Weed out courses have long been a staple of science and technology degrees. Weed out courses are supposed to be very difficult to encourage students who don’t have a natural talent for a certain major or aren’t passionate enough to drop out and switch majors before they get to upper level classes.
They’re used by professors to separate the students they believe have a natural ability for the subject matter from the students that professors feel won’t make it regardless. They’ve been used to keep upper level science classes smaller and to ensure that only the students with real passion stick with their major.
Most of us have heard of professors who cite their low passing rates as a sign of success. In high school, I had two chemistry teachers who would compete to fail the most students out of their introductory courses. There are two problems with this mindset of trying to fail as many students as possible.
Introductory-level courses should be used to teach students the basics of their field, not discourage them from it. Students who are most affected by this discouragement are mostly minority students who haven’t had the same educational opportunities and encouragement as their peers.
In a 2007 study at the University of Oklahoma and a separate 1999 study at Iowa State University on women and racial minorities in STEM fields, researchers found two things. Women and in particular women of color are more likely to feel that their peers have been better prepared for weed out courses and that it makes the competition unfair to them.
The problem is present at TU. Andreas Botero, a Colombian Computer Science Major who completed his first two years at Tulsa Community College, said that he felt that his introductory level courses “were more about proving who knew the most and how well you could already do it than about … taking the time to learn.” He believes that “this is a problem, because it discourages students from reaching their potential and creates doubts in them.”
SeYeon Kim is a Sophomore Mechanical Engineering Major with a Computer Science minor. She feels that “weed out courses are important to separate people who are serious about the topic they’re learning, but it can be a really negative experience because it lowers your self-esteem and makes you second guess yourself.” She says she encounters more difficulties as a commuter and points out that it “can be a lot harder to meet with professors outside of class to get help.”
When Mika Nash, an academic dean and associate professor in the Division of Continuing Professional Studies at Champlain College, changed one of the schools introductory Computer Science classes to “stop thinking about the course as an exercise in the process of elimination and instead … one that would open up a new world to an interested student.” The program dropout rate fell to just 8 percent, the lowest for any program in the college.
And therein lies the solution. Weed out courses should, instead of being difficult for the sake of difficulty, provide an overview of the material that will provide students with the knowledge they need to succeed in upper level courses.
Instead of actively encouraging struggling students to change majors, professors should do their best to encourage students to succeed and help them find the resources they need to do so.
Carnegie Mellon University recently tailored their introductory Computer Science classes to a better image of what the field is and be supportive of minority students.
One way they did this was to reduce the difficulty of weed out courses, but the reforms went much further than that. They actively encouraged students to try new things, even if they had no experience in them and supported students who were struggling. This year their Computer Science undergraduate classes are 40 percent women.
Professors should focus their introductory classes on the material with equal opportunities to students who haven’t seen the material before and encourage students to learn and improve instead of encouraging them to drop out.