Weed-Out Classes

ANDI CROWELL

Weed out classes lloyd (1).jpg

Article by Andi Crowell

Photography by Lloyd Justo

In the heat of the scorching sun, the gardener mercilessly rips the plants out of the soil, tossing them in a growing pile. The field, at first covered with hopeful sprouts eager to grow and blossom, is left with far fewer plants that will mature into their anticipated forms.

At a university, many students see so-called “weed out” classes as this gardener, separating students early on based on who can and cannot make it through the course. While the number of students engaging in STEM disciplines certainly dwindles as students proceed through their coursework, the cause is not necessarily or solely the ruthless gardener, the weed out courses.  Rather, as students become more aware of the details of their planned degree, many self-select themselves and some move to other fields.

“I think weed out classes have a lot to do with it or a least a significant amount,” says UF senior Rebecca Renelus, a health sciences major. “It is sometimes because of those weed out classes that people switch their major or realize that they do not really desire a career in STEM because it is not something exciting for them.” On some levels, it may appear that weed out classes hinder advancement in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. CNN reports that less than half of students entering college as STEM majors actually “graduate from those programs within six years.”

Some believe weed out courses are intended to select students who do well, while failing those who don’t quite hit the mark. In an interview with CNN, UCLA professor Mitchell Chang suggested his research supports this view. “It’s about weeding out the unqualified and letting the qualified rise to the top,” Chang explained. Some, such as Mary Fox of Georgia Tech, go even further and claim that universities sometimes foster a “weed-them-out orientation,” as she explained in an interview with the US News and World Report.

Others, however, suggest that weed out courses are not intended to weed out students, but rather to expose them to the inherently challenging nature of these classes. They are difficult classes, requiring not only a significant investment of time on a daily basis, but also a level and type of study new for many students.

Sylvia Hurtado, a partner of the Higher Education Research Institute, told CNN that the issue lies in inadequate preparation for students coming into college. Yet, even well prepared students may face difficulties. For many students, general chemistry, commonly heralded as a major weed out course, is one of the first courses they take at the university. This first exposure to a college science course may be perceived as difficult not because the class is intended to weed out students, but because the class requires study skills some students did not fully cultivate in high school.

“Maybe when they went to high school, it was all a breeze,” explains Dr. Maria Korolev, a professor of general chemistry at UF. “Then they come to UF. I think just because of the fact that it requires work partially leads to its perception of being a weed out course, where you cannot pass without trying.” In this way, a “weed-them-out orientation” is not the cause of the difficulty. Rather, the nature of course material at the collegiate level causes students to reexamine the approach they take to their studies.

Dr. Korolev also suggests that students view general chemistry as a weed out course not because the majority of students perform poorly, but because students have varying perceptions about the class. Part of this perception, she explains, arises from the influence of other students. “I think they view it as a weed out class because they’ve had some other friends that maybe didn’t do well in the class, or they have heard that, ‘You’re going to get a D in this class, or you know, the average is a D,’” Dr. Korolev states. “Maybe in a particular exam, the average might be a D every now and then, but that doesn’t always translate to the overall course because there are things like homework or clicker points that always skew things higher than maybe the exam grades might be.”

For this reason, Dr. Korolev believes “the perception of a weed out course,” rather than the course itself, may cause students to be less interested in a career in a STEM discipline. Students may want to avoid classes that have the potential to lower their GPA, particularly if they think their GPA will be a major factor in getting into graduate school or getting a job. “Once you’re done, then you’ll be like, ‘Oh why did I stress about that A minus or, you know, that B plus; it actually didn’t matter,” says Dr. Korolev. “And it’s hard to know until you’ve made it through whether it actually mattered or not.”

Yet according to Washington University in St. Louis, weed out classes can, to an extent, help students to learn whether their interest lies in      a certain field, and it exposes them to the measures necessary to attain the associated degrees. “Sometimes students change their minds about their educational directions as they learn more about what preparation to enter these professions really involves,” they state on their undergraduate admissions website.

Based on her experience, Renelus, who plans on attending dental school, holds a similar view. “The purpose of a weed out class is to get students thinking if they want to actually pursue that STEM career choice,” explains Renelus. “It is not so much to discourage but [to] provide some exploration and help students learn what they really want and what they value.”

Dr. Korolev addresses the issue from a different standpoint: she suggests that a student’s response to a weed out course may be indicative of their true interests. “I’m sure there are plenty of students who do not pick certain majors because of their grades, but I don’t think that’s because they were actually interested in that major to begin with,” she says. “I feel like if you really were interested in chemistry, you wouldn’t ditch it just because you got an A minus.  I don’t know.  I’ve never met that person.”

Though grades seem to be a major issue in classes labeled as weed out classes, Dr. Korolev suggests that this belief may not have a legitimate basis. She estimates that the semester-to-semester average is a B minus. “Our overall passing rate is actually totally fine. It’s in line with the national average for chemistry,” Dr. Korolev notes. Furthermore, the “grading scheme” is based on a point scale rather than a curve so that one student’s grade does not influence another’s. “We don’t make it so anybody has to fail in this course. We would be happy if everybody was able to pass our exams and pass the course,” says Dr. Korolev.  “We would have no issue letting everybody pass.”

Renelus agrees that the goal is not necessarily to weed out students. “I feel like UF has a great balance in teaching students how to manage with classes and encouraging students to explore what they want, if it is taking or not taking a weed out class,” she says. “There are so many advisers here at UF that are here to help and just talk with students about their classes and what they want to pursue and whether or not taking a weed out class is worth it.”

Nevertheless, the concept of weed out classes endures and continues to influence students’ perceptions about certain courses, particularly general chemistry. “I wish that students wouldn’t necessarily say that classes like chemistry were impossible. I think it gives students the wrong idea when they start the course,” Dr. Korolev says. “A label such as a weed out course makes it sound like it’s impossible, and why would somebody try if they think it’s impossible? So I feel like if the perception were more positive, then maybe students would feel like they could do it when they were entering the course.”

Nevertheless, the concept of weed out classes endures and continues to influence students’ perceptions about certain courses, particularly general chemistry. “I wish that students wouldn’t necessarily say that classes like chemistry were impossible. I think it gives students the wrong idea when they start the course,” Dr. Korolev says. “A label such as a weed out course makes it sound like it’s impossible, and why would somebody try if they think it’s impossible? So I feel like if the perception were more positive, then maybe students would feel like they could do it when they were entering the course.”

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