which included a decent portion of the students. With a lot of extra studying and independent identification practice, I ended up passing the class, but my enthusiasm in the subject was severely dampened. Several of my classmates did not, and ended up having to repeat the class.
Both of these teachers were tasked with difficult subject matter, but took very different approaches to sharing it, resulting in very different class outcomes. As an aspiring educator, I hope to contribute to a shift towards the Mr. Evans approach to higher education, and away from the weed-out approach.