I once knew a girl who read medical memoirs from age 8, and shortly thereafter identified her future employer as the Epidemic Intelligence Service at the Centers for Disease Control. She eventually headed off to college as a pre-med student, where she encountered Chemistry, which she hated. She suffered through, earning a hard-won B. Then, facing two semesters of Organic Chemistry, she concluded that the ensuing decade of medical training would be similar. She dropped off the track.
That girl was me, and I was unaware that I’d simply been weeded out by, well, weed-out classes. As the name suggests, these courses end a study trajectory for many students. Weed-outs are typically foundational courses with high enrollments in which many students earn Ds and Fs, or withdraw — known in the field as a verb, “DFWing.”
The classes are usually among the first coursework that a student may encounter, such as college algebra, calculus or writing, though some appear a few semesters down the line, such as nursing students who face anatomy and physiology, or pre-med students enrolling in organic chemistry. Introductory courses also commonly serve as weed-outs, such as initial courses in psychology, economics, accounting, physics, chemistry, biology and world history, says Drew Koch, president of the Gardner Institute, an organization that improves collegiate teaching and learning, and also tracks weed-outs.
The effects of a low grade
Why do we care? Well, weed-outs derail promising students from their fields of interest, and a disproportionate number of those derailed students are low income, first-generation or students of color, many of whom graduated from under-resourced high schools. A low grade can have rippling negative effects on these populations. For example, students receiving federal aid such as Pell Grants can find their funding threatened due to unsatisfactory academic progress, even if they withdraw rather than flunk. And it can derail promising careers.
The problem is endemic. At highly selective schools, DFW rates can be under 10%, and at schools that accept all applicants, as high as 50% to 60%.
“What most surprised me was how consistent the findings are across institutions and across different types of STEM majors,” says Marissa Thompson, a postdoctoral fellow in education policy at the University of Michigan Ford School of Public Policy whose work tracking weed-outs finds that a low first-year grade in a STEM class commonly discourages students from the major. “If universities are serious about encouraging more students to consider STEM, they’re not necessarily going about it in a way that will accomplish this goal.” She points to this contradiction: Many schools preach diversity and inclusion, yet offer introductory STEM classes that often discourage diverse populations.
Weed-outs can be cruel
Back in the day, when the attendees of universities were male offspring of the affluent, weeding out low performers helped maintain intellectual standards. But those DFWing students were moneyed men whose livelihoods progressed amenably with or without that course credit.
Today, weed-out classes can be cruel. Students and their families take a large financial hit if a student cannot progress; in the case of non-traditional students, it is brutal to expect them to recall, say, high school algebra from 10 to 20 years ago. “We have admitted these students willingly to our institutions,” Koch says. “The idea that we now need to weed out students to somehow maintain standards and rigor is really no longer relevant, equitable nor fair.”
Weed-outs are everywhere in higher education, and Koch and Thompson have some advice for the next time you face one:
- Identify whether it’s a weed-out. Ask if the class is graded on a curve, and what the DFW rates are by family income, race and ethnicity. Curves typically benefit students of privilege. A great question for admissions night: What does your school do to ensure that students master content in foundational courses, so that they are not just weed-outs? Mastery is a collaborative process, in which students are better engaged and all ideally learn the content. “If they can’t tell you, then they’re not really about student success,” Koch says.
- Access all available support. The thing about weed-outs is that you just need to survive the course. You can do this! Koch suggests looking for academic advisors, peer study groups and upperclassmen who previously passed. Some classes hold specific sections geared toward extra instruction, or offer extra supplemental tutoring. If you cannot attend — a common scenario for students with jobs — ask a college advisor about alternatives.
- Go to office hours. This is your shining moment to meet the professor and teaching assistants. No, it’s not kissing up. It will save you, because no instructor wants to fail an engaged student who is really trying. Interact often, like going up to the lecturer after class, even to just say that you enjoyed today’s class.
- Get the materials. Students on a budget are known to skip textbooks, or acquire a digital version. Studies show that readers absorb more information on paper, so get your hands on a hard copy. College libraries keep copies of required textbooks on hand. Talk to the professor if you can’t afford materials.
- Above all, know that you should not base your career path decision around one to two terrible courses. “Don’t think, ‘Because I performed poorly in this class, I’m not going to be able to perform well in the rest of the major,’” Thompson says. “Oftentimes that’s just not the case.”