Koh: Northwestern’s weed-out classes serve an important role


Alex Koh, Columnist

Northwestern students often complain about the “weed-out” culture that many intro-level classes perpetuate. Such courses are derided as difficult for no reason other than to discourage those who initially struggle with a subject from pursuing it further. Some elements of these accusations certainly ring true. The “NU Dropped Classes” Tumblr account, a place for students to share their thoughts on dropping classes partway into the quarter, was created in large part because many students struggle to manage the rigorous workloads of weed-out courses. I’ve certainly experienced my own share of frustration at classes that seem needlessly difficult.

However, I’d propose that we stop thinking so negatively about challenging courses and instead consider their benefits. A significant part of what appeals to employers and graduate schools about Northwestern students is the knowledge that they have been challenged and have excelled in spite of it. Without rigor, academic success is significantly less impressive. South Medford High School in Oregon recently had 21 valedictorians, ultimately causing college admissions departments to be more “critical and skeptical” of their ostensibly stellar academic records. Easy coursework cheapened the value of their education, while Northwestern maintains its strong academic reputation through its difficult classes.

An argument against weed-out classes is that students with strong skills for given professions are sometimes derailed or discouraged by poor performance in introductory classes. For example, I know many former pre-med students who demonstrate skills that would serve them well as future doctors but have decided to pursue other professions due to academic struggles early in their undergraduate careers. Such roadblocks can be especially frustrating when they occur in courses like physics, which have little relation to the clinical practice of medicine.

Despite its flaws, the system of challenging coursework is effective. Students need to demonstrate the quantitative and qualitative abilities necessary to succeed in the classroom so that employers and graduate programs have an accurate sense of their abilities. To extend the pre-med example, medical schools utilize the same type of classroom learning we see as undergraduates; if some students are not successful at it now, what should compel medical schools to admit those applicants? Consulting jobs are some of the most highly coveted postgraduate positions and they certainly involve more communication skills than are required for classes. However, firms universally search for applicants who have excelled in economics or other similarly quantitative fields, and our “weed-out” coursework generates such applicants.

The “weed-out” concept implies that the aim of courses is to get students to fail. I haven’t found this to be the case. NU professors are open to working with students, and fellow students are generally collaborative if you seek them out. Furthermore, I don’t like the term “weed-out” because its connotations are far too negative. When students are “weeded-out” of a class, assumptions of academic inadequacy are unfairly placed on them.

My goal is not to denigrate those who struggled in intro-level courses. In fact, I am optimistic that these students are guided into tracks that better fit their skillsets. Instead, I’m here to argue that Northwestern is inherently a pre-professional institution, and its difficult coursework is effective in preparing students for successful careers.

Alex Koh is a Weinberg senior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.