Pulling out the weeds

Weed-out classes are not conducive to an enriching educational experience

Weed-out classes are familiar territory for most college students. Many have taken at least one such course either to fulfill major requirements or graduation requirements. I myself have taken a couple of courses that would qualify as weed-outs. Though I did not think the courses were too difficult, I disagreed with the way the classes were structured. They seemed too cutthroat. Generally, weed-out courses run counter to what should be the objective of an education system: to encourage and maximize learning.

Those in favor of weed-out classes usually argue that it is necessary to separate strong students from weak students in a particular field. Otherwise, there would be too many students pursuing the same subject, including students who may not be as competent. I can understand this logic. But my concern lies in how this goal of separating students on ability is accomplished. Weed-out courses are structured in a manner to ensure a certain number of students fail. For example, when I took Introduction to General Chemistry, which is considered a weed-out course, the class was designed as an informal ranking system. Those who received the highest grades would receive an A, whereas those who received the lowest would get Fs. One may think that if a student fails the exams, he or she should receive an F. But the course’s grading structure ensures that if a student received an average of C on the exams but was ranked lowest of all the students in the class, that student would still receive an F. As a consequence, some students will inevitably fail regardless of their actual averages. Though my situation was not that extreme, I received a lower grade than anticipated because the ranking system worked against me.

There are two main problems with such a system. First, this scenario creates a competitive environment where everyone is concerned with only their own success. Group studying is often a recommended mechanism to study for exams, but the competitive nature of weed-out courses discourages students from working together because a peer’s success could hurt your own final grade.

Second, the objective of an education system should be to encourage and propel students to learn; courses should have a positive atmosphere. Courses should not be designed to ensure students fail but rather to make sure students obtain as much information and knowledge as they can from the class. The objective of a weed-out course contradicts the purpose of education — to educate. If in the learning process, many students learn and successfully take their exams, they should be rewarded accordingly. Education should work toward helping students achieve success, and failure should never be an objective in that process of achieving success. If a student fails, it should not be because the system is designed in a manner that leads to failure based on a grading curve but rather because the student did not learn the material appropriately. Making these weed-out courses difficult beyond what is anticipated for a 1000- or 2000-level course (which is generally the trend) is enough to sort the strong from the weak without taking extreme measures to ensure some students fail. These courses go from simply being difficult to being ruthless by attempting to separate students by ability.

An additional point that I would like to make is that students enrolling in these weed-out courses, particularly in math and science, come from different academic backgrounds. Some students are coming here from governor’s schools with a focus on math and science, while others may not. Others are coming from subpar high schools, which may have lacked adequate math and science instruction. Those who are coming from institutions with weak math and science classes are often at a disadvantage in weed-out classes in comparison to those coming from math- and science-specialized high schools. Such students may find it harder to take on the level of difficulty posed by weed-out courses. These students with weak math and science backgrounds are denied sufficient opportunity to build their skills in those subjects because of the nature of weed-out courses.

Though learning and weed-out courses are not mutually exclusive, the grading structure of weed-out classes takes the focus off learning and creates a negative academic atmosphere. Weed-out courses should not be encouraged in an institution that boasts stellar academics.

Fariha Kabir’s column appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at f.kabir@cavalierdaily.com.

related stories