Fine: Weed out weed-out classes

Simona Fine, Assistant Opinion Editor

As an engineering student, I’ve endured my fair share of weed-out classes, courses meant to separate those who will continue in STEM fields from those who won’t. Typically characterized by difficult exams, onerous assignments and competitive environments, weed-out classes strive to make you reconsider your ability to succeed in your chosen major by reinforcing the perceived rigor of these disciplines.

While these notoriously rigorous courses are universal across universities in undergraduate science and engineering curriculum, studies have determined how detrimental they are to students’ experiences. In a 2019 book focused on addressing the reasons why undergraduates leave STEM majors, of the 250 interviewed undergraduates who persisted in their majors, 18 percent reported negative consequences arising from weed-out classes. High-performing students are frequently deterred by these courses, which is an overall loss to these important fields of study

Research has shown that weed-out classes particularly affect underrepresented undergraduates. First-generation and low-income students are at a higher risk of leaving their STEM major after taking these courses, as are those who attended under-resourced high schools. In a recent study that interviewed both students who had stayed in or switched out of their majors, women of all backgrounds were more impacted by weed-out classes than their male counterparts. Not only were women also at a higher risk of quitting the field than their male counterparts, but many of the sentiments of doubt that the surveyed students expressed are feelings that I’ve also experienced personally.

During my first year in McCormick, I was overwhelmed by the unabated rigor of my curriculum and the constant stress associated with competing with my classmates for grades. Even now, there is inevitably a midterm or assignment with an incredibly low average score each quarter that leaves me temporarily feeling like a failure again.

The justification for weed-out courses is that they determine who is truly motivated to pursue a STEM field, so they are generally thought of as something to suffer through at the beginning of your college career. I am committed to pursuing materials science and engineering, but each of these setbacks has only served to shake my confidence. My coursework shouldn’t constantly remind me of how difficult engineering is; instead, it should reaffirm my interest and to teach me the imperative skills for this discipline.

Giving assignments that are intended to yield low scores is a lose-lose situation for everyone involved. Students develop negative opinions about professors and start to feel unworthy and unwelcome in these classes. This does little to enhance the learning environment but it is incredibly effective at increasing a student’s stress and making them prone to writing antagonistic CTECs at the end of the quarter. Professors often emphasize the importance of focusing on learning the material instead of on the grade, but when students take exams where much of the class fails, they concentrate on their numbers even more than before. Engineering classes should be challenging and rewarding without being demoralizing.

If we want to retain students in STEM departments, especially students with identities that are already underrepresented in the field, weed-out classes need to be weeded out. In an era where the two biggest global crises, COVID-19 and climate change, both require the intervention of trained scientists, and where we are incredibly dependent on technology, we should not be discouraging people from these fields. Having a plethora and diversity of competent individuals to deal with these issues and innovations is vital to both the survival and advancement of society, so pushing students away through weed-out classes is simply futile.

Simona Fine is a McCormick junior. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, 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.