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Principles of Organic Chemistry and other aptly named “weed-out” courses can raise the blood pressure of first- and second-year STEM students to new highs.

These are courses college students must pass to become candidates for a degree in a STEM major. They are often taught through giant lectures, with limited faculty-student engagement. Many students fail the courses or become so frightened by them that they drop the class — and thus the major.

In a recent high-profile case, NYU terminated a prolific researcher from an adjunct position after a student petition and a battle over learning standards; the crux of students’ anger and fear was that failure in his course effectively barred them from their academic and professional hopes.

Courses like these are making students doubt their ability to succeed in science when the nation needs more STEM graduates.

STEM education, like scientific research, should be rigorous and demanding; an area where some failure is expected. For example, my research is on Parkinson’s disease, using magnetic resonance imaging to understand how comorbidities and health-life histories may change the rate of cell death in a critical region of interest in the brain. Months of planning and passion may result in failure, but because we can learn from that failure, it becomes an expected stop on the road to making an impact.

This semester I have six undergraduate research assistants working with me. They are brilliant. They meet with Parkinson’s patients, earn MRI certifications and make weekly presentations about the disease and the neurochemical system.

They are also diverse in their ethnicity, gender and economic status. Yet these students share stories of abandoning premed tracks because “weed-out” courses marred their academic records and diminished their confidence.

The education system graduates disproportionately low numbers of Black, Latino, Indigenous and women students in STEM majors. Weed-out courses are the first leak in the higher education pipeline preventing these groups from entering STEM professions.

And that’s a shame, because we have a national shortage of medical professionals, exacerbated by the pandemic. Fixing this problem will require changing instructional techniques and adjusting the consequences of failure in mandatory courses.

Faculty should want to change the culture of their required courses; they should want to work in the best departments with bleeding-edge science — and undergraduate students are vital to this goal. If faculty help to increase the number of students who succeed in these courses, they will have more students capable of doing detailed lab work. 

We have a national shortage of medical professionals, exacerbated by the pandemic. Fixing this problem will require changing instructional techniques and adjusting the consequences of failure in mandatory courses.

Taking steps to fix weed-out courses will foster a more excellent and equitable talent pool — and lead to fewer stressed-out undergraduates walking campus. Fixing these courses will require changing their structure, the consequences of failure and the role and responsibilities of teachers’ assistants.

Currently, weed-out courses are structured around semester midterm and final exams graded on a curve. Weekly problem sets from a textbook may be assigned, but they represent a minimal percentage of students’ final grades in the class.

Students have told me that they’ve spent up to 30 hours studying for a midterm exam in these courses and received only a 40 out of 100, but later found out that the top score in the class was 50.  

Demonstrating mastery of just half the material in a class is not a recipe for success in any other major, so why is it that way for the sciences?

Exams and homework assignments must be equally weighted so that students can meaningfully gain and display mastery throughout the semester.

This way, instructors can reward students for detailed work throughout the course, and their top students will no longer be those who display only half the skills and knowledge tested on the exam.

Students who have earned an A must be rewarded for their work, but struggling students cannot have their academic careers placed in jeopardy by mistakes on an exam.

Related: Segregation by college major can lead to future job segregation

The current environment breeds exclusion and deception, which is commonplace in these classes even if you’ve turned a blind eye.

Instead, if students are in jeopardy of failing, there should be an early identification system to support them. These structures exist in first-year writing seminars at many colleges, where students get dedicated tutoring and institutional resources to help them succeed.

Making this change will maintain a culture of excellence while giving all students an alternate pathway to success. Greater equity will also be fostered by expanding and transforming the role of graduate student teachers’ assistants, many of whom grade exams and sometimes answer questions, but should be made responsible for lesson planning and helping students succeed — and be evaluated for their work.

Not everyone can be hired as a physician, engineer or scientific researcher, but there is a national shortage of people who can fill those roles, and weed-out courses are part of the problem.

Instead of weeding out promising students, STEM faculty need to give them opportunities to demonstrate their character and determination to learn and try again if they fail.

Not taking these steps means that the sciences will stay exclusive and continue to discourage people from pursuing STEM degrees. With declining college enrollment across the country, that may not be a luxury that universities can afford for long.

Senegal Alfred Mabry is a doctoral student in neuroscience in the department of Psychology–Human Development at Cornell University and a youth member of the Obama Foundation MBK Alliance Advisory Council.

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  1. Why would most people do the intense labor of learning detailed, intricate information with objective right or wrong answers when they can bully the right people and suck up to other people, and get a super cushy desk job with fantastic benefits as university administrative assistants? One of the biggest perks is being rude to everyone dumb enough to take the classes.

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