August 17, 2019 | 80° F

JAWED: ‘Weed-out’ courses can be detrimental

Opinions Column: If Not Our Own, Then Someone's


In this sink or swim environment being fostered in the STEM community at Rutgers, weed out classes are yet another trial students have to be put through. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, almost half of the incoming STEM majors end up switching majors or dropping out of college.

According to an article published on The Observer, "If a course is a weed-out, it’s insinuated that the scramble for an A will be even more desperate than usual. Aspiring STEM majors can look forward to taking two or three such classes a semester for the first two years of their undergrad. David E. Goldberg, emeritus engineering professor at Urbana-Champagne, coined this stretch of dull, difficult classes ‘the math-science death march’ in 2008."

It is actually in combination with and in consequence of everything that is heard about these weed-out courses, that a subconscious self-weeding inevitably takes place when one sees 500 people in a lecture hall. There is less emphasis on making sure the material is understood as opposed to throwing forward everything that needs to be tested by the end of the semester. The sheer difficulty for students to get a good grade in these classes is very discouraging and presents them with a misleading image of a dark future in the field.

Beyond the teaching, the actual issue is the way that the classes are thought about, feared and dreaded.

Ironically, whether this is a University imposed or student-generated — probably both — the “weed-out” concept directly contradicts what higher education institutions stand for. Maximum quality in education is being replaced by leaving the average student to fend for themselves, often during the transitionary period of their first year. 

Educators around the country are talking about the “‘STEM Crisis,’ the idea that demand for qualified scientists and engineers will soon far outweigh supply. At the undergraduate level, it’s a problem of retention: the number of students who declare a STEM major is far less than the number who actually obtain a STEM degree.”

The undeniable reality of the fear instilled by these classes is a combination of the coursework difficulty, grade dependence on only 30 question exams, large class sizes, inability to make it to the office hours because of another class or commitment, managing coursework of the other 14 credits, as well as the constant negativity and suffocating competition that circulates especially in pre-medical students regarding everything else that still needs to be done for that medical school application.

The inter-STEM attitude, because of all the above-mentioned factors, cultivates a below-the-surface hostility far beyond the line of healthy competition.

When considering graduate schools, GPA is obviously one of, if not the most, important factor, which is where the weed-out classes play their role.

Another aspect in relation to GPA is when students are just taking such a STEM course because they are interested in it, but are not planning on or still contemplating majoring in the field. Not only does the weed-out environment present a harsh picture of the STEM connotation, but it also discourages students from just wanting to learn for learning’s sake. Is not the whole point of "higher education" to prepare students for the professional world?

The professional world is looking for evidence of critical thinking, analytic reasoning skills, team working skills, information literacy, decision-making skills and an all-roundedness in knowledge.

Not only does the weed-out mentality foster the exact opposite of most of these qualities, but it also hinders non-STEM majors from simply being knowledgeable about the science, technology, engineering and math that impacts their daily lives. The cutthroat grading based singularly on a few percentages of individual homework assignments and 80-85 percent on quiz/test scores only teaches students how to adapt to the test taking style of that particular class. You can often hear upperclassmen recommending practicing the question style as opposed to spending more time learning the material because knowing how to answer questions holds such significant weight.

"Dr. Mitchell Chang, professor of Education at UCLA, released a 2013 study showing that undergrads attending schools that swap large introductory lectures for smaller, hands on courses are 13 percent more likely to remain in STEM. University of Texas Austin made the switch, and increased STEM retention by 25 percent; a program at the University of Florida almost doubled that number," according to The Observer.

Not everyone can ace every single STEM class, and the large disparity between the students who get A's and everyone who is left behind is a gap that needs to be bridged.

Re-designing weed-out classes will not be easy and will take time, energy and input from a lot of different parties. But without doubt, it can be done.

Malaika Jawed is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore. Her  column, "If Not Our Own, Then Someone's," runs on alternate Fridays. 


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Malaika Jawed

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