Gatekeeping vs. Bad Teaching

Much of LiveJournal has been sunk in a sea of suck for the last couple of weeks, but there’s a really interesting discussion of science education over at “Faraday’s Cage is where you put Schroedinger’s Cat.” The first post has to do with the idea of “gatekeeping”:

In my class today, a very brief discussion occurred between the teacher and another student about a topic which has bothered me for a long, long time: gatekeeping.

This particular student is a grad student in mechanical engineering, and she was talking about her personal teaching philosophy. She said it bothered her that in the sciences and engineering there are often classes used as “weeders”, the principal being that the “unfit” are not able to survive the rigors of the fundamentals classes and will drop out before too much time and money has been invested by either party.

The teacher called this “gatekeeping”. It’s a concept with which I am familiar because, unfortunately, I’ve been on both ends of it. I also have a lot of mixed feelings on the topic, and it helped me to hear that this philosophy bothers other people.

The second is a follow-up in response to a comment, expanding on the connection between “gatekeeping” and just poor teaching.

It’s an interesting discussion. My own feelings on the topic are somewhat complex, in part because physics departments are often in the unenviable position of performing the “gatekeeping” function for other programs (pre-med and engineering). I think that there are a couple of different things going on here, and they can be hard to disentangle.

First and foremost, I agree with Cherish that a lot of what she describes in her second post is simply bad teaching. It’s simply inexcusable for someone teaching a class to completely blow off student questions, and the two styles of lectures she describes are, indeed, known failure modes for teaching science and engineering.

(As a faculty member at a small liberal arts college, I am obliged to note that this is what you get when you go to a place that prioritizes research over teaching. Small colleges, baybee!)

At the same time, though, I think there is a legitimate need for something like the “gatekeeping” function in a lot of disciplines. I’ve spent a lot of time teaching introductory physics to would-be engineers and doctors, probably more time than I’ve spent teaching physics majors. I’ve also seen a lot of those intro students graduate with majors in something else, usually for good reason.

Particularly in the pre-med track, but also in engineering, you get a lot of students who are trying to pursue those majors for the wrong reasons. They’re pre-med because their parents want them to become doctors, or they’re engineering majors because they did well in science classes, but engineering seems more practical. These students might have the raw ability to be decent doctors or engineers, but they don’t know why they’re on those tracks.

The proper “gatekeeping” function of the introductory classes is not so much to weed out the “unfit” (though there’s a bit of that), but rather to select out those who are really interested in those subjects from those who are just stumbling along with no clear purpose. Many of those weeded out by the “gatekeeping” classes would be fine doctors or engineers, but they might be great linguists or economists or historians. Part of the purpose of “gatekeeping” classes is to make those students stop and think about whether they’re doing this because they really want to, or because they think they ought to.

This is, of course, no excuse for driving people out of their chosen career path by really bad teaching. I’ve heard a (possibly apocryphal) story about a faculty member who gave three dreadful lectures in the first week of a class, and came in the next Monday to find the class reduced by a third. “Still too many,” he said, and gave three more dreadful lectures. The next Monday, with half the initial number of students, he completely changed styles, and was interesting and engaging for the rest of the semester. While it’s occasionally tempting, that sort of thing is deeply irresponsible.

The real trick to these classes is to balance three competing goals: to cover the necessary fundamentals for the upper-level classes, to force students to think about whether they really want to pursue this major, and to be engaging enough to help everybody in the class learn what they need to know. It’s not easy to get them all right at the same time, but they’re all valid and important parts of the educational process.

(I should note, too, that this problem is not unique to the sciences. My impression is that law school involves a certain amount of “weeding out” of students who are just wandering in aimlessly because they don’t have a very good idea of what to do with themselves.)

Comments

  1. #1 Sven DiMilo
    January 26, 2009

    physics departments are often in the unenviable position of performing the “gatekeeping” function for other programs (pre-med and engineering)

    Engineering, maybe, but we in Biology do a pretty good job of weeding the premeds ourselves. Then organic chemistry cleans up the rest (medical schools require a year of organic for precisely this reason; it’s information completely useless to a physician or physiologist).

  2. #2 Uncle Al
    January 26, 2009

    Uncle Al’s first day of organic chemistry: The prof put three numbers on the blackboard: 1200 and change (the number of students enrolled), 250 (the number of lab spots the next term), then the difference. He said “At least 1000 of you will fail this course.” That’s an F, folks.

    When limited resources are oversubscribed the insufficient are removed to pursue things at which they are not insufficient. Of the initial 1200+, 17 made it out BS/Chem – Gideon’s chemists. Evolution is a hoot if you are one of the survivors.

  3. #3 Will
    January 26, 2009

    Computer Science freshman year at Penn was similar. Especially the discrete mathematics courses. Even in 2002, a lot of people thought all they needed was to get their CS degree and they were set for life, I guess.

    (And yes, law school’s first year has all sorts of gatekeeping, to weed out the “what do you do with a B.A. in English” crowd, as I call them.)

  4. #4 Alex
    January 26, 2009

    Even with the best teacher, freshman physics will always have an inevitable “sink or swim” aspect because you have to cover so many chapters in so few weeks. There’s just no way to do justice to everything.

  5. #5 Becca
    January 26, 2009

    So if an undergrad hates physics, that means they will be a better linguist, economist or historian than doctor?
    Sorry, I don’t buy it. I don’t know many physicians who were totally into physics.

    I’m a big fan of putting in relevant ‘weeding out’ practices (I don’t think you should get to be a surgeon without changing bedpans at some point in your career- if for no other reason than if you understand what the nurses go through you will be more likely to treat them decently). But physics is a pretty absurd screne for physicians.

    As far as forcing students to consider if they really want a given major… sure, as long as you are ready for them to force you to consider whether you really want to teach a particular course a particular way, or whether you really want to be the gatekeeper in a system that systematically screws over some types of people more than others, or whether you correctly chose your career path, if your actual aim is to excite students about physics. If the unexamined life is not worth living, that surely goes for the teacher as well as the pupil, right?

  6. #6 MikeMa
    January 26, 2009

    Loved organic chem. I do remember the groans of the ill-equipped at midterms.

    I took an upper level comp-sci at PSU and the first lecture was completely taken up with the Greek alphabet, upper & lower case which we were told we had to learn if we were to pass the class. Switched to EE that day & never looked back.

    On the other hand, weeding out teachers ought to be part of the equation. I had an upper level discrete math class with a teacher whose thick eastern accent was difficult. I had to borrow a classmate’s notes over a missed lecture and when I tried to sync her notes to mine I couldn’t because I had no references to “inactive” numbers which were all over her notes. We finally figured out that what the teacher had said, in very broken English, was “negative” numbers but it came out as in-nag-a-tive or, as my partner heard it “inactive”. I did okay but my friend got a D as I recall.

    Was she justified in feeling that the school had let her down by not providing a teacher with adequate communication skills?

  7. #7 Jim C
    January 26, 2009

    I was a victim of this. I was and at age 47 still consider myself to be a good student. I enrolled at a large East Coast Liberal school as one of 1500 freshmen engineering students. I was even in the honors program.

    There was room for around 700 of us a sophomores. We had a physics teacher whose job was to whittle us down. The consensus was that if you could pass his class, you cold get an A on every other physics class on campus.

    I was ranked in the top 20 out of 1500, with a C+. He gave out around 5 A’s, and 10 B’s so the curve failed enough students. While this was not the only factor, it certainly was a factor in my deciding to leave that school at the end of my Freshman year.

  8. #8 John Novak
    January 26, 2009

    It is a fine line, but I can’t argue against the idea of weed-out classes. I remember on my latest foray into academia, in computer science, one of the weed out classes was… discrete math, or some such equivalent title and subject matter. It was very apparent to me that the students who were really struggling with this material really were better off allocating their time and money to some other endeavor.

    I still recall, at a distance of over five years, one hapless student pestering the instructor for details and explanations of ever single line of every single derivation he put on the board. Including the one case where the instructor just cancelled the two’s from some algebra. That poor guy did not, at that time, have what it took be a computer scientist.

    But I can say that precisely because the instructor was a good instructor. I have, on the engineering side of things, had instructors and professors who weren’t happy until they had impressed on the class their ability to devise tests that no one could get more than a 30% on. That is not teaching, and what the students are doing is not learning.

  9. #9 Coriolis
    January 26, 2009

    Becca, I don’t think the requirement is being “totally into physics”. It’s more like, do you have any clue about what physics is. At least in my institution, there is a special non-calculus set of physics classes for premeds, which barely even features algebra. I don’t think they are supposed to provide any great love of physics but the bare basics of how simple forces work (i.e. Newtons laws in mechanics or Coulombs in EM). Their homeworks are big on conceptual problems and gauging what’s bigger and what’s smaller and there’s barely any math (I would probably be terrible if I had to TA it).

    The calculus-based classes do function as weeding out type of classes alot more (and btw calculus-based doesn’t mean they’ll have to do calculus, but they’ll have to recognize it when the prof does it and then be able to do basic algebra). I don’t know why the engineering classes aren’t made harder so that physics doesn’t have this role but it seems to be a common arrangement.

    One time I had a pretty long conversation with one of our top course admin who’s been in charge of the intro courses for a long time, and asked him what input the engineering department has for the content of the intro courses (we’re a big engineering school and almost all the intro students are engineers). He told me that when the physics department asked them their response was basically “70%”. I.e. they want about 70% to pass. Apart from that, they don’t give a shit.

    Hopefully he was over-exaggerating and maybe it’s different with other big state schools, but maybe not ;).

  10. #10 zombie_bot
    January 26, 2009

    what is the point of teachers, schools, league tables and the funding for them, if the very best students are selected and the worst dropped? the results are predetermined before the course has begun.

    your educational outcome is determined by your economic and social support.

    biased, snobbish, unfair. the teachers lie, blame the failing students, show no support even if the student has a good shot at turning their grade around and “gatekeep” to up their performance.

  11. #11 D. C. Sessions
    January 26, 2009

    The course selected for “weeding” varies. In at least one instance I know of, it’s freshman algebra — a prerequisite for all physical science classes. The method used to achieve the required attrition rate is entirely up to the instructors, and the attrition is aggregate. In other words, it’s all fine if one of them simply flunks everyone, no exceptions — that makes up for the one who actually teaches something.

    I know of one student who tutored her roommate, who was struggling. The tutor ended up with an F in one section while the tutoree got an A in another.

  12. #12 Christie
    January 26, 2009

    I think it’s a fine line. On the one hand, it’s not fair for students to pay an excessive amount of money to get a bad teacher. But on the other hand, who wants to pay that money just to barely, if, manage to get a degree and get nowhere in the field afterwards?

    In my experience (which, just for the record, was a small, undergraduate-only liberal arts school), we definitely had “gatekeeping” classes that were required Freshman year, but I wouldn’t say they were taught badly. I found my mentor and future research advisor in a “gatekeeping course”.

    In my school, I would say there is definitely a need for weeding out students. We have a big (and popular) Marine Science program that ends up with a lot of people who don’t really want to be scientists but who want to “play with dolphins” or [insert Marine Biologist Stereotype Here]. The major has a 70% dropout rate (aka less than 1/3 that start as Marine Science majors actually graduate with it). Many switch over to other disciplines (like the less science-centric “Environmental Studies”) after the first or second year, where the students tend to struggle with hardcore and in-depth Invertebrate Biology and Botany courses. They’re the kind of courses where the class average is 75%, though Bs to upper Cs are probably the median – very few As, and a decent sized handful of Ds and Fs. They also happen to be taught by (IMO) the best teachers in the program.

    I think, in the case of my school anyway, they put some of the hardest and most technical “basic” courses early in the students career to show them what science is really like. And because we get so many people who want to work at Seaworld attempting a very tough, complex Marine Science program, it’s only fair to show them that it’s not all frolicking with cetaceans. In this sense they “gatekeep” but not by being bad teachers – just by making the students really consider if this is what they want. And, in this case, I think it benefits both the students and the professors.

  13. #13 Bouncing Bosons
    January 26, 2009

    “Was she justified in feeling that the school had let her down by not providing a teacher with adequate communication skills?”

    Was she equipped with a standard-issue arm to raise and ask for clarification? In The Real World ™ you have to deal with people whose English skills leave a lot to be desired all the time. I have very little sympathy for this person if she was in an upper level class and took no time to ask around the class for help from other students who were better with accents or check some standard texts to make sure her notes made sense.

    In my brief stint as a CompSci major (before I realized how mind-numbing it was) I took a discrete math course from a professor who was from Poland and had a (wonderful!) eastern European accent. Many people complained at the end that they did poorly because they couldn’t understand him, but they asked no questions in class, and they didn’t ask any of the students that were doing ok.

    At some point, one needs to take responsibility for their own learning beyond just showing up.

  14. #14 zombie_bot
    January 26, 2009

    “Was she equipped with a standard-issue arm to raise and ask for clarification? In The Real World ™ you have to deal with people whose English skills leave a lot to be desired all the time. I have very little sympathy for this person if she was in an upper level class and took no time to ask around the class for help from other students who were better with accents or check some standard texts to make sure her notes made sense.”

    wrong. the teacher isn’t teaching, the teacher is failing. like you.

  15. #15 Eric Lund
    January 26, 2009

    For certain majors at large universities, especially state schools, there has to be some kind of screen to weed out those of lesser ability. Simple logistics, if nothing else, dictates this, and I wouldn’t want that screen to be a simple lottery. The question is who, and how, to weed out. Clearly, an engineering wannabe who can’t deal with calculus should be pushed into another major, as should a premed who can’t deal with blood and guts (disclosure: the latter is the reason I never considered becoming an M.D.).

    Physics is often pushed into the role of weed-out course because it is the one course common to engineering, physical science, and premed tracks. This is often at the expense of teaching in physics courses. But is it always the best way to do it? The pure nose-to-the-grindstone technique ends up favoring nerds at the expense of anybody who wants to have a life, and leads to stereotypical engineers/scientists with minimal interpersonal skills.

    In the case of engineers I would be more proactive about weeding people out before they take a class. As I said, they need to be able to handle math, so perhaps requiring strong evidence that the student is ready for freshman calculus from Day 1 is the way to go. If you have to enroll in Bonehead Math or the equivalent (my current university has such a course), you don’t belong in engineering or physical science. As for premeds, I don’t have a good solution.

  16. #16 D. C. Sessions
    January 26, 2009

    Was she equipped with a standard-issue arm to raise and ask for clarification?

    She may have previously encountered instructors who would flunk a student for “disrupting” or “interrupting” class. Yes, they exist.

  17. #17 catgirl
    January 26, 2009

    I recently graduated with a degree in chemical engineering, and it has been my experience that ‘gatekeeping’ is good, if it is done properly. At my school, freshman level physics and math were taught by the engineering department for engineering students. This made the classes more practical and realistic for our field. The simple fact is that if someone can’t handle the work of these classes, that person should probably not be in charge of designing bridges or performing surgery. The freshman classes weren’t unnecessarily difficult, just appropriate for that degree, as were all the higher level classes. Of course, bad teaching is a completely different matter and shouldn’t be tolerated.

  18. #18 chezjake
    January 26, 2009

    Yea for SLACs. Not sure if the policy is the same today, but at my SLAC it was policy that all intro courses (including labs) were taught by the head of the department. In departments where course sections were necessary (English and Math), every member of the department taught at least one section.

    I think part of the theory behind that was that the department head could get a feel for who would make good majors, but I never detected any hint of a weeding process.

    Note that we didn’t have to declare a major until spring of our sophomore year, so that if any weeding was done it was on the early required courses for a major (in biology, that was general physiology and comparative anatomy).

  19. #19 MikeMa
    January 26, 2009

    @13,
    Yes, my classmate should have asked questions and gotten straightened out earlier but 2 things worked against this. One, asking questions flustered the instructor and made her speech and therefore her answers even less intelligible. Two, the instructor was young, female and seemed vulnerable in a way that made most of us want not to cause her any problems. This was 30 years ago mind you.

    By that time in my college career, I and many others had gotten used to figuring things out on our own. If it didn’t make sense right off, we’d puzzle through things outside of class separately or in small groups. I realize I’d left my classmate open to this charge of personal responsibility fail but hadn’t wanted to make the story any longer. Oh, well.

    The instructor was ill equipped to teach. Doubtless she either got better or found other work. The point is, was the university at fault for foisting her on us?

  20. #20 JuliaL
    January 26, 2009

    Could someone explain what “weeding out” actually means? I’ve always wondered.

    If a class is well taught, with information given to students about how and where to find extra help, won’t the students who are interested and capable naturally make better grades than those who are uninterested and/or incapable?

    Is the idea here that someone whom the teacher doesn’t like or approve of might be interested enough to work hard and capable enough to pass the course, so that to prevent that from happening the teacher deliberately interfers with the learning process to prevent someone from passing? If so, that’s dishonest to the point of being fraudulent – taking someone’s money for a course and then deliberately preventing them from being able to learn the material.

    And if that’s not what everyone is talking about, then again I ask: what does “weeding out” mean?

  21. #21 Coriolis
    January 26, 2009

    JuliaL – The way I understand it, it means simply that the class is significantly harder then most other classes in the curriculum. Hence if you pass it, you’ll probably be fine with everything else in the major, and if not, you should (probably) give up. The benevolent version of the idea is that if you place such a class early on, it’ll “weed out” the people who would probably have been unable to complete the major anyways and save time and energy on all sides. The not-so-benevolent version is that the professor teaching it is a mean old bastard who’s out to get everybody and you hope to survive his/her class so you can get on with your education. In any case however it should never involve what you’re talking about.

    And if you’re a fellow english-as-a-second language person, the term comes from the practice of removing weeds from a garden, i.e. weeding.

  22. #22 Chad Orzel
    January 26, 2009

    #13: “Was she justified in feeling that the school had let her down by not providing a teacher with adequate communication skills?”

    Was she equipped with a standard-issue arm to raise and ask for clarification? In The Real World ™ you have to deal with people whose English skills leave a lot to be desired all the time. I have very little sympathy for this person if she was in an upper level class and took no time to ask around the class for help from other students who were better with accents or check some standard texts to make sure her notes made sense.

    Hard as it may be to believe, it is entirely possible that lack of communication could be an issue, and be primarily the fault of the faculty.

    I took a quantum class in grad school from a Chinese woman whose English skills were so lacking that she basically read the textbook to us. The equations she wrote on the board were equations that were in the text, the explanations that she gave for the equations were word-for-word from the book, etc. The two jokes she told in the entire semester were in the book, as well.

    Students tried asking her questions in the first few weeks of class, but quickly learned not to bother, because if you asked for clarification, she would just repeat, word for word, what she had just said.

    I got through the class by doing a lot of reading outside of class, and by working on problem sets with other students whenever possible. (And I switched into the other section of the class for the second semester…) Somebody whose work or family schedules weren’t compatible with other students in the class, though, might not have been able to make that work. In which case, the class would’ve been murder, through no fault of the student’s.

    #18: Yea for SLACs. Not sure if the policy is the same today, but at my SLAC it was policy that all intro courses (including labs) were taught by the head of the department. In departments where course sections were necessary (English and Math), every member of the department taught at least one section.

    That’s part of what we sell, here in the liberal arts college world. The vast majority of our classes are taught by regular faculty (with occasional visitors and adjuncts), and teaching is a major component of faculty reappointment and tenure reviews. At Union, we don’t have any formal TA arrangements, though we do occasionally arrange for upper-class students to informally help out in large classes. At Williams, there were student TA’s, but there were strict limits on how much the TA’s could do.

    #20: Could someone explain what “weeding out” actually means? I’ve always wondered.

    If a class is well taught, with information given to students about how and where to find extra help, won’t the students who are interested and capable naturally make better grades than those who are uninterested and/or incapable?

    The appropriate version of “weeding out” is a class where the level of work required is such that students who aren’t really serious about wanting to study the subject will decide to do something else. This can be a matter of ability– the introduction of mathematical formalism that a given student can’t grasp, for example– but it doesn’t have to be. There are some “weeding out” classes that reduce the number of students just by the nature of what’s required– it’s work that those students can do, but it’s unappealing enough that they decide not to pursue it. I took the first couple of courses in the CS sequence as an undergrad, for example, and got decent grades in both, but didn’t enjoy the second class, and thus didn’t continue on.

    Those versions of “weeding out” are perfectly appropriate. There are also inappropriate versions, such as a graduate program I won’t name, which I have been told accepts three times as many students as they have research positions for, so that they’ll have TA’s for the intro classes in the department. Their qualifying exam is deliberately designed to fail more than two-thirds of the students, and get them out of the program before they need research advisors.

  23. #23 Kate Nepveu
    January 26, 2009

    such as a graduate program I won’t name

    If you could confirm what you’ve been told about it, would you name it?

  24. #24 Chad Orzel
    January 26, 2009

    If you could confirm what you’ve been told about it, would you name it?

    Possibly. It still seems a little tacky, but their practice is different from the norm only in degree, not kind. Maryland’s failure rate on the qualifier was close to 50%, for example.

  25. #25 JuliaL
    January 26, 2009

    Coriolis,

    That helps in that you suggest the professor doesn’t decide ahead of time who should fail. I hope that’s true. And yes, unfortunately, as a native speaker I do indeed get the metaphorical implication that some students are to be considered less than human, just unwanted “weeds,” while other students are real people.

    However, if an introductory class is made so hard that passing the advanced courses seems easy by comparison, then there are still certain classes of people (the weeds) being deliberately discriminated against:

    1. People who come from science-oriented backgrounds may already have enough general knowledge to make the class in question seem not so difficult, while people without that will find there is just too much new material to learn. Discriminated against: people trying to rise above a background of poverty and uneducated families/communities.

    2. Students may increase their chances of success if they pay for tutors and extra books, and spend extra hours with those sources, to make up for whatever the professor glosses over or ignores in a deliberate effort to make the class harder to pass. Discriminated against: those with less money and those with less free time, e.g. those who must work part-time to pay for their education and those who must spend considerable time on child-care (which, of course, would disproportionally disadvantage women).

    3.Those who made early definite decisions to follow a certain science would stick it out during an unnecessarily difficult and unpleasant course to get on to their chosen degree. Discriminated against: those who are still exploring their interests and abilities in science because they haven’t yet had enough information and experience to know for sure, likely again to be disproportionally the poor (disproportionally minorities) and women.

    This thread had been illuminating because I think I begin to see at least one of the reasons why minorities and women tend to be underrepresented in science.

    I think that a college/university should have proper testing and prerequisites in place to determine whether a student has the background knowledge to sign up (and pay for) a particular introductory course. Once in that course, the school has a moral obligation to do whatever can financially be done to support every student in learning all the material. If there are, for financial reasons, only so many slots available in the next level course, there can be a prerequisite for that course (for example, an “A” in the introductory course) plus a waiting list.

    In this way, most of those who don’t go on to the advanced courses will leave with a passing or average grade and an understanding of and appreciation for, science that will make them lifelong supporters of science funding. Now, I strongly suspect, some of the people who fail for what seem to be ridiculous reasons, leave with considerably diminished respect for science.

    Maybe not all those people in the general public who disdain science are people who have no experience with it; maybe some of them learned that attitude in a weeding-out course.

  26. #26 Jonathan Vos Post
    January 26, 2009

    Chad: “Hard as it may be to believe, it is entirely possible that lack of communication could be an issue, and be primarily the fault of the faculty.”

    I agree wholeheartedly.

    My philosophy as a teacher is that I refuse to give up on ANY student. The student must meet me halfway — show up in class most of the time, hand in homework often, take midterm and final exam, not be too stoned, not harass other students — but if the student does so, It is MY responsibility to communicate.

    That means: figure out WHAT is going on in the student’s head, in sensory modality, learning style, life experiences, and the residue of bad teachers in the past — and then get that student SOMETHING useful.

    It might be lecture, or manipulatives, or experiment, or DVD, or group activity. But there is SOME communication that will get through at that time in that class to that student.

    Not to at least search for this is lazy and bad teaching, amounting to malpractice.

    Sure, it’s harder work than cookie cutters and gatekeepers. Tough. Anyone who goes into teaching because they think it’ll be easy is a fool.

    They don’t therefore have to have gatekeeper classes in Colleges of Education.

  27. #27 JuliaL
    January 26, 2009

    The appropriate version of “weeding out” is a class where the level of work required is such that students who aren’t really serious about wanting to study the subject will decide to do something else. This can be a matter of ability– the introduction of mathematical formalism that a given student can’t grasp, for example– but it doesn’t have to be. There are some “weeding out” classes that reduce the number of students just by the nature of what’s required– it’s work that those students can do, but it’s unappealing enough that they decide not to pursue it.

    I can’t agree that it’s appropriate to take a student’s money and let him/her make possibly major personal sacrifices to attend a course and only then inform the student of what level of math, etc. is required. Taking someone’s money under these circumstances approaches fraud. Proper testing and prerequisites should prevent this kind of surprise. Of course, if a student knows that whatever-it-may-be is included, and believes he/she can learn it, then finds out that, even with all the support the school is financially able to provide, he/she can’t do the work, then that’s life. It happens.

    Deliberately making a course boring or unattractive or unpleasant is incredibly short-sighted. Don’t the professors who do this ever notice that this bored and disgusted person will be one of the public later deciding on what funding should be given to this boring and disgusting science? Of course, if all you mean is that some people who try out a course or a major, where the professors are making every effort to make it interesting, decide they don’t like it, fine, but then again I don’t understand why the term “weeding out” would apply to such an ordinary event.

  28. #28 JuliaL
    January 26, 2009

    That means: figure out WHAT is going on in the student’s head, in sensory modality, learning style, life experiences, and the residue of bad teachers in the past — and then get that student SOMETHING useful.

    It might be lecture, or manipulatives, or experiment, or DVD, or group activity. But there is SOME communication that will get through at that time in that class to that student.

    Not to at least search for this is lazy and bad teaching, amounting to malpractice.

    Yes, yes!

  29. #29 CCPhysicist
    January 26, 2009

    First, a shout-out to Uncle Al at #2. My niece registered late at a school where you sign up for the entire year’s classes during orientation. She was worried that chem 2 was full. She didn’t quite believe me when I told her that there would be plenty of room by January. She did believe me when January rolled around!

    Yet another topic to blog about, although this one is not so far removed from the other one: retention of allegedly learned material (via Dean Dad’s blog). Your article plus those two others contain lots to chew on about effective teaching and effective advising. I think the biggest problem I found between the lines was the “sink or swim” approach being taken in some of those classes. How many competent engineers were abandoned by the instructor? How many came to my class (or that of one of my math colleagues) from one of those and went on to succeed?

    Chad (in #22): if the program you are thinking about has a HUGE engineering college at a huge state university, you are undoubtedly correct. I know two people who taught chemistry at such a place, with literally assembly line labs, and most grad students were there to teach labs. But it was also likely the case that they knew who had been admitted with scores that would spell PHD and those who were only admitted to teach labs for two years. For example, everyone in my 1st year office passed the comps and got a PhD. Coincidence, or good “tracking”?

  30. #30 Anna
    January 26, 2009

    #20
    I think, in this instance, “weeding out” was done via poor teaching styles and unhelpful attitudes toward students. One might argue that bad teachers may have been the reason some students left certain fields rather than a lack of aptitude or an inability to grasp the concepts.

  31. #31 Chad Orzel
    January 26, 2009

    I can’t agree that it’s appropriate to take a student’s money and let him/her make possibly major personal sacrifices to attend a course and only then inform the student of what level of math, etc. is required. Taking someone’s money under these circumstances approaches fraud. Proper testing and prerequisites should prevent this kind of surprise.

    You’re misunderstanding what I was trying to say.

    The pre-requisites and so forth are clearly set forth for the classes in question, and are enforced reasonably well. But the fact that a student has the right background preparation to do the work for the class does not mean that the student in question will like doing the work enough to continue in the major.

    For example, the vast majority of introductory physics classes include a bunch of block-on-an-inclined-plane problems. These are there because they teach students how to employ certain useful techniques (vector components, changing coordinate systems, etc.), and there’s really no good way to get a handle on those techniques without doing a whole bunch of problems.

    The math involved is not all that complicated– it’s basic algebra. Setting the problems up is a little trickier, but we go over that in class, and do a lot of examples. It’s rare to find a student who can’t do those problems.

    It’s not uncommon to find students who don’t enjoy those problems, though. Some of those students will decide that whatever interest they had in physics or engineering is not strong enough to be worth slogging through block-on-an-inclined-plane problems to get to the upper-level curriculum. Which is a perfectly reasonable reaction to have, and I consider that an example of appropriate “weeding out” of students.

    I’m not talking about ambushing students with math they’re not ready to handle. I’m talking about classes that ask students to do work that they’re not interested enough in doing to continue. Or classes that build on the background they have to a point where they’re not interested in continuing. There’s no way for them to know that they’re not interested in doing that work without taking the class and doing some of the problems.

    I would draw the line at assigning block-on-an-inclined-plane problems for the specific purpose of driving students out of a given program (and I try my best to soften to drudgery of those problems when I teach the class, because they’re really not indicative of what a physicist does). But there are points where some drudgery is unavoidable, and if students choose not to continue beyond those points, there’s nothing wrong with that.

  32. #32 Stephanie G
    January 26, 2009

    Becca at #5, I am a family physician whose undergraduate degree is in math. I think physics is important for a physician for a couple of different reasons. For one, it gives a theoretical base for the discussion about body mechanics. How does the lens in your eye work? How does fluid machanics affect cardiac output and the flow of blood in your arteries?

    The second reason it is important, though, is that it, along with calculus and chemistry, teach students to think analytically in a way that is vital for their future as physicians. The specific subject matter is less important than gaining the ability to understand complex concepts.

    I agree that physics should not be badly taught just to fail students and thereby decrease the number of people applying to medical school, but I do think it is important for medical students to take it and pass it.

  33. #33 agm
    January 26, 2009

    JuliaL,

    I’ve never heard of a college or university that didn’t explicitly state course pre-reqs and co-reqs, for pretty much that reason. It just makes more headaches all around not to make the necessary background for a class clear.

    However, your comment seems to make the implication that a student not doing the necessary work to figure out what they know is not the student’s problem too. And unfortunately, a single student deals with only a handful of people in regards to this, but faculty deal with many people, over and over, and the same issues arise. There’s no end to the recurrence of these problems. It’s sort of like the stories about university neighborhoods, where the students don’t think twice about being obnoxious just this one time about this one thing, but the people who live in the neighborhood deal with it day in and day out for years and years.

  34. #34 agm
    January 26, 2009

    “The second reason it is important, though, is that it, along with calculus and chemistry, teach students to think analytically in a way that is vital for their future as physicians.”

    I had a math history class a long time ago, in which the professor argued that the reason calculus was so universal in technical endeavours was much more this reason than the actual usage of cal in the topic. Abstract thinking FTW.

  35. #35 Bardiac
    January 26, 2009

    My school has been working through a process to find where our weaknesses are in helping students from ethnic minorities and students who are economically disadvantaged. Part of the process involves looking at how these students do in our “gatekeeper” courses. The next step will be to ask how our community can help these students succeed at equity levels. (Thus, if 50% of white students pass, it’s logical to expect that 50% of American Indian students should pass; if the numbers aren’t working out, we need to think of how to enable better success without blaming the students.)

    So far, the results are interesting and frankly, frustrating. We’re not serving our ethnic minority and economically disadvantaged students nearly as well as our white and economically advantaged students.

    There’s a lot to consider about gatekeeper courses, but it’s important to ask how these classes are working for all students, and especially for folks who are disadvantaged in our university communities. We have a lot of work to do at my university, but at least we’re trying to get started.

  36. #36 ar
    January 26, 2009

    At my university, we see a lot of this in Calc I and II, both of which I’ve taught. I have no problem seeing this as a weed out course, both to test the passion of the students, and their basic skills. Every time I fail an engineer for saying that log(a + b)=log(a)+log(b) I feel a little bit better about driving over bridges.

  37. #37 Bouncing Bosons
    January 26, 2009

    I apologize for the unnecessary snarkyness of my first comment here, in the sleepless haze of the first day of the semester (I become nocturnal during vacations) I didn’t realize how harsh it sounds. I understand that there can be serious issues and seriously AWFUL teachers.

    For example: there was a guy a friend of mine was TAing for, and he got upset at his TAs for grading too leniently. As an example he picked out a student’s answer which had been given full credit and said it deserved zero because none of the lines of work matched what he had underlined on his rubric, even though the student had come up with the correct answer from a perfectly valid line of thought. They don’t have him teaching classes anymore, though he does labs.

    I just find it hard to believe that every case is really, truly a bad teacher, because there is a lot of frustrated noise going on at universities. People come into mechanics courses not being able to do algebra with fractions, and then heap criticism upon the physics instructor. GIGO applies.

    Chad: is that 50% on any individual administration of the exam? Because unless they’ve changed it since you were here, very few people fail to pass the quals after the 3 (really 4) tries and the possibility of an oral test if the results are borderline.

  38. #38 Grad
    January 26, 2009

    [quote]I took a quantum class in grad school from a Chinese woman whose English skills were so lacking that she basically read the textbook to us. The equations she wrote on the board were equations that were in the text, the explanations that she gave for the equations were word-for-word from the book, etc. The two jokes she told in the entire semester were in the book, as well. …[/quote]

    I don’t understand this. Why weren’t you complaining loudly until this was fixed? That class was a best a waste of you time and hers.

    Complain, in writing to the Department head, the dean and the provost, CC the professor. Complain again, if necessary. Just because you can find a way to pass it anyway doesn’t make it okay.

    Fears of retaliation should be put aside, provided you’re attending everyday and trying to do the work.

    While an undergrad I know of two facualty members who lost their jobs after the first quarter for their complete disregard for teaching. (~17,000 undergrad, doctoral granting research university, located in a major city.). The common factor in both of these cases was the students in the class speaking up as well a massive incompetence and disregard for the job at hand.

    Now, I don’t mean that you should complain like this for any small problem, but you need to be willing to escalate to this level if necessary.

    Speaking to another professor, in an unrelated department, was for me, extremely useful, but that might be less helpful to someone less embedded in their department than I was.

    These issues of mass incompetence are entirely orthogonal to weed out courses. Please don’t conflate them.

  39. #39 Brad
    January 26, 2009

    It is interesting, on another weblog I regularly read hosted by historians, this topic also came up. The History equivalent was histogriaphy, effective a methods in history class.

    I fundamentally agree with Chad that all majors have some material you like or hate. The earlier that you go through that material, the better. I had many good friends in physics who thougth they were going to do something else first (including me, it turns out I dislike math as mathematicians do it).

    On the flip side, I think everyone agrees that a lot of “weeding out” is done through just plain bad teaching, which serves no ones interests, but especially does not serve the interests of those of us who are interested in seeing universities helping underserved minorities. This issue is one that frequently rests on the preparedness of the students. It is an incredibly difficult problem to solve because it requires helping students who were ill-served earlier. I have seen this done, successfully, but it requires a lot more resources than the average rich kid.

  40. #40 banerjee
    January 29, 2009

    I have a feeling that there might be cultural reasons why some students fail to understand the accents of Asian teachers. My hypothesis is that their brains shut off when they hear an unfamiliar accent or see an unfamiliar face type.

    I’ve taken classes from people with a range of accents and have never had any significant difficulty understanding what they were saying. In fact, the accents that I’ve found most difficult to understand were souther US drawls, certain British accents, and some Russian accents. But I’ve always been able to figure out what they were saying based on the context even if I’d missed a few words.

    I found the negative->inactive confusion hilarious. Clearly, a person who can’t figure out what the speaker means after several repetitions of the word in several contexts is displaying an inactive mind.

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