At schools like UNC, there are thousands of students pursuing the same hyper-competitive fields like medicine, computer science and public health. But not everyone finishes with these degrees. There is a system present to make sure only a select best will be able to succeed, and it starts with weed-out classes.
What are weed-out classes?
Weed-out classes are introductory-level courses, typically in STEM, defined by an intensity and rigor that only allows the highest-performing students to progress. They are the infamous GPA tankers, unskippable pre-requisites and barriers to entry for a wide range of higher-level courses.
At UNC, weed-out academics are such a prevalent subject of anxiety that it has made it into course syllabi: the "Common Student Concerns" section of the weed-out Biology 101 (Principles of Biology) syllabus read, “Many students have been told that Biol 101 is a 'weed out' course. Of course this is not true, but why does it have this reputation?”
Regardless of whether it is true, the difficulty of classes like Biology 101 and their consequent weed-out nature raises questions on fairness and how hard these prerequisites should really be. At New York University, these conversations were recently ignited over the firing of a reputable chemistry professor. Students petitioned against his unforgiving grading and course setup for organic chemistry, which is known to be a weed-out course across higher education.
Weed-out approaches exacerbate inequities in the classroom
Weed-out courses are grueling for most students, and even more so for students with limited access to college-level learning in high school. According to a 2018 study from Florida State University, this access is a predictor for success in college courses, which puts those who come in without these opportunities at a great disadvantage.
In North Carolina, these students tend to be lower-income and students of color. For instance, EducationNC reports that non-Asian students of color have access to fewer Advanced Placement courses and are less inclined to enroll in them. Even when they do, they earn college credit at half the rate of their white and Asian counterparts.
Other means that reward transfer credit, like the state College Transfer Pathway, also have similar disparities: one study shows Black and Latinx students participate significantly less than their white peers, and those who are “economically disadvantaged” also participate at “much lower” rates than “non-economically disadvantaged students."
Students from poor, rural areas also face similar barriers, as their public high schools offer little advanced coursework. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made matters worse, as few have internet access for online learning, NC Policy Watch reported.
Brook Cheuvront, a UNC first-year student from Newland, a town in rural North Carolina, experienced this problem firsthand. She said a lack of access to higher-level math courses and in-person learning in high school means she has a greater learning curve to overcome than her peers in Physics 118, a prerequisite for many physical and mathematical sciences.
"I had a huge gap in my math background due to the COVID-19 pandemic," Cheuvront said. "My trigonometry background, which needs to be really strong for a physics class, was really lacking. So, I ended up teaching myself most of the trigonometry from a Wikipedia page.”
“Some of my peers have had these in-person physics classes where they’ve had other peers there to help them understand the material and a teacher there to understand the material,” she said.
Weed-out education only amplifies these inequities, as students without exposure to college-level material are less likely to pass. Poor performance, in general, dissuades students from staying in the STEM pipeline and pursuing post-graduate opportunities. Then, these classes end up gate-keeping groups that are already underrepresented in these fields. It has become clear that weed-out classes are no longer about distinguishing students who are capable, but rather differentiating between those who enter college with good resources and those who do not.
Abandoning weed-out education
In addition to adversely and disproportionately affecting minority and low-income students, weed-out approaches are counterintuitive to learning. Labeling a class as “weed-out” normalizes Ds, withdrawals, incompletes and letting students fail. It negates the responsibility of educators to adapt their teaching to support struggling students and justifies courses being hard for the sake of being hard.
While it is understandable that high-stakes STEM pathways like medicine are selective, departing from weed-out approaches will allow more students to complete STEM degrees and mitigate persisting inequities and lack of diversity in these fields. It gives students a chance to learn, instead of creating survivor mentalities and hostile environments where they are overburdened with the thought of failing.
So, while we pride ourselves on being an academically rigorous institution, let’s do away with the unnecessary academic rigor that is weed-out courses. We should instead look to designing curricula that are conscious of varying entry levels of knowledge, and solutions like interdisciplinary STEM courses to better engage our students and future professionals.
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