Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Thoreau: what's wrong with "weeding out"?

Further comments from undergraduate science professor Thoreau on both "weeding out" and the logistics of large courses. First, on weeding out: 
1) When I was a freshman, I was surrounded by aspiring scientists, engineers, and doctors.  When I was in my second year, I was surrounded by people with a much wider range of career ambitions, in part because some of them got their asses kicked in intro STEM classes.  I understand that this trend has largely continued. 
2) At my current veal farm, I see people who are in their third year and still taking intro STEM classes (and are still getting mediocre grades) because they placed into math classes lower than calculus, floundered and failed in some classes, repeated classes, etc.  Nobody wants to tell them to change majors. 
3) My current veal farm has a graduation rate that is pathetic compared to my alma mater. 
4) Time is money.  Delayed graduation means more loans and delayed income.
Is it really so bad to use freshman classes to weed people out, and encourage those who are floundering to consider a different major?  Indeed, from a social justice perspective, might weed-out freshman courses be ethically necessary responses to a world where students are paying higher and higher tuition and taking out more and more loans?
I agree with much of what Thoreau is saying, although I suspect the rejoinder from the anti-weeders is "Look, your course structure/lecture style/whatever is what is unintentionally doing the weeding. Maybe if you changed how you lecture, you'd get more kids who understood things better." I'm not really sure that's been borne out in the literature, though.

Also, over at Just Like Cooking, Thoreau has some interesting comments about the logistics of large classes and how seemingly draconian rules are really about teaching life skills and also taking edge-case decision making out of the hands of TAs who may otherwise be put in difficult spots. All worth thinking about.

One more thing I don't think that New York Times article addresses -- how much "new hotness" interactive-style courses would cost (in time and money) in comparison to classic large lecture courses.

17 comments:

  1. I would say that all of us at my institution (me included, to some extent) teach in a style that is more progressive than that of the traditionalist professors who taught me. However, we still have people floundering for several years, and when they get to upper-division courses we have a lot of kids who never got the basics.

    The old school approach was to weed out early, to make sure that everyone got the basics, and then give Gentleman's C's in advanced classes on an as-needed basis. It ensured a threshold of achievement in the subject, sorted people into majors that they could handle, and got everyone out more-or-less on-time.

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  2. Does anyone know that the standard weeding methods actually do what they're advertised to - that they select people on the basis of likely future performance in a field? They can select on whether something is important (forcing you to be careful with handing things in on time) but it doesn't seem clear that they're selecting for ability. My wife's tests in a weedout chemistry class were difficult for me to finish on time (and I am not generally slow, nor, I think, dumb), for example, and taught to follow methods that didn't necessarily make sense. In my second-hand experience, intro classes weren't taught (and certainly weren't administered) by people with much experience in either the department or teaching (and in related scuttlebutt, when I was visiting grad schools, I was told that one large public university chem department took too many students to accommodate in its research groups in order to provide TAs for its chemistry classes), This makes it difficult to trust that classes are taught in methods to optimize the quality of majors, but simply to remove people from the mass flow.

    In a related question, do they help the successful students to better understand the material, or do they just select for people who will do well no matter how crappy the teachers (or any other circumstances)?

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  3. People pay thousands of dollars to get education. They don't pay thousands of dollars to be told 'You don't understand chemistry.' by a person they just paid several thousand dollars to NOT teach them chemistry.

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    1. I hate to call you out, but this is the sort of attitude that is dooming a lot of students. You don't pay for an education; you pay for the chance to get an education. Having your parents write a check isn't and shouldn't be enough. You need to work hard to make your investment worthwhile. If you pay your tuition, then drink/drug/play World of Warcraft instead of doing your homework and going to class, is it really your professors' fault when you don't do well? If you take a class on a subject in which you have no interest or aptitude, is it really your professor's fault when you don't do well?

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  4. re: point 2, I used to teach lower level math at a large public university in Texas, and had a bunch of kids who clearly did not belong in the class, and when I gently suggested that maybe they withdraw from it before it hurt their GPA, they would say they couldn't because their parents insisted that there was no option but that they become engineers.

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  5. So which side are you on, CJ? You think there is an oversupply of STEM. You think the schools profit off of making an oversupply of STEM.... Yet if someone weeds them out by challenging students (and thus making the degrees more valuable), they are wrong?

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    1. I'm not aware we were picking sides, Anon.

      Also, I'm not sure I think all the things that you think I think.

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    2. That said, I think it would be ideal for universities to have clear, fair (and high) standards for chemistry students.

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  6. The introductory Orgo as weeding-out class is not ideal. In organic chemistry, if you miss the initial few lectures where they explain to you how to draw and understand the structures you are fucked - like a Mandarin Chinese student who fails to learn the Chinese sign language.

    Back in 1988, I failed the freshman computer class because I "extended" my summer break and did not show up for classes until late October. It did not learn how to use MS-DOS and Norton Commander and since the PCs were only available in the Computer lab that was locked up after each class I could never catch up...

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  7. I can't see much wrong with weeding out based on student's talents and effort. I don't believe that every one who wants to should be a chemist. For me this kind of selection is better than strictly financial.
    My college experience is from a somewhat different system. College was free (i.e. state funded) and there were 3-20 candidates for each freshman spot. First weeding out was a grueling entrance exam after which 135 freshmen were accepted to the Chemistry Dept. There were two additional sieves, PChem ( a 3-semester course), and the first Org (2 semesters). After these two courses there were about 40 students left. AFAIK 26 chemists actually graduated.
    After each reduction there were a lot of long faces. Some students moved to smaller schools, some got jobs. There was decent employment market for people with 2+ years of college.

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  8. It's not even that not everyone should be a chemist, or physicist, or engineer, or whatever. It's that not everyone should ultimately get a degree in whatever seemed like a good idea to them when they were filling out a form as a high school senior. There are plenty of good reasons why somebody might be better off majoring in something other than what they checked off on a form as a high school senior, and if the introductory classes in that field (whatever it might be) aren't working out for them, maybe that Means Something.

    FWIW, I'm a physicist, and one of my best students (whom I published two papers with) started off undecided between a humanities field and a business field. He ultimately majored in physics and did spectacularly well. So this isn't about some sort of pedestal for STEM, where weeding out is about chasing away the unworthy. It's about freshmen figuring out that they should try something else.

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  9. "although I suspect the rejoinder from the anti-weeders is "Look, your course structure/lecture style/whatever is what is unintentionally doing the weeding. Maybe if you changed how you lecture, you'd get more kids who understood things better."

    While this may be true, changing teaching structure would enable more people to pass, it would definitely not be enough. In my experience (at a grad student TA for undergrads at a well ranked large university) the majority of students do poorly in STEM classes because they just don't do the work and generally don't care about the class until they realize they're not going to get the grade they think they 'should' be getting. If you had a Venn diagram of students failing because they slacked off vs students who failed because they had bad teachers, while there may be a bunch in the overlap, there would be very few in the bad teachers bucket compared to in the slacking off bucket.

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    1. I agree with your prediction. Presumably, though, we can only address the 'bad teachers/ineffective teaching methods' bucket as opposed to the 'slacking off' bucket.

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    2. But there seems an awful lot of effort in getting rid of people because there isn't enough money to teach everyone who (supposedly) wants to major in a topic, and not so much effort in seeing whether or not it's effective (and what effectiveness would mean). (If you were interested in figuring out how best to select for chemistry majors, one would assume that you'd be doing that.) In that sense, it sounds like the MBA's rejoinder when people bitch about layoffs that they can't be bothered to figure out what particular people could be useful that they're laying off, but that they need to get rid of people and that's what matters. It also seems likely to be a disservice to the people who are actually in the desired cohort of chemistry students.

      I get that there is never enough money to teach people the "flavor of the day" in schools where you have tenure (and even those without), and that many students come to school with a lack of self-knowledge and a lack of proportionate willingness or capacity to apply themselves at a field of study. It seems, though, that schools insist on taking people's money for education they can't or won't offer, and aren't particularly honest about that. If you have people who have little experience in teaching running weedout classes, then the assumption is that you don't need much knowledge or care to run the weeding out, leading to the conclusion that the current process of weeding out is a path of least resistance and most revenue for schools and not an honest attempt to maximize the quality of the students studying in a program.

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  10. I failed second-semester orgo the first time through (I got the equivalent of a "D", not good enough for a major). Eight years later, I earn my PhD in chemistry and have had a successful career in the business ever since. I've always been very math oriented, and for some reason, the more qualitative thinking of orgo has never clicked with me.

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  11. It's pitiful when people think that courses should weed out for the sake out of weeding out (i.e. keep raising the ante and making a course particularly hard just to see how much the students are willing to go through it all). It's like medical schools requiring Rocket Science and Calculus III when they have little to no value once the student go to medical school. However, I don't see a problem when students weed themselves out by neglecting to study and put forth the effort in a course. That being said, when I was a pre-med student, I didn't view classes like Organic Chemistry and Physics as weed out courses because even though they were challenging, they teach concepts that are relevant and helpful for most medical professionals.

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  12. This Thoreau guys seems like the kind of teacher we don't want teaching at a college. Veal farms, really?

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