Any STEM, pre-medicine, pre-dental, and Engineering major will know about those dreaded and difficult courses that colleges force them to take. A STEM major consists of intense Biology and Chemistry concepts. They are called weed-out courses, and they are intentionally tough introductory classes which will “weed-out” students who will not have the commitment or academic prowess to complete a certain major. Some students may even drop their chosen major due to these courses. “Weed–out syndrome” does not just affect STEM, pre-med, or pre-dental majors; it affects other majors as well. Examples of these courses would be the Organic Chemistry sequence required for medical school and Biology or Chemistry majors, Accounting or Finance for Business majors and Statistics for Psychology majors. These courses can be reformed by improving or changing the impersonalized teaching style, the way the material is presented, and the way the grades are curved. There has been a long and treacherous debate on whether or not America’s colleges and universities should reform their weed-out courses. While supporters of weed-out courses believe universities and colleges should not change weed-out courses in that their difficulty and filtration is essential, since the filtration serves as a mechanism that “weeds-out” the students who make the cut from the ones who cannot, I strongly argue that colleges should reform introductory ‘weed-out’ courses to allow non-majors to gain knowledge outside of their chosen career fields, and encourage students to stick with their major.
Some professors and students believe weed-out courses have a truly good purpose in that they filter out the students who are just only casually thinking about their chosen path and the students who authentically want to be in their career path. This is done by giving every student who does not get the material quickly enough a slap in the face, and maybe even one of his or her most horrible grades. Stony Brook, a major science university, whose science majors are becoming overcrowded is proof that the difficulty of these classes is intentional. “Stony Brook makes introductory level classes that are geared to make young minds want to quit and choose another career or major altogether” (Shah). The supporters of weed-out courses additionally argue that those who genuinely want to be in their chosen path will do the work and put in the hours it requires to make excellent grades in the introductory level ‘weed-out’ courses. Although, it is important to reward the students with a strong work ethic and separate the truly dedicated from the slackers, it is also important to note that some students did not have the same resources that others have had in the past or present. These include expensive tutors, better high schools from the past, and many other trivial resources.
In addition, many also argue that these extremely hard classes are important to have in colleges in that their difficulty is actually to the benefit of the students. A UNC Biology 101 professor believes that the higher-level thinking questions and independent learning sure is a challenge for students, but the point is to encourage critical thinking and problem solving skills, which will ultimate just help the students in the long run (James). Supporters of weed-out courses also argue that they will make students academically and mentally stronger because for some, the competition brings out the best. Organic Chemistry is one of the toughest subjects someone will learn in school. According to Business Insider, using only memorization or problem solving alone will not get someone through this class. It requires an intense amount of both (Quora). Weed-out courses combine intense memorization, independent learning, critical thinking skills, impersonalized teaching style, en mass material presentation, and grading by the curve. Moreover, the demand and rigor of the introductory weed-out courses prepare students for the upper-level future courses in that these courses require a great amount of dedication and critical thinking. This argument does make sense in that students do need to get solid education that they are paying for, but it would be too early to start weeding them out since many students mature and progress over time.
Moreover, many believe that these courses weed out the students that inevitably will not be able to make through their chosen graduate school by separating the students who can get past and reasonably grasp the material of the difficult courses from the students who just cannot seem to catch on quickly enough. The skills needed to get through weed-out courses are comparable to the skills needed in graduate school. These skills include problem-solving, collaborating within groups, citing arguments with evidence, and analyzing and understanding complex information. According to an article on premedlife.com, “The only way to get an A in organic chemistry, the most notorious weed-out course, is to spend at least 10 hours a week studying” (Goliszek). There is absolute no way a student is going to be able to make it through medical school if he or she cannot spend ten or more hours a week studying for a single course. Although it is nice to have a good preparation for the rigor of graduate school, it is not necessary to include insanely difficult courses just for the sake of weeding students out because it is unfair to some students with different learning styles that don’t align with weed-out courses. It also important to consider the devaluation of the bachelor’s, sometimes known as credential inflation. This basically says that the bachelor’s of today is yesterday’s diploma. How can schools continually allow every to take these classes and get those degrees?
However, weed-out courses are not fair to non-majors, since there are not many options available to them to take classes in other fields or programs of study. Many students go to college to also expand their minds and have a plethora of options of things to learn about. The message they are sending students is “do not bother learning about another subject or topic unless you are trying to have a career in that field.” This message and intention harm students who want to expand their intellectual horizons, which stifles their curiosity and growth. Essentially, if someone who was a Psychology major wanted to take or learn about Accounting, they could be discouraged from doing so because it is often times the weed-out course for Business majors. Therefore, the student does not get to learn and gain other skills and knowledge adequately. In fact, “only 27 percent of college graduates find a job that is strictly related to their major” (Sherner). Adaptation and acquiring new skills quickly is the new normal, so it would make sense to allow students to study outside of their concentrated subject more gracefully and explore other options outside of their major while learning other skills and ways of thinking.
Secondly, being “smart” or “a good doctor” is not a single skill with a single definition in that doctors and other professions need a variety of skills and knowledge, not just what is offered in the weed-out courses. Of course every patient wants a doctor that knows what he or she is doing and that had adequate academic preparation, but patients also want other qualities from doctors as well. As stated by up-to-date studies, “patients whose doctors listen to them and demonstrate an understanding of their concerns comply more with those doctors’ orders, are more satisfied with their treatment, and enjoy better health” (Suttie). The problem is doctors aren’t trained for empathy, a crucial quality every doctor should have, during college. One path to educating future physicians on empathy is to encourage them to start fostering and maintaining their natural curiosity on others’ lives (Halpern 674). This can better help them connect with patients. Colleges need to recognize this and expand their ideas of medical education. We need doctors who can be creative and think entirely different from our physicians in the past, especially since we need cures for serious diseases. Furthermore, how can colleges say a seventeen-year old is not doctor material? That is way too early to start predicting who can be a great doctor or not, especially since seventeen-year olds, the common age for freshmen, have a huge amount of potential to mature. They do not get the chance to show progress and exceptional performance in introductory level courses. In fact, “a great amount of research has confirmed that students tend to do much better in college after two or three semesters, and evidence for improvement over time can be found in our daily lives” (“Weed-out”).
Weed-out courses can be reformed by reducing the difficulty, actively encouraging students to try new things, and changing the teaching style. Without reforming these courses, students would quickly lose interest from their courses, be discouraged from their area of study, and minorities would not have an equal shot at performing at their very best. “The President’s Advisory Council predicted that in ten years, the United States will need one million more STEM professionals than will be produced at the current rate” (Baker). If the retention rate for STEM majors could just be knocked up a notch by 10 percent, then the one million would be covered. Universities should not be discouraging students who potentially want to take on the STEM career paths. Most STEM majors will make up the STEM career force in the nation, and the people that make up that career force will be doing some pretty important things for the nation, such as finding cures to diseases. Bottom line, weed-out courses should be reformed in America.
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Sherner, Kara. “The College “Weed-Out” Approach Stifles Students’ Intellectual Curiosity.” The Huffington Post, The Huffington Post, Inc., 2 Mar. 2014, www.huffingtonpost.com/kara-sherrer/college-weed-out_b_4717720.html. Accessed 21 Oct. 2016.
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