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weedoutclasses-01
Credit: Alana Kelly

Nearly everyone at Penn has experienced that one course with the nonsensical lectures, the mountain of work, the impossible exams, or some ungodly combination of all three. We often experience this course early in our Penn experiences, and it can remake our entire academic trajectory. Yes, I’m talking about the infamous “weed-out” course

Penn students and faculty disagree over whether weed-out courses even exist. Professors state that course difficulty is not a factor in their curricula design, so there are officially no courses constructed to weed students out. But intentional or not, roughly half of STEM entry courses at Penn have a difficulty level above 3.0 out of 4.0, based on PennCourseReview. Should a student’s first introduction to their prospective major be that challenging?

Many believe that it should in order to determine whether a student can succeed in that major in the long term. The argument goes that if students are exposed to the hard parts of their major first, they will realize early on if the major isn’t for them and avoid “wasting” classes on a major that they supposedly aren’t fit for. Don’t get me wrong; most introductory courses have material that is challenging but essential to the major, and should thus be taught. If our coursework were easy and accomplishable with minimal effort, there wouldn’t be any need to attend college, not to mention a top university like Penn. However, weed-out courses can make fundamental content more confusing and complicated than it needs to be.

The biggest issue isn’t that weed-out courses are hard, but that it’s easy to falsely equivocate low grades in weed-out courses with being a bad fit for a major. Doing well in these courses doesn’t necessarily indicate a good fit either. Performance in a weed-out course has little to do with the material or subject itself, and correlates more with mastery of study skills. Forging connections with one’s peers or professors can be impactful when struggling academically, as lots of learning is done in study groups and office hours. Study skills are vital, but do they measure suitability for a major? A student can get an A in both BIOL 101 and CIS 120 using strong study skills even if they love biology and hate computer science. Similarly, a student that struggles with studying wouldn’t gain much from switching from a biology to a computer science major, or vice versa.

This false equivocation of grades to proficiency harms disadvantaged and underrepresented students most. Because Penn students come from varying academic backgrounds, students enter introductory courses on an unequal playing field, which gets worse when these courses try to "weed" students out. There’s evidence that weed-out courses hamper diversity, and even when studies account for differences in high school rigor, FGLI students are more likely to leave their major than their peers upon receiving low grades in introductory STEM courses. 

Additionally, there are key factors to consider in determining major compatibility that are ignored in weed-out courses. At a school as pre-professionally minded as Penn, I am surprised that there isn’t more time devoted to discussing careers and real-world applications of material beyond the classroom. While introductory courses could incorporate these topics into their curricula, they are instead treated as asides and rarely show up in grading schemes. Weed-out courses have little incentive to prioritize such exploratory topics, as these add on to the already excessive workload that students have, and would also probably boost grades. 

So, what can be done? First off, we should repudiate the connection between weed-out course grades and major fit. We should emphasize that it’s okay (and often expected!) to receive lower grades in these courses, and that there are other factors that indicate whether a major is a good fit. Though we struggle with Penn Face and unrealistic academic expectations, we can break down barriers through our everyday conversations. When I’ve felt down about my academic performance over the past year, I’ve found solace in Penn’s Anti-Resume Project, a platform that features students' and faculty's failures and unconventional successes. 

Second, we should add more exploratory components to introductory courses, and encourage students to pay attention to them. Though a physics professor can’t jump into the intricacies of quantum theory at an introductory mechanics level, providing at least some background could both inspire prospective majors and provide a fuller picture of a physics major’s experience. As another example, though ECON 001 and ECON 002 focus on the fundamentals of economic theory, hosting a speaker panel in class could offer unique insights into careers and research. 

When you next think about that weed-out course you survived, I encourage you to ponder how it could have been made less painful, and how it has shaped your academic path at Penn. Did it measure your suitability for the major? If not, let’s do something about it, and demand curricula changes. 

CAROLINE MAGDOLEN is a College and Engineering sophomore studying environmental science and systems engineering from New York City. Her email address is magdolen@sas.upenn.edu.

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