College ‘Weed-out’ Classes are Bad News for Women and People of Color
Introductory courses in undergraduate STEM education disproportionately disadvantage women and people of color. Can anything be done to reverse the tide?
The lack of “scaffolding” or support systems when learning complex material such as calculus might be scaring away even the most brilliant college students working toward a science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) degree. Research led by Nate Brown, professor of mathematics at Penn State University, found that difficult introductory classes, often known as “weed-out” courses, present a stumbling block for minority and female students. When a Black student got a D, F, or withdrawal on an introductory STEM course, the chances of their graduation decreased almost by half. Conversely, the odds of graduation for a white male with a similar standing in an introductory weed-out course would drop by only a third.
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Brown and his team used a sample set of 109,070 students who attended college between 2005 and 2012, with a third enrolling with the intent of pursuing a STEM degree. A 2016 study in the journal PLOS ONE, which found that women were 1.5 times more likely to leave the STEM pipeline after calculus, as compared to men. That motivated Brown, an advocate for STEM diversity, to further research how weed-out courses impacted women and people of color (POC).
The findings might provide some explanation for the disparities in the diversity makeup of those who graduate with a STEM degree. According to a 2021 Pew Research report, “Black students earned 7% of STEM bachelor’s degrees as of 2018, the most recent year available, below their share of all bachelor’s degrees (10%) or their share of the adult population (12%). The share of Hispanic college graduates with a STEM degree—12%—remains lower than that for all college graduates (15%) in 2018. Women earned 85% of the bachelor’s degrees in health-related fields, but just 22% in engineering and 19% in computer science as of 2018.”
Brown emphasized that the research he and his team conducted does not address the reasons for why weed-out courses disproportionately affect women and POC. His speculation, based on available literature, is that large lecture formats do not encourage student interactions and community building, which might exacerbate feelings of isolation and marginalization. “I don’t suggest for one second that the act of lecturing itself affects students differently,” Brown said, “it’s a much more subtle and complex influence of human dynamics.”
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With societal influences of what a scientist looks like, women and POC students might have “background anxiety” baked in—am I really cut out for this? Is STEM for me? “So when you have high-stakes exams, the pressure is really on for people who already have these doubts,” Brown speculated. “You can’t draw a direct line from high-stakes exams to disproportionate impact, it goes through the societal influences and stereotypes we all grow up with.”
What Can Be Done?
One of the solutions, Brown suggested, is to institute top-down policies to “genuinely value teaching in promotion and tenure.” Even if that would not be tenable, colleges and universities can find ways to incentivize faculty who do care, he recommended.
Sathy agreed. Given that the intimidatingly large class sizes of introductory STEM classes might not go away anytime soon, “We have to have our most talented faculty teaching those classes, those who are experts not only in teaching, but in teaching large classes,” Sathy said. Large classes also need plenty of administrative support, she added.
Colleges should also move away from a norm-based approach to grading where only a certain percentage of students receive an A, Sathy said. “In theory you could have all the A students in one room and still have some of them not [get high grades] because they’re in the same room. And that’s really antithetical to inclusive teaching,” she said. “Such an approach also fosters a very competitive atmosphere because everyone’s fighting for a coveted spot.” She advocated a criterion-based grading system where everyone who deserves an A gets one, without an artificial cap.
Since students come from different backgrounds and different levels of preparation to introductory courses, Sathy suggested baking in the teaching of note-taking methods and study habits.
“Communicating to students that they do belong here, we’re grateful you’re here, we could use your talents in our discipline [also goes a long way],” she suggested.
Every step, large or small, that can decrease inequities up and down the pipeline helps. At the end of the day, “inequity in STEM education is not sustainable,” Brown said, “we are hurting ourselves if we don’t make major changes in light of these results.”
Poornima Apte is technology writer based in Walpole, Mass.