Monday, December 29, 2014

Where have you seen 'gatekeeping'?

The New York Times had an interesting article about new, more interactive approaches to freshman courses in chemistry and biology, partially focusing on a UC-Davis lecturer in chemistry. It's an interesting read, even if it's a little bit "lecturing is old and busted, this is the new hotness". But I found these to be an interesting set of statements: 
“A lot of science faculty have seen themselves as gatekeepers,” said Marco Molinaro, an assistant vice provost here at Davis and director of its effort to overhaul science courses. The university has received grants from the Association of American Universities, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Helmsley Charitable Trust. 
Rather than try to help students who falter in introductory classes, he said, “they have seen it as their job to weed people out and limit access to upper-level courses.”
Does anyone in science see themselves as "gatekeepers" or try to actually "weed people out" and/or "limit access to upper-level courses"?

I am sure there are TAs or professors on power trips who love to intimidate young students, but it seems to me that the majority of educators of undergraduates try to help students as much as possible. Maybe I am wrong, but I see gates as far more implied than explicit and far more inferred (and/or imagined?) than actual. I could be wrong, though.

So, prove me wrong. Readers, have you ever heard a professor or a dean (not a TA) explicitly say "We are trying to weed students out" or an equivalent statement?*

*This is of a piece with my assertion that "look to your left, look to your right" is essentially an urban legend and very few people have actually heard that sentiment expressed by a professor in a classroom. 

UPDATE: As a professional in the field, Thoreau has an opinion on the matter. Worth a read, especially since I don't think about the logistics of upper-level undergraduate classes. I'd also like to know -- who is supplying this 'sweet, sweet pipeline money'? (Thoreau's answer: NSF.)

UPDATE 2: See Arr Oh talks about strict grading standards for teaching a freshman chemistry laboratory. 

45 comments:

  1. My latest post gives an ambiguous answer to your question, and tosses in a story that relates to other concerns of yours.

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  2. A professor I TA'd for: "many students think of this as a weed-out course, but it's not at all true. I suspect the engineering faculty would like it to be, though..."
    Then again, she started the course with a 10-minute spiel about how it was going to be "very hard, and many of you will fail or drop out by the first exam", so who knows.

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  3. At this point in my pathetic career as a PhD Biochemist I wish I was weeded out... The more, the better I say. You'll be thankful in the end.

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  4. Given higher education is a highly lucrative business these days, gullible students are herded through the system like sheep through pens in the rain. Invariably some of the biggest idiots get a pass and wind up as a PhD student, a postdoc, or worse, a principal investigator.

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    1. Big idiot sheep postdoc (relatively)December 29, 2014 at 7:08 PM

      Seriously. Graduate schools want good raw material, so they weed a bit during the admissions process, but once there somewhat committed why tell someone they don't have what it takes and reduce there supply of cheep labor. As most above have said the more weeding the better. Where did this stigma come from anyway?

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    2. It isn't a stigma, it's a statistic. If they do so much weeding at the graduate school level, I'm not particularly impressed with the result.

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    3. Big idiot sheep postdoc (relatively)December 30, 2014 at 12:18 PM

      If your take away from my response was that I feel the do a lot of weeding at the graduate school level, then I see my prospects at careers involving communication are just as bleak as those involving scientific research.

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  5. Jeez, this is a complex topic:

    Intended or not, I think the reality of the situation is that most intro courses ARE weed-outs. What is driving that - whether its academia going "haha, we'll show those meddling (middling?) kids!" or millennial delusions of grandeur regarding their abilities. Or both. I don't remember exact numbers, but I seem to remember a decent attrition rate between the other kids who enrolled as chem majors vs the ones who graduated as chem majors. I would like to see if attrition rates have trended in any direction over the years...

    The next question is whether weeding kids out is actually a good idea or not. I think part of the issue arises from the fact that making science more accessible to the general public is a good idea - having scary tough intro level courses sets up a disinterest later in life. (How often do you get a "wow, you must be smart!" or "oh man, I HATED organic chemistry when I took it.") But as we all know, actually coaxing more of the public into science fields as a career is maybe not the best idea given the current state of the industry/job market. And then there's the logistics of having bigger upper-level classes as Thoreau pointed out.

    Finally, I think that the NYT article might be missing a few datapoints to assess the bigger picture. 1) it's easy to say "see, science professors are so BAD with introductory classes." Thing is, I remember ALL of my intro-level, big lecture classes to be equally poorly taught and disinteresting. It's not necessarily a problem with big science lecture classes, but a problem with big lecture classes, period. 2) To help put that into perspective, the article doesn't discuss what the average dropout rates for certain majors/other programs/etc are. 3) The article seems to miss the larger, more salient point: actually coping with the STEM shortage myth

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    1. "But as we all know, actually coaxing more of the public into science fields as a career is maybe not the best idea given the current state of the industry/job market. And then there's the logistics of having bigger upper-level classes as Thoreau pointed out."

      So what you're saying is we should weed out students because there are not enough jobs/opportunities in a particular field and because it would make upper-level classes have lower class sizes. That's a terrible reason to weed out students especially at the higher education level. Students should be naturally weeded out based on abilities and self-discipline NOT because you want to teach less students or want less people to pursue a certain career (STEM classes are not just for STEM jobs).

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    2. "STEM classes are not just for STEM jobs"

      Yep, I see lots of non-majors clamoring to take physical chemistry. /sarcasm

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  6. I have, with my own two ears, heard a professor in 200-level organic chemistry state: "Look to your left, look to your right; one of those people will not be here by mid-semester."

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    1. That's truly bizarre -- what the hell is the point of predicting 33% attrition?

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    2. Probably to feel tough while saying it...

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    3. I've said something similar, but more to get everyone's attention before going over all the outside help available. They still didn't listen though...

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    4. hah! The Paper Chase

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  7. is weeding supposed to be bad?

    Med schools do this because only the best, most capable doctors are wanted.

    Its amazing the level that some PhDs function on, they should never have gotten there in the first place.I have personally heard firsthand of people getting PhDs because
    -"I did not want to make her feel bad"
    -"she was a pain in the ass, lets get her out of here"
    -professor hating interpersonal conflicts and inability to say no


    Ties directly into the whole chemjobs issue, which I believe to be a result of lack of culling during education these days.

    More gatekeeping the better.

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    1. I find it interesting that you use a feminine pronoun for the "people" getting PhD's who were "a pain in the ass" and might "feel bad" about not getting a degree.

      Perhaps you didn't intend to sound sexist, but this speaks volumes about why women leave the sciences.

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    2. "Perhaps you didn't intend to sound sexist…"
      Let's deconstruct every comment on the internet in the context of postmodern theory, or we could just let pronouns be pronouns and live a much simpler life without picking at the wounds of your microagressions until they become gangrenous, festering holes that putrefy the very core of your soul.

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    3. Apparently it's sexist to question affirmative action and favoritism, of which I've unfortunately seen plenty of examples at graduate school. There is nothing as sexist as to quietly accept and take advantage of these constructs, while bemoaning the messenger for stating the game is rigged.

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    4. it says "i have personally heard" and then uses quotation marks. Perhaps the comments were about a women, thus the pronoun. Now if you want to debate the original maker of the statement(s) as being sexist go at it, but are you honestly arguing the person writing the comment should have de-gendered them?

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    5. Sounds like specific anecdotes about people who in this case happened to be female. Why is there anything wrong with telling those anecdotes? When speaking English and talking about specific people, it is a standard practice to use gendered pronouns.

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    6. Exchanges like this are why, in my negative anecdotes, I either avoid mentioning the gender of the problem student/colleague/etc. or use a generic masculine. For all of the problems with generic masculine language, using masculine pronouns for problem students won't lead to the detour we're seeing here.

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    7. @Anonymous December 30, 2014 at 3:32 PM "I either avoid mentioning the gender of the problem student/colleague/etc. or use a generic masculine."

      Why not go one step further and deny the problem exists at all?

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    8. @Anonymous 3:32: I'm pretty offended that you're unwilling to say anything negative about any female, but you have no problem saying negative things about men, and will in fact change the details of a negative story so that it sounds like it is referring to a man. If there is to be equality among all people, why can't we accept that positive and negative things can be said about any person regardless of their gender? The original poster was referring to firsthand anecdotes, not making gender-based generalizations.

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    9. Surely there are other places on the internet to have this kind of (non)-discussion.

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  8. While I haven't heard anyone explicitly say that it was their intention to weed out students, courses have expectations about the material that you must master in order to pass. This is necessary. If you're getting a degree in, for example, chemistry, you need to know a lot of things about chemistry and have demonstrated mastery of a number of laboratory techniques.

    It is not always easy to attain that level of mastery. It often takes a good deal of interest, motivation, and hard work on the part of the student. If someone has taught these courses several times, no matter how much they care and want the students to do well, they learn that there will always be a certain percentage of the class that does not have the right amount of interest and motivation to put in that hard work, and they will drop out.

    Each professor, of course, sets the bar at a different level, and some are better at engaging the interest of the students than others, so some classes are more likely to become weed out classes.

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  9. Plus, weeding out students might be doing them a favor. Isn't it better for them to find out earlier on that a particular path is not the best fit for their interests, aptitude, and work ethic? For example, I saw a lot of premed students taking sophomore organic, and it was pretty clear that some of them didn't have what it takes to become doctors. Isn't it better for them to reevaluate that now, than to spend a lot of time and money finishing a degree and then getting stuck and having to change their path.

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  10. I teach at a large state institution where there is not just a Freshman Chemistry, but also a Remedial Chemistry course. The administration is panicked at the Obama proposal to tie federal funding to graduation rates. Look at the numbers (http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d13/tables/dt13_326.10.asp). There are a lot of people who do not earn a degree within 6 years. Why? Well there seems to be a pretty good correlation between the selectivity of a college and it's graduation rate. And every college is trying to increase its enrollments, but the number of above-average students is not increasing at the same rate. So, most colleges are accepting students (who are all also being told that they need to go to college), who in previous years would've been considered below-average. The best hope is that colleges and universities see what is happening to the law school enrollments/applications and maybe set more realistic goals as far as their growth.

    And don't get me started on how the No Child Left Behind policy has led to more students graduating high school that may have been better served by being high school dropouts with regards to how their actual skills measure up to their personal expectations.

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  11. I teach organic chemistry at a large state institution where none of my colleagues ever mentions weeding out anyone. We bend over backwards to help students, many of whom are self-limiting by not following instructions, are physically present but mentally elsewhere--not engaged with organic's unique demands and who sometimes seem to expect a nice grade for having paid tuition and appeared in class.

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    1. I concur with the "not following instructions" issue. Labs especially are generally passable if you follow instructions. Those who do not pass are not paying attention, unprepared, and not starting things early enough.

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  12. Recalling undergrad, there were large differences between departments at my institution (a mid-size public university).

    General chemistry courses weren't particularly challenging, but increased in difficulty as one went along. Organic probably serving as a "weeding out," phase - though this was never explicitly stated and, if you were willing to put in a reasonable amount of work, wasn't terribly difficult. After the organic courses (inorganic, physical, etc.) the difficulty of the course depended entirely on who taught it (an experience that also held true for graduate school).

    In contrast the biology department at my undergraduate institution clearly used introductory courses to gatekeep, and after that point the courses were incredibly (shockingly so, in my opinion) easy. Introductory biology was nearly impossible to get a good grade in unless one spent an inordinate amount of time studying - and this was due almost entirely to how the exams were written and administered. This was true of several professors though, and even over the course of a few years - which is why I say that it was likely an unwritten policy of the department. The exams were patterned to weed out students based on, apparently, eidetic memory or ridiculous amount of time studying (e.g. whether or not you were able to recall, on test day, a specific counter-example to a general rule exactly as stated in the textbook). After those courses though, it was difficult - without studying much at all - not to do well in a course on, for example, genetics.

    I do wonder if part of the reason for this was the large medical school attached to the university - there were a LOT of "pre-med," students. For those students, biology was often perceived as the "easier," major than chemistry (neuroscience was also popular amongst freshmen), resulting in a ton of freshmen taking biology courses who really weren't that interested in biology itself.

    Not sure that gatekeeping is necessarily a bad thing - and it's definitely necessary to some extent. But it can also go too far (a ~30% attrition rate in an introductory biology course).

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    1. Did they act that way to limit the number of premedical students or just to spite them? At my college, many Biology professors explicitly said they will make a class harder just because there are a lot of premed students and they won't write a recommendation letter for a premed student. This is a big reason why I felt I received better education from disciplines outside the sciences.

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  13. A lot of introductory courses grade on a curve (based on mean & standard deviation). I've heard instructors claim that this is so it evens out if they make the test too hard, or evens out differences in instructors for the same course. Others do it so they can make the test ridiculously hard to scare students, because scaring students "will make them work harder to succeed". No matter the class average in terms of %, it is a C so tests can be way harder than what is actually expected of students.

    In my opinion though, grading on a curve also has problems. For one, it assumes that student demographics are the same each term. A high performing student in a class of low performing peers will appear to be a better student than the same high performing student in a class of high performing peers. The class average for low-performing students might be lower based on %, but on a curve, the letter grade assigned to the mean grade would still be the same. Additionally, grading on a curve assures that the bottom performers will fail the course, regardless of their performance on an absolute scale. Believe it or not, some departments have grading policies that ensure the bottom x% of students receive F grades. I have explicitly heard from faculty that giving out "F" grades is doing them a favor, because it prevents them from moving forward. The faculty rarely turns the mirror on themselves to ask "What could I do differently in my teaching to encourage students to work hard, learn more, and pass according to the expectations I have?"

    Scaring students by telling them things like "The bottom 10% will fail", or "a third of you will drop this class", etc may be motivation for some, but it can make others just give up from the beginning. Motivation is tricky. If you really want to reduce failure rates, it's better to say things like "Your grade is based on the quality of work you submit." "Your exams demonstrate to me how well you understand the material you're expected to have learned", "Nobody has to fail". Set standards & if students meet those standards then they pass, if they don't they fail. If they fail, they need to take responsibility for that grade. They shouldn't be able to place the blame on the instructor, and if the instructor has been encouraging and helpful, it's much harder to place the blame on them.




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  14. I recall at the big state university that I attended 30+ years ago that certain freshman/sophomore courses were of the 'weed out' variety, though I don't believe the instructors/professors ever uttered those exact words in class. Certainly it was common knowledge that some percentage of students (20%? 30%?) wouldn't pass these classes. It wasn't just chemistry; it was calculus, physics and biology, too.
    I suspect that the university medical school and engineering school counted on these introductory courses to do some culling, particularly to screen out the students who just aren't cut out for studying scientific subjects, whatever the reasons might be, be they difficulty comprehending information, or difficulty concentrating, or being motivated to get to class on time.
    I don't recall the chemistry department really wanting to flunk out students; in fact they seemed to want as many chemistry majors as possible. It's just that at my university, 90+% of the students in freshman or sophomore chemistry classes were either pre-med, or pre-pharmacy, or engineering students. Only a small minority were aiming to be chemists. Even most chemistry majors were pre-med, IIRC.
    Interestingly, I was motivated by the 'weed out' mentality to work hard in these classes, since I was determined not be one of the culled. Also, at that time I didn't feel that this was an unfair policy, since it was also clear that if a person worked hard, they could do well.

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  15. I had the privilege of earning my doctorate from UC Davis, and thus had the... erm... privilege of TAing there as well. I am originally not from California, and the diversity of backgrounds you see there was truly amazing to me. A large portion of the students are commuters; many of the students attended a JuCo beforehand; and an even larger portion of the students (in the first year chem classes) are in their first few months of being in the US. On top of that, UC Davis is attended by many high-achieving students who are in the exact same entry-level class as those mentioned previously. (There is a honors chem class, but it is so small in comparison to the total number of students enrolled in entry level chemistry that you almost forget it exists) There are typically around 3500 students at any one time taking entry level chemistry at UCD, so making exceptions for a few students isn't really a luxury that we were afforded. We had draconian rules because it was simply the only way to maintain order with that many students. I never saw the purpose of the system to weed out students, I saw it as a way to bring some sort of structure to a class that, due to the number of students enrolled and the varying ability of the instructors, was chaotic at best. (edited and copied from my post on Just Like Cooking)

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  16. In my big public state school, most of the science majors I come across are pre-meds who need to take Gen Chem & Organic Chem as part of the pre-med requirements. I think that (unofficially) a degree of weeding out does take place to try and discourage the students who can't be trusted to hold a Buchner funnel without breaking it, let alone diagnose a (future) patient. Having TAed and graded many "creative" structural & mechanistic exam answers, I'm not entirely unsympathetic to the concept of weeding out students for that purpose.

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    1. True, but the weeding process can't be that successful, given a significant number of incompetent people still manage to find their way into graduate school.

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    2. I think for every professor that is determined to weed out students/curve hard/cut down on grade inflation, there is another prof in the same Dept who wants to just set an easy curve to keep the students (quietly) happy & their teaching evaluations scores high. As such, it all averages out...

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  17. As an undergraduate, I always observed professors that would bend over backwards for students. Really, they went out of their way to help. That said, as one of the top students who also did research with one of the professors and TA-ed as an undergrad for many others; they commonly understood that many of the courses would cause students to drop thereby creating a natural gatekeeper. Let me be clear, they always wanted the students to do their best but they understood human nature and therefore were not surprised by attrition rates in certain courses. This was not due to the students inability to learn so much as their inability to do the learning.

    In my first year of graduate school, a very well respected natural products chemist who thoroughly loved teaching undergraduate organic chemistry determined that the course had failed entirely. He had been teaching for 25 years and the class had technically failed. As a first year TA for the classes and labs, I can attest that the class had failed. They were horrible. When the dean said he couldn't fail a whole class, he countered with how can you pass anyone who hasn't learnt the material. The dean said figure it out or we'll do it for you. He countered with I've figured it out and if you change my grades I will never teach another undergraduate course again. He never taught another undergraduate course again. He was well funded though and his research was top notch.

    The other extreme happened with my graduate advisor. One student in his class wanted to go to medical school and could only muster a C in the class. The student complained to the department chair and the dean, both of whom set down with my professor to see if there was something amiss. After going over everything, they agreed with him up until the point the students lawyer father filed lawsuit paperwork. The student was given an A and the filing was pulled. This was the point that changed my decision to ever go into academia. This was also the point that my graduate advisor quit trying. He kind of said fuck it.

    Mostly though, students are their own gatekeepers. They don't realize that they need to learn the information, and no amount of fancy classroom BS is ever going to correct for that. It might get a student interested and they will then put in the work; but outside of that it is BS.

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    1. I wonder if the students lawyer father ultimately ended up defending him in subsequent malpractice suits.

      I like to comment "This was not due to the students inability to learn so much as their inability to do the learning." and wonder if for many people if there should be compulsory military or other services after high school like in some countries to allow maturity and different perspectives growth so when they do go to college and select a major they would be better up to the challenge whether they encounter wee out courses/profs or not

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  18. I believe my class of chem majors started with 98 or something. 46 or so graduated four years later. Quite a few dropped after freshmen chem, largely due that class or calc. And I graduated in 2014.

    That being said, lots of kids did it to themselves. People get into a class they find hard, that they could probably do if they worked a bit, then just ditch it. I've seen it in many majors with various classes. They assume they can't do it. There were totally kids who were barking up the wrong tree, but there were kids who probably could learn this stuff and just didn't think so, or didn't want to work. Whoever said you're your own gatekeeper is right.

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  19. My experience as a grad student at Illinois was that the main job of both professors and grad students was to do research, and there was little accountability for teaching performance by either profs or TA's. My labmate did not take his TA responsibilities seriously at all - he was in the habit of ending what was supposed to be a 50-minute class after about 15 minutes, and there were no real consequences for him other than a brief scolding when he was caught. I don't think this was unique to Illinois - undergrad teaching is an afterthought at pretty much any big research university. I'm glad I went to a small undergrad where the professors are there because they want to teach, rather than a place where people who would rather not teach are forced to do it.

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  20. I had an advisor that told my spouse that she should weed out the weaker students because those are the ones who will give you a bad review. "Don't try to save them." In reality, she totally goes out of her way to help students, extending office hours way beyond their scheduled time. Turns out the advisor from Berkeley was correct - they give you bad reviews.

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  21. In chemistry, I've always gotten the feeling that students weed themselves out. Chemistry has always been a very involved and complicated subject and not everyone has the drive or desire to learn it. I rarely observed professors trying to make exams hard to deliberately "weed out." Usually hard exams were an result of an overly excited exam author trying to design questions that were most interesting to them, or ineptitude or indifference on the professors part. When I was at MIT, I definitely noticed that teaching wasn't a priority for the faculty there and it shows in the low number of chemistry BS awarded each year. My advisor flat out told me that when he was a grad student he was trying to win the "best grad student" award not the "teaching award" and that teaching wasn't important and I should focus on my research. Go figure.

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  22. I have heard of a 50%+ flunk rate in a senior engineering capstone course at a R1 university. I sat in on the course on intro day and it was clear to me that the instructor's lack of capacity in the language of instruction was going to be a problem for the students. When the instructor can't even convey meeting times for a course coherently, how can said instructor be expected to be able to discuss STEM topics of some complexity? The course to my certain knowledge ended in a massive number of student complaints (which were covered up).

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