Excited to begin their new journey in college, incoming freshmen are often surprised that their introductory courses have unexpectedly difficult curricula: hours of work, crushing exams, and enigmatic concepts. Sometimes, the curriculum might demand a style of studying and learning that recent high school graduates are just not used to. These unofficially coined “weed-out” courses supposedly attempt to influence a student’s choice of major early on. After exposure to such a course, a student may decide to drop out of the class or even switch majors.
Weed-out courses are most commonly required for STEM majors. At Penn, there are 300 department-recommended courses suited for exploring a major; approximately half the STEM entry courses have a difficulty level of 3.0 out of 4.0 according to PennCourseReview. 78 percent of the introductory courses with a rating above 3.0 are in STEM. Although such courses vary by school, some common examples include organic chemistry and physical chemistry, statistics for psychology majors, or intermediate microeconomics for economics majors.
Exposing students to difficult parts of a field of study can prevent them from wasting their time in the long run, and help them to choose their majors. However, students and alumni have spoken up about the demanding entry courses and their implications. Incoming students have vastly different high school backgrounds, as some are not offered the opportunity to take Advanced Placement or college-level courses before they begin their freshmen years. Likewise, the uneven playing field can make some feel less prepared for such difficult classes than others. According to research mentioned in a The Daily Northwestern op-ed, underrepresented groups were found to struggle more than others, such as first-generation and low-income students or those from under-resourced high schools. Women were also found to be impacted more negatively than their male counterparts.
Penn students have lamented the one-size-fits-all approach, saying that professors do not do a “good job of making sure their students stay.” Penn student Caroline Magdolen argues in an opinion piece published in Penn’s school newspaper that weed-out classes lead many students to think that low grades equal a bad fit for a major, which is not an accurate message to send to students. For example, a good grade can indicate one’s ability to deploy effective study methods like studying in groups and attending office hours, and not necessarily that a major is a good fit for a student.
So what can students do when faced with a “weed-out” class? According to a New York Times article, excelling in a weed-out class may have to do more with a “state of mind” and social connections than an innate fit to the field of study. For example, an experiment conducted with 226 Columbia students in an introductory biology class found that a variety of interventions, including simple psychological exercises to strengthen social bonds, can improve the chances of all students staying in the pipeline regardless of race or gender. Brown alumni and scientist Dr. Ainissa Ramierez supports the argument that social connections and student mindset are important for a students’ grade outcome. Rather than fostering competition, encouraging students to form relationships and collaborate with like-minded people are just as essential.
To all future incoming students – yes, weed-out courses can exist, and they can leave you overwhelmed and stressed. However, it’s imperative that you remember that grades don’t necessarily indicate your fit for your major. Whenever you’re feeling stuck, reach out to fellow students, professors, and university resources like tutoring centers for extra help!