Monday, June 17

The Quad: Should weeder classes be as difficult as they are?

(Creative Commons photo by Anna Gutermuth via Flickr)

(Creative Commons photo by Anna Gutermuth via Flickr)

“I’m pre-med! For now, that is…”

That’s usually my response every time a relative asks me what I’m studying in college. It’s not because I’m uncertain of whether or not I want to be a doctor. Rather, it’s because of my fear of not being able to make it through the Chemistry 14 series in my first two years of college.

I appreciate going to an institution that challenges me and pushes my limits, but sometimes it also pushes me to extreme levels of stress and despair. It makes me ask questions like, “Am I good enough to be a doctor?” or “Am I even good enough to be here?”

The rigor that comes with the level of education that UCLA offers is not unexpected. But is it necessary? More specifically, are weeder classes for underclassmen necessary?

The Retaining Aspiring Scientists study by the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute found that as the selectivity of an institution, which was measured by incoming students’ average SAT math plus verbal scores, increased by 100 points, the amount of students that actually go through with their STEM major drops by 13 percent. Physics 1A professor Brent Corbin admits that his course is extremely difficult for first-years who enter college with at least a mediocre knowledge of the subject from their high school classes.

“High school physics teaches students about physics, but it doesn’t really teach them how to do physics, and students arrive on our doorstep not realizing there’s a difference,” he said. “You can’t learn physics by memorizing a bunch of equations in a textbook any more than you can become another Picasso or da Vinci by taking an art appreciation class.”

However, he believes weeder classes should be more difficult than they already are.

Corbin’s viewpoint is interesting. Apart from the frustrated rants and screams I hear from my friends the night before a chemistry midterm, I don’t really know the other side of the situation. Why is the professor making the exam as hard as it is? Corbin reflects positively on the high levels of academic performance that are expected from students. He said he believes students who go above and beyond are the ones who will perform the best.

Corbin also believes that motivation and the desire to learn is what truly defines whether or not one should continue pursuing their respective field of study.

“These ‘weeder’ courses are a trial-by-fire. … If you realize you don’t actually like doing the sorts of things that are needed as a basic skill set for your discipline, you might not be headed in the right direction,” he said.

However, for many students, the challenges that Corbin views as defining your prowess actually drain them of the energy and will power to keep going as they repeatedly hit roadblocks.

Second-year business economics student Aileen Sanchez voiced similar concerns. “I have felt discouraged by (weeder classes) because no matter how hard I try, I sometimes can never be above the curve,” she said.

Many students decide to pursue a different career path because of the pressure they face from not performing above average.

Second-year financial actuarial mathematics student Ellen Mortensen also disagrees with the idea that a subject should be taught in a more difficult way to filter students out.

Mortensen said she believes that a class taught at its normal level is all that a student should be expected to handle, at least in their undergraduate years. She said she doesn’t think it’s valid to purposely make a class overly difficult simply in the hopes of filtering students out, as this can unjustly discourage students from pursuing their dreams.

Where does one draw the line between a class that’s meant to challenge and a class that’s unreasonably difficult? Sure, the level of the institution you go to and the career path you choose should play a part in how difficult your classes are. I don’t expect to ace all my chemistry classes and breeze through my undergraduate years. I chose to be pre-med and I know it’s difficult, but at times I feel as if my best is simply not enough and wonder if my best will ever be enough.

Another issue is that I, along with my peers, have more than just one class to focus on. Chemistry excites me, reminding me time and time again that learning the subject is bringing me one step closer to achieving my dreams. But at the same time, just because it excites me doesn’t mean that I can focus only on learning chemistry. The reality is that I have three other classes to evenly devote my time and energy to, along with my club activities, research and almost nonexistent social life.

In the 2014 National Survey of Student Engagement, it was found that students devote about one-third of the time they spend on coursework to extracurricular activities. In a different study done by the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, results showed that 75.8 percent of students at the university participated in extracurriculars. However, data also indicated that 34 percent of students joined organizations because it would look good on a resume.

With a change in college lifestyle reflected in statistics like this, it is impossible to expect students to focus all their attention on academics. It is even more absurd to expect them to focus all their attention on one class alone. It’s evident that college students nowadays have to bring more to the table than just good grades. Students have to divide up their time and energy and allocate it equally amongst all their classes and activities in order to succeed after college.

At times it feels as though professors in every class, especially weeder classes, expect students to devote all of that energy solely to their class. Those few students that are able to balance all aspects of college and all their classes are seen as role models while every other student that fails to perform at the same level is seen as inadequate.

I understand that professors have to structure their class a certain way in order to maintain a certain level of difficulty. However, they also have to understand that first-years come in with a thirst for knowledge, but expect to be challenged instead of discouraged. And a class that makes us feel like weeds ready to be pulled out as part of some survival of the fittest challenge does the exact opposite.

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  • DJ

    I agree these classes should be as hard as they are, if not harder.

    The academic challenge that UCLA offers has been one the things I valued most from my time here. There are many times where being average or below average made me feel down, but it pushed me to work harder–and it taught me how to handle not being the smartest person in the room.