‘Weed out’ culture is not effective in helping students learn STEM
In response to the finely reported article, “Class Divide Exacerbates Strain among Students,” written in The Daily Targum last week, I would like to offer observations after working at Rutgers as an advisor, teacher and dean for many years.
The class divide is not just a financial divide — it is a form of racial and class discrimination that takes place most noticeably in the STEM fields. The strain overwhelmingly affects students who are lower income and minorities — particularly black and Latino — and a number of older, returning students who have not studied math or science in a competitive system for several years. Students from lower income districts have all the will, desire and intelligence as those from wealthier schools. Nevertheless, they often fail our math and science courses in the sink or swim mentality that permeates undergraduate science education at Rutgers. They can participate in the Office for Diversity and Academic Success in the Sciences, which boasts some encouraging success stories. However, one program cannot reverse the odds against low income and minority students or fix under-performance on standardized tests that bookend the college curriculum.
Not all students from lower income households are doomed, of course. We have remarkable students at Rutgers, who succeed against the odds, but the odds are huge, and I am again and again infuriated by the callousness of our math and science departments. A few good faculty stand out like islands but others come across as rude, arrogant and frequently refuse to respond to students, assuming perhaps that the teaching assistants will do the difficult work of supporting students at risk of failing. These are precisely the students who should not be left to the TA's or casually referred for peer tutoring, which can offer no more than a Band-Aid for a deeper wound. Many studies show correlations between low self-esteem and academic performance. As educators, do we simply perpetuate a vicious cycle or begin to take such studies seriously?
Preliminary or so-called remedial coursework for students in the sciences leave many students feeling even less confident about their ability to succeed because they are, in their own words, “behind.” If they feel “behind,” perhaps the University reinforces the idea that a student must complete certain courses within a certain time frame. Pre-med students rehash the assumption that one must complete the pre-med curriculum (for example) by the end of the junior year. This is a faulty assumption that the University needs to counter decisively. Medical schools do not care if students have taken time off after graduating, pursued other jobs, undertaken post-baccalaureate pre-med curricula or majored in the humanities. If you ran demographics on students who finish organic chemistry with a B or better in the sophomore year, I would bet my house they come overwhelmingly from middle to upper income families.
Financial assistance is indeed a road block to college completion, but so is the sense of inadequacy that affects students and so is the department that exhibits minimal concern for students when allowing introductory courses to be considered “weed out” courses. Our students are not weeds — let’s not make them feel that way. The harsh realities of getting into graduate or professional schools are not realities at all if we choose to transform the way we teach and support learning.
Rebecca Reynolds is an Assistant Dean in Douglass Residential College and the Director of Advising for the Mary I. Bunting Program For Returning Women Students.