From weeder to leader



Several years ago, I received a call from a student whose voice betrayed his sense of frustration and defeat. Despite studying for days, he had just failed the final exam in an introductory computer-programming course, along with the majority of the class. For the first time in my experience as an educator and administrator, I paused to wonder why we don’t question the failure rate in these classes.

We’ve all met professors who point to a low pass rate as documentation of their ability to create a worthy college course. But in the world of continuing education—where we dedicate ourselves to healing those students who have been undermined by the pedagogy of elimination—we have a responsibility to challenge the philosophy behind a course whose primary role is to limit the number of students who pursue that field of study.

Every year, freshmen start college with the intention of majoring in high-attrition STEM degrees, like pre-med or engineering, only to soon find themselves transferring to majors traditionally understood to be less demanding. It’s like clockwork, this exodus as the first semester draws to a close.

The culprit? The weeder course. These are classes that have been created explicitly to weed out the many students who come to college with the goal of majoring in some particularly academically rigorous program, often within a STEM field. The conventional thinking is that in such numbers, they cannot excel in those demanding areas of study, and that it’s therefore best to winnow the mass of optimists as quickly as possible.

Creating courses specifically designed to eliminate a significant number of students from their chosen majors flies in the face of the fundamental objective of education. If the creed of the doctor is to “first, do no harm,” then the central tenet of the educator must be to create a learning environment that cultivates the potential of all students, not just those who conform to a narrowly defined pedagogy and assessment methodology.

Of course, students fail for a variety of reasons—a reality I am all too familiar with. (Many of us are once again knee-deep in probation and dismissal letters.) The goal of shifting our thinking does not minimize the fact that there are students failing courses for reasons that have nothing to do with weeder courses (and that, developmentally, they must be given the space to do so).

Changing introductory STEM courses does not mean simply reducing rigor. These “leader” introductions to their fields give students the opportunity to learn key concepts and to find their footing. In subsequent courses, students will use a more applied and hands-on methodology as standards are raised.

Is there a chance that a student might be successful in a “leader” intro-level course only to struggle in the more advanced courses? Certainly—as is the case in most areas of study, including English, languages, and business. The goal is not to make everyone’s academic life easier and more pleasant, but to create a space for exposure to fields that might previously have been closed to these students while giving them time to learn the language of STEM.

When we promote the exclusionary nature of weeder courses, especially in STEM disciplines, we are doing a major disservice to students seeking to pursue their passions. If our goal is to identify only the most immediately secure students, then a weeder works well. But if we want to nurture the potential inherent in each student and create an environment in which all students are given the opportunity to succeed—not the guarantee, but the opportunity—that is another matter entirely.

After talking with many frustrated students in a number of our high-attrition courses (and reading two years’ worth of course evaluations), my colleagues and I decided to rethink the use of weeders. As educators and administrators who had chosen to work with adult students—who often come to college pessimistic about their capacity to learn—we had discovered that the way students perform upon arrival is often very different from what they are capable of just a couple of semesters later.

To foreclose on those students so early seemed to us at best short-sighted, and at worst unethical. We felt the need to provide courses that introduce STEM concepts in a way that allows students to make sense of theory through meaningful application and real-world experience. If, like other students across a variety of disciplines, they later decide that they are not passionate about the field, they can leave knowing that they had tried and had chosen a different course of study. This decision would come as a result of personal agency and a sense of ownership over one’s life, as opposed to a response to academic failure—a much harder perception to overcome.

As a test case, we developed an introductory course in computer programming that would be known instead as a “leader:” a course that all students in the field of information technology would take. It would introduce them incrementally to the concepts of programming and would be taught by a faculty member known for patience and the ability to make difficult concepts accessible.

Now career changers sit far less anxiously alongside much more technically savvy students as they learn to make sense of the logic behind computer architecture. Within a semester, this course went from being one of our highest-attrition programs to one of our lowest—losing just 8 percent of its students over the past two years.

The method was simple: we stopped thinking about the course as an exercise in the process of elimination and instead designed one that would open up a new world to an interested student. Not all students who take this course choose to remain IT majors, but more have chosen to continue along that path than did before. It is difficult to tease out all the factors contributing to the success that most of our students experience, but we know that those who start with this introductory course and complete it are far more likely to finish their degrees than those who took the course before we rewrote it.

This is significant for a couple reasons. First, national graduation rates for the adult continuing-education student are woefully low (somewhere in the mid-30th percentile), so anything we can do to effect a change can have a profound impact on students. Second, we have dedicated ourselves to the work of preparing adult students for career changes and professional growth, and we know that they are better able to work toward those goals with this course under their belts than they might have been before.

Regardless of the age of the student, education is about breaking the complex into building blocks of knowledge. By supporting STEM students rather than dismissing them, we are creating a more well-prepared and sustainable work force. It’s a fine line we walk when we attempt to balance competing ideas for what success looks like in the college classroom. But the academic experience should be a lot more like a leader course than a weeder.

Author Bio: Mika Nash is an academic dean and associate professor in the Division of Continuing Professional Studies at Champlain College.