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The difficult course

Weed-out classes, though they may be viewed as difficult, should not be considered unfair

In her November 25 column “Weeding out the young,” Ashley Spinks writes against the concept of the “weed-out” class, claiming that such classes unduly deter some students from pursuing their original career paths. She cites the fact that the University implements weed-out courses from an early point in a student’s education, which may result, for example, in pre-medical students changing their aspirations after only a semester. Not all information taught in college is applicable to the medical profession, she argues, so it should not be treated as such.

As a pre-med student myself, I recognize that Spinks brings up a few valid points. It is definitely true — and often frustrating — that much of what is learned in the compulsory pre-med courses is not necessarily applicable to the medical field. I know that much of what I may learn in chemistry or physics, for instance, will never be of much use again. Moreover, it is also true that those students who excel in pre-med courses may not make the best doctors. There is more to a successful physician than being purely book-smart. Nevertheless, the idea that weed-out courses are implemented by the University specifically for the goal of deterring students from a career path seems to be an exaggeration. To some, weed-out courses may seem unfair, but the negative connotations associated with them are as much a product of student-generated hype as actual academic rigor.

In any particular major or pre-professional track, some courses will inevitably be the hardest for a large number of students. That, however, does not indicate that the intent of the course is to prevent those students from pursing their goals. Indeed, the term weed-out course is itself ambiguous. The two classes mentioned in Spinks’ article as weed-out courses were General Chemistry and Principles of Economics. To start, I disagree with the fact that those classes are weed-out courses. Furthermore, though some may find them difficult, those classes will be necessarily difficult courses because they lay the foundation for future courses within the disciplines. If pre-med students have trouble with introductory chemistry, it is doubtful that they will do any better in organic chemistry. Similarly, economics majors need to understand the basic economic ideas and principles outlined in intro economics courses so they have a proper foundation for other, higher level classes.

The fact that weed-out classes dissuade particular students from what they originally wanted to study is not itself a bad thing. Granted, some students will certainly be disappointed by their performances in certain courses. Nevertheless, weed out courses can have the effect of keeping only the most focused and passionate students pursuing a certain degree. If students are sufficiently intent on their initial goals, they will put in enough work to get through tough courses. If they find themselves too strongly challenged or completely disinterested by the subject material to the point they do not wish to continue studying it, then perhaps their initial plans were not totally accurate. After all, in many disciplines, few classes will become easier as one progresses to higher levels.

The University is an academically challenging institution. And unfortunately that means that students may perhaps need to take especially rigorous courses even during the first semester of their first year. But, to use the example of pre-med students, one semester’s performance in a class should not be enough to deter one from striving to be a doctor. Again, tough classes show which students are passionate about pursuing their goals. One poor performance in one intro chemistry class should not be the deal breaker when it comes to serious medical school aspirants. There are many more classes to take during many more semesters — the first semester of college need not be the end-all, be-all of one’s pre-med career. Yet if a student does not feel that being a doctor is worth slugging through more courses like intro chemistry, then perhaps the medical field actually is not the best choice. The pre-med track involves many more similar classes.

It may be a problem that some weed-out courses clash with the idea of students getting a truly liberal arts education. That does not mean, though, that those classes are unreasonably difficult. In fact, for pre-professional tracks like pre-med or pre-comm, difficult classes in undergrad are often indicative of the future. The worlds of medicine and business constantly involve weed-out opportunities. Whether that is from medical school to residency or from business school into the job market, the number of people for a potential position is perpetually being whittled down. Even if the University made its weed-out courses friendlier to a greater percentage of the student population, that still may not improve students’ prospects for the future; graduate schools and jobs can only accept so many people.

Certain classes should not be hyped up so much. Any weed-out course can be treated as just another difficult class, and any rumors about a class should be only partially acknowledged. Ultimately, what is hard for one student may not be difficult for another. And though it is unfortunate that a broad liberal arts education may be difficult to attain when pursuing some pre-professional tracks — believe me, I have seen scores of pre-med students throw away any chance of a liberal arts education — it is not impossible. Students often blame weed-out classes for making them change their academic choices, but that does not mean the University is necessarily wrong when providing them.

Alex Yahanda is a senior associate editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at a.yahanda@cavalierdaily.com.


Published November 27, 2012 in Opinion

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