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78 percent of the entry classes listed as having above a 3.0 difficulty on Penn Course Review are STEM courses.

Credit: Zach Sheldon

When College freshman Sherry Tseng decided to take Computer and Information Science 110 this spring, she did not expect the popular introductory-level computer science course to curtail her interest in the subject altogether. 

After a semester, she found the course so challenging that she decided not to take any CIS courses in the future.

Tseng’s experience is not unique. CIS is not the only major that offers challenging introductory level courses for prospective majors – often referred to as “weed-out” courses designed to eliminate students who are not fit to pursue the major.

These "weed-out" courses are particularly prevalent in subjects to do with Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. 

There are 300 courses listed as department-recommended classes for College students who want to explore a particular major. 53 of them fall under the category of STEM, and over 47 percent of those STEM entry courses are listed at a 3.0 (out of 4.0) or higher for difficulty level on Penn Course Review, while only 2.67 percent of non-STEM entry courses are rated in the same range of difficulty.

Furthermore, 78 percent of the entry courses above 3.0 difficulty belong to STEM fields.

Entry courses in the humanities that are also at or above the 3.0 difficulty level include Philosophy 005, Communication 226 and Visual Studies 102.

A recent article by U.S. News quoted STEM higher education experts who expressed concern over the notion of “weed-out” classes.

“We need to wash out the ‘weed-them-out orientation’ in the classroom,” Mary Fox, co-director at the Center for the Study of Women, Science, and Technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said to U.S. News. “That is not a hospitable climate for students. We have to teach students to move along rather than have them sink or swim.”

At Penn, many students verify the existence of weed-out courses, though professors disagree. 

First-generation College junior David Thai said there were no Advanced Placement or honors courses offered in his high school, and that he felt unprepared for the level of difficulty of introductory classes at Penn — particularly those in the pre-medicine track. 

“I did really well in the science classes in my high school, so I thought I could definitely take these general intro classes at Penn and do well,” Thai said. “But I realized that I was extremely unprepared for the rigor and difficulty of these classes.”

Thai later dropped the pre-med track and opted to pursue a major in health and societies.

He said he believes that professors should do a better job of retaining students in their classes, knowing that their curriculum might be very challenging for some.

“I don’t appreciate the University’s one-size-fits-all approach, where it assumes everyone comes from the same background,” Thai said. “Professors recognize the difficulty of their course, but don’t do a good job of making sure their students stay.”

CIS Department Chair Sampath Kannan said it is not the intention of the department to make CIS 110 a weed-out class.

“We just want it to cover enough material to get students up to speed for the next course in the sequence,” Kannan said.

“We should be offering a gentler-paced version of 110 for people who may not want to continue on to 120,” Kannan said, acknowledging concerns of students like Tseng and Thai. “We hope to do so in the next year or two.”

College junior Saurabh Sudesh, a biochemistry major, said that Chemistry 241, otherwise known as Organic Chemistry (or “orgo”), is notorious for being challenging. On Penn Course Review, the course has an average difficulty rating of 3.6.

While the actual content of the course wasn’t too difficult, Sudesh said he considered it a weed-out class because it required a different learning and studying style which many first or second-year students are likely not accustomed to.

“Orgo is known for being that sort of class that is really tough,” Sudesh said. “If professors or TAs somehow got the point across that the class requires regular studying and people went into the class with that mindset, I think it would be a game-changer for some people.”

Chemistry professor Jeffrey Winkler said that he does not consider the level of difficulty when designing course curriculum.

“I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about making a class harder or easier to get more or less people [in or out] of the major,” Winkler said. “What I’ve focused more on is trying to make the course more engaging and interesting as possible for students.”

“The position of the Chemistry Department is that we’re not trying to titrate the level of difficulty to encourage enrollment,” he added.

Chair of the Department of Biochemistry Ponzy Lu agreed, adding that he was not aware of weed-out courses that were intentionally designed to be difficult. 

Lu said he encourages prospective majors who are passionate, but struggling in introductory courses, to consider their plans after Penn and how they are allocating their time among courses, clubs and other activities.

“The ones that stick it out [in the major] like to be challenged,” Lu said. “If [courses] aren’t challenging, they’re not getting their money’s worth.”