“Look to your left, look to your right. One of you won’t be here in the next semester.”
It’s a typical lecture delivered at the start of a semester in the sciences, and one that Ainissa Ramirez remembered hearing early during her undergraduate studies at Brown University.
Now a successful materials scientist and science writer, Dr. Ramirez recalls that she was almost pushed out of pursuing a career in science because of her weed-out classes. As their name suggests, the classes are common especially in the sciences and mathematics at American universities, and are designed to demarcate students who are likely to do well in a given subject from those who are not.
Those who excel in these introductory classes can proceed with completing a major on the topic if they wish. But there’s evidence that weed-out classes disproportionately hinder underrepresented groups including women as well as Black, Native American and Hispanic people from pursuing STEM degrees.
“Everyone should have some science in their life,” Dr. Ramirez said, adding that classes should be tailored toward different students’ needs rather than constantly trying to eliminate them.
“Your life’s path is decided for you based on this weed-out class,” she said. “That’s the problem that I have.”
A study published this month in the journal Science Advances adds to evidence that whether or not students can endure weed-out classes has less to do with innate ability and more to do with their frame of mind and social connections with their classmates when starting a rigorous new course of study.
In an experiment involving 226 biology undergraduate students taking an introductory biology class at Columbia University in New York, the researchers found that a simple psychological exercise improved the chances of all students taking a second semester class, regardless of race or gender. The study highlights how a variety of interventions might help more students stay in the pipeline to become future scientists, engineers and mathematicians.
The study authors asked about half the students to complete a short exercise in the third week of the semester before their first test in which they ranked family, friends, independence, religion, creativity and other aspects of their lives in order of importance. They then wrote an essay on the most important things in their lives for 15 minutes. This is called a values affirmation exercise, and the idea behind it was to make students less defensive and more comfortable when it came to interacting and engaging with their classmates. Several previous studies have shown that conducting such a task can help produce positive social attitudes, outcomes and behavior.
The remaining students, who served as a control group, also listed values in order of importance to them, and wrote an essay about the things they considered least important, explaining what might be of importance to someone else.
What the authors found was that the group of students who completed the affirmation task made on average 29 percent more friends in the course by its end than those who didn’t complete the task. They were also nearly 12 percent more likely to take the next biology class in the following semester.
“This exercise is really a way to broaden people’s focus in a stressful moment when they might otherwise be very narrowly focused on the test,” said Kate Turetsky, a co-author of the study who is a social psychologist at Princeton University.
Dr. Turetsky acknowledged that the ways affirmation techniques are used needed further study, and that they may not be sufficient to retain more students in STEM education. But the outcomes for students in her experiment hinted at one truth of weed-out classes and how science education can be structured.
“There’s a growing body of evidence that people’s social relationships are really important for these outcomes,” she said. This means teachers and lecturers should redesign their courses to help people maintain relationships and strengthen social networks, perhaps through more collaboration, cooperation, group work and less competition, she said.
Andrew Koch, president of the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education, says the new study’s methods are sound. He notes, however, the study is “trying to address the symptom of the illness, not the illness itself.”
The institute has created a “Gateway to Completion” program, which aims to help institutions with high enrollment courses and high failure rates. He said the course exists because race, ethnicity and family income remain the best predictors of success in college.
Ultimately, Dr. Koch advocates abolishing weed-out classes.
“I do think we need to have high expectations and high standards for our students,” he said. “But to conflate that with a third to a half of the students failing out of introductory courses really grossly manipulates what rigor means.”
Dr. Ramirez agrees. For her, “the problem is not the student, it’s the class.” She added that she passed that key class because her chemistry professor had a tutorial version of her class, allowing her to study at her own pace and focus her energy on the other subjects. “I also got a lot of tutors and spent a lot of time in the library and had study groups.”
Dr. Ramirez suggests that aligning students with their motivations and connecting them with like-minded people is important, but the concept of a weed-out class is fundamentally flawed.
That’s because weed-out classes were originally created in the 19th century in response to the fact that only limited slots were available on STEM courses. “That doesn’t necessarily apply now,” Dr. Ramirez said. “There’s a disconnect between the culture that established the weed-out course and what’s going on today.”