Graphic depicting a sign that says “pre-med” pointing to the right, and a sign that says “weed out” pointing to the left. (Hustler Multimedia/Alexa White). (Alexa White)
Graphic depicting a sign that says “pre-med” pointing to the right, and a sign that says “weed out” pointing to the left. (Hustler Multimedia/Alexa White).

Alexa White

CONNELL: It’s time to weed out weed-outs

After flunking my first biology exam, it feels like I may flunk my dreams of a career in science.

November 30, 2022

CORRECTION: This piece was corrected on Jan. 18 at 10:20 a.m. CST. It previously stated that the author’s Introduction to Biological Sciences professors did not offer office hours; however, The Hustler obtained documentation of the professors offering office hours by appointment.

Introductory biology has made me feel more alone than ever before. 

For the past two months, I’ve poured my soul into both of my weed-out classes, General Chemistry and Introduction to Biological Sciences. I’ve pulled countless all-nighters and sacrificed my social and personal well-being in the hopes of getting high grades. I’ve spent hours drawing organelle structures and memorizing the amino acids, their many names and three-letter codes. 

When I got my score back for my first biology exam after weeks of studying, I was devastated to see that I had failed. 

Not only did I fail my biology test, but so did the majority of the class. In fact, the class average for the test was 65%—and not because we aren’t smart. I believe that each and every one of us is capable of excelling in academics—haven’t we shown we are capable by achieving admission to Vanderbilt? This struggle is not isolated to biology, as it also applies to other weed-out courses at Vanderbilt.

Are students set up to fail in these classes? 

After failing my exam, I feel overwhelmed and I’m unsure of where to go from there. I know I am not the only one who feels lost and uncertain after failing science exams. It often feels like weed-out classes at Vanderbilt exist to push students out of science. The lack of support for students, the shortage of learning or teaching assistants and the vast grading differences between courses for non-STEM majors and the major equivalent courses make STEM at Vanderbilt nearly impossible. 

On the first day of classes at Vanderbilt, I tried to set aside the fears and doubts that had been planted in my head. I decided that no matter what others told me, I was capable of incredible things. I went into my first biology and chemistry classes with an open mind. On syllabus day, my biology professor made me revisit my concerns when he announced that he does not have teaching assistants or learning assistants. I heard groans of annoyance from my class, but I managed to reassure myself that I could go to the professor directly if I needed help. Many classes at Vanderbilt have Learning Assistants, students who have succeeded in the course and lead small-group discussions and problem-solving sessions to help students feel comfortable in the classes. According to a study done through Life Sciences Education, LAs can enhance a student’s sense of belonging in any class. My section of introductory biology had no support for students from peers. 

The panelists announced to the entire room that most of us would drop pre-med within our time here at Vandy. Feeling defeated, I lowered my hand. I felt embarrassed and singled out before classes had even started. ”

As part of orientation, first-year students in the College of Arts and Science attended a seminar where a welcoming panel of faculty and current students asked anyone with pre-med aspirations to raise their hands. Unsurprisingly, half the room did so, some with confidence and some not so much. The panelists then announced to the entire room that most of us would drop pre-med within our time here at Vandy. Feeling defeated, I lowered my hand. I felt embarrassed and singled out before classes had even started. 

This seminar was not the first time I’d heard this narrative, especially as an aspiring woman in STEM. Weed-out classes also exacerbate the already-existent issues of representation in a field that has been—and continues to be—homogenous. According to a recent study, women are more likely to feel defeated with early poor grades in weed-out STEM classes than their male counterparts, leading to more and more women leaving the field entirely. The pressure in STEM also affects first-generation college students. A study by Brookings Institution shows that first-generation college students are less likely than other students to continue with a STEM major after their first year, regardless of preparation or socioeconomic background. I’m often told I should aspire to positions like a medical assistant or nurse, or that I should change career paths entirely and become a teacher. I’ve been told that the pre-med path is too ambitious for “someone of my nature”— whatever that means. Throughout history, women have been prevented from working in certain fields or attending college at all. We continue to fight for our education and persevere in driving change—science education and careers are no exception. While I don’t think that nursing or teaching are bad professions, these jobs simply aren’t career paths about which I’m passionate. In fact, part of what drew me to Vanderbilt was my passion for science, interest in psychiatry and the ability to take multidisciplinary medicine, health and society classes. I’m not willing to give up on my passion because there are less women in science than men. 

At Vanderbilt, it is no secret that pre-professional tracks are notorious for students changing majors, career paths, and failing exams en masse. Students who choose pre-professional tracks often face an uphill battle to enter competitive fields and can feel unsupported by their professors and the nature of their course curricula. It seems that the university is trying to reduce the number of students choosing pre-professional tracks via its weed-out classes and classroom structure for these classes. Vanderbilt is known as one of the top pre-medical undergraduate schools in the country. We have very high medical school acceptance rates and above-average MCAT scores. What message does this correlation send to pre-medical students? Is it necessary to feel demoralized in STEM classes to have a chance at succeeding in medical professions? I’m inclined to say no.

Beyond the lack of support felt by many students, the differences between major and non-major teaching assistants is vastly different. In my experience, teaching assistants in non-major STEM classes, such as Biology Today or certain Chemistry classes, tend to give praise for right answers and positively reinforce students. However, in a weed-out STEM-major class, the TAs, while having the exact same training, are more focused on concepts and don’t spend much time validating correct answers, good effort or emotional struggles that every student will inevitably go through. Hence, science majors at Vanderbilt often feel very unsupported under the pretense of “weed-out” classes. 

Why would professors support a practice that leads to so many students switching out of their fields? How can you argue that your field is a vastly important contribution to society and tell students they are likely to fail in the same breath?”

In my opinion, being admitted to Vanderbilt is a weed-out process itself. Is this not enough to ensure that the best and brightest students are enrolled in STEM classes every year? Vanderbilt’s low acceptance rate reflects the university’s high selectivity. Vanderbilt ensures that the students who move into Commons each fall are those who widely excel academically. Even if you don’t completely disagree with the idea of weeding out students as I do, it still shouldn’t be a reason to not offer support—such as through a lack of TAs or LAs—to students actively wanting to learn. 

All of this leads me back to the one question I’ve been asking since I got here. Why do weed-out courses exist? Why would professors support a practice that leads to so many students switching out of their fields? How can you argue that your field is a vastly important contribution to society and tell students they are likely to fail in the same breath? In STEM professions that are already lacking representation of minority groups and women, why do universities continue to support a system that perpetuates this lack of diversity? 

If Vanderbilt wants to cultivate a happy and diverse community of college students, weed-out classes should be eliminated entirely, or at least restructured. Instead of toxicity, courses should promote peer networks of learning support through TAs and LAs, encourage active learning, and foster a space for students from all backgrounds and minorities to succeed. 

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Comments (26)

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L
LJ Zwiebel
9 days ago

Now that a new semester has begun, I can also commend the author for her courage in posting this guest editorial. While I do not agree with many of aspects in the piece, I do agree there should be ample numbers of graduate student teaching assistants (TAs) in all gateway science courses. This is sadly not the case for this biology class (BSCI 1510).

That said, the author is not correct and indeed does a great disservice in stating that the Professors in her BSCI 1510 class did not provide office hours. Both Professors provided multiple opportunities for all the students in the class to ask questions or to otherwise clarify course content. These included office hours (by appointment), near 24/7 email contact, BrightSpace discussion forums and after-hours review sessions.

I can say this with absolute certainty because I am one of those Professors and I take great pride in the care and professionalism I bring to each and every class. I respectfully suggest the author consider publishing a correction on this very important point.

Last edited 9 days ago by LJ Zwiebel
V
Vivian Nguyen
1 month ago

Why aren’t the professors held accountable for poor teaching? Shouldn’t an average of 65% mean that the professor was not a good teacher. Let’s make this a level playing field. If the students are going to be weeded out for poor performance, so should the professors.

L
Lupton
1 month ago
Reply to  Vivian Nguyen

I wish someone from SGA would run on the platform of fixing grade inequality at Vanderbilt.

M
Meredith
1 month ago

Kate, I have to commend you for writing this article. The fact that your professor felt so attacked that he wrote a response article just goes to show how powerful this piece was and that you are raising an important discussion.

M
MJ (they/them)
1 month ago

I am going to apply to medical school as a Gender & Sexuality Studies Major. I don’t plan on taking Biology as I feel it reinforces a patriarchal construct in science. I’ll study hard for the MCAT but I feel that my medical school application will be more holistic with my major and electives. My application will focus on my diversity and my empathy with the people who will be my future colleagues and patients.

C
Courtney
1 month ago

It’s not that the classes are “too hard,” it’s that there is zero support. I find it ridiculous that such a notoriously difficult class has ZERO LAs or TAs and the professor provides NO office hours.

G
Gisele Urruti
24 days ago
Reply to  Courtney

Office hours are a requirement at all reputable universities.
My father was a department chair at an elite university and affirmed that this was a requirement. It was not optional.
Can someone confirm that this is not a requirement of all Vanderbilt professors?

Although, I fully believe Ms. Connell, I am shocked that this science department and university would condone this.
Universities exist because they educate and prepare students for a future profession in their chosen field of study. Otherwise, they can be purely research institutions.

Back to my father…he always says that low grades reflect that a professor has not instructed in a way that the students can learn and retain the subject material. He says it’s feedback to the professor that the material has not been learned and they should not advance in the syllabus. They should review with the students to prepare them for the next section to be taught.

When I asked a Vandy student if they had filled out their professors’ course evaluations the response was that it was useless since it didn’t make a difference and therefore it was not completed. Does anyone know what percentage of students complete their course evaluations? I want to think that every department has this data. If the percentage numbers are low then this is an issue to be addressed.

I want to commend Ms. Connell on the courage to write a current piece about the irresponsible status of teaching she has experienced. As a psychiatric medical professional who has seen the soaring numbers of universities develop their mental health programs over the more recent decades as a response to student needs I must say that it is working in conjunction with the academic staff that a balance is attempted for student success.

This does not in any way imply that course material cannot be extremely challenging but it must be accompanied by the student’s opportunity to seek clarification and further instruction if they are in need of it. The highest satisfaction of the best professors, in my opinion, is to know they have imparted a high degree of knowledge to their students. Most of us can remember these past professors forever.

There is no need to further describe this essential component of education as Vanderbilt’s own Peabody College is a leader in such matters.

When I received an email this year from Vanderbilt addressing and anticipating the needs of future expectant mothers and fathers amongst their student body, when Roe vs. Wade was overturned, I was impressed. I shared this information proudly as being timely and humane. The university was one of the earlier higher education organizations to do so. How forward thinking and prepared they want to be to support their students I thought to myself.

It’s been a short while since this Ms. Connell’s piece was published. It brought back memories of multiple alumni and current students sharing stories of changing their majors so they could graduate with higher GPAs needed for their graduate or professional work. These stories can be heard at many universities but as she pointed out the degree of selectivity at this university has produced a proven flock.

Any professor, here or elsewhere, should be honored to have this caliber of student to instruct. Now, it’s up the teaching staff to draw these young malleable minds into the depths of the subjects they have spent years researching.

If any murmurs this publication produced in any academic department/university administration have remained as such
then I am ashamed of this institution. On the other hand, as my tendency is to be optimistic, if this has led to discussion and a meeting with Ms. Connell then bravo. Did/will anything change?

I have sat and walked through some Vanderbilt campus visits and orientation enough to know that they are proud of their numbers. Indeed I have heard from students repeated stories of some courses that stimulate intellectual curiosity and instill a thirst for further knowledge. Unfortunately, zero of these stories are from freshman biology or chemistry students. I imagine no one thinks much about these c(o)urses. They are merely a necessary stepping stone or a cliff for a young mind following a passion at most universities. This is not just most universities. This is Vanderbilt.

Why shouldn’t a freshman be taken as seriously as a senior?
Here they’re housed separately on campus. They identify with their houses. Vandy is proud of this freshman solidarity.
So, why not take them as seriously as seniors?

In the distant past freshmen were taken lightly and seen as full of tomfoolery. Professors were on pedestals.
Fast forward to today when these new recruits are full of information, experiences and fearless.

It’s time to rethink freshman basic science education.
A place like this can be a pioneer for the nation.
Stop discounting these impressionable minds and give their academic needs the respect they deserve.

Recently, a basic sciences’ freshman who had scored above the mean on all exams emailed a professor to inquire why their grade did not reflect their exam standings as had been posted. Their questions were discounted and replied to with a simple one line.
Not all questions were answered. Was this student treated the same as a senior would have been? Does this student have the right to inquire about their grade?

Enough said. As a past science major with amazing freshman professors I didn’t realize how uncommon my experience was.

Wake up and don’t just house these basic science young minds…..inspire them! How much more can they gain in knowledge with their passions kindled as freshman rather than losing a large percentage of them forever and slowly warming them up as sophomores, juniors or in some cases seniors.
What a wasted opportunity for you and them.

Restructure now before the second semester begins and fan the flames of curiosity. Beat the drums of freshmen science education….or criticize Ms. Connell and/or her professor and meet endlessly about it. What will you decide?

N
Not a jerk premed
1 month ago

You spent your time writing this comment when you could have been studying instead.

J
Jessica VU 95
1 month ago

DEI and Affirmative Action policies also mean that qualified applicants to medical school are replaced with less than qualified applicants in order to achieve class diversity over class merit.

F
Former Pre-Med
1 month ago

I’ve been there, and it does suck, I agree. But they HAVE to weed people out. There are more pre-meds in any given freshmen class at Vandy than there are spots at every med school combined in the state of Tennessee. There is not room for everyone to succeed. Trust me, it’s better to find something else early than graduate with a degree only good for medicine and spend years fruitlessly taking the MCAT like many people I know. I got “weeded out” to law and it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.

H
Hadil
1 month ago

Thanks

E
Econ 87
1 month ago

That’s a sad story, but it just makes me think the writer doesn’t really have a knack for biology. A good Dr is the kind of person who was trying to sew the tails back onto lizards as a kid and consequently has run into the issues with bilayers in cells before. So, I have to agree with Liam. ps – i find the bit about blaming males to be disturbing.

P
P S
1 month ago
Reply to  Econ 87

Dawg there is no way you just said “A good doctor is the kind of person that tried surgery on animals when they were a child”

E
Engineer
1 month ago

Oh so just because you got into Vandy means you deserve to get an A in every class. Also, maybe the mcat scores are good and acceptance rates are high because the people that remain premed do well in their classes.

V
Vanderbilt student
1 month ago

As a Vanderbilt student who ended up leaving the pre-med track, I really resonated with this article. Thank you for saying what needs to be said- we can still learn the things we’ll need to be doctors without the constant failure and discouragement. The weed-out classes I took my freshman and sophomore years turned science, a subject I had always loved, into something I couldn’t find enjoyment in anymore. Of course these subjects are challenging (which is one of the reasons more people don’t become doctors), but there are ways Vanderbilt could provide pre-med students with more and better support (positive reinforcement, more learning assistants, a mixture of process-based assignments and timed exams) so that they have a better chance to succeed. After all, we need more doctors, and Vanderbilt is full of smart and capable students who could do a lot of good if not pushed off this path so early.

O
OLD grad
1 month ago

Being weeded out of engineering in my freshman year was one of the best things to happen to me. Most important lesson learned at Vandy was there is always someone smarter, luckier – whatever. Use school to find your strengths and unexpected interests. The best career field for you might not even be invented yet.

L
Liam
1 month ago

OPINION: Vanderbilt’s Weed-Out Classes Effectively Do Their Jobs

R
Real Doctor
1 month ago

I think the issue is that people have different skills, and maybe Doctor isn’t the career for everyone. You shouldn’t do something just because you think it will make you a lot of money or you think you should. You should actually examine what classes you might excel in. The class average may have been a 65%, but that means some people passed, and some people probably excelled and are going to be amazing Doctors and are suited for the medical field. Enrollment has increased in medicine because everyone wants to be like the actors on Grey’s Anatomy. But people aren’t willing to put in the work. People in all fields change their mind in college once they realize what they actually like and are good at. It’s not a right that you should get to become a Doctor. The medical field is service oriented and you need to have the skills to provide that service. Why do students torture themselves and their Professors by insisting on taking classes that they’re not capable of.

M
Miransky
1 month ago
Reply to  Real Doctor

Annoying that you capitalize “Doctor.” It is pompous, and it fits well with your nom de plume here “Real Doctor.”

P
Pre-Med Student
1 month ago
Reply to  Real Doctor

We’re not saying we’re all qualified to become doctors. We’re just saying we want a chance to succeed without people going out of their way to hold us back. They WANT us to drop out. I don’t think the writer is arguing for easier classes. They just want the support system that every other major gets & not have professors intentionally try to weed them out. They want a fighting chance because they know they are capable. I’m in the same boat and I related really well. I almost dropped my major before someone sat me down and said “this grade doesn’t define how good of a doctor you can be… they want you to give up”.

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Rachel K Johnson
1 month ago
Reply to  Real Doctor

And this is why it is important to read context. One thing that you stress here is that not everyone is fit to be a doctor but how will minorities specifically know if they are not qualified if they are not given an opportunity to be put on the same playing field as someone who took AP Chemistry or have been exposed to the content before. You have to realize background is very important and secondly a lot of us minorities are working hard and spending hours preparing for an exam. You can’t put everyone in the same spectrum because we all have varying experiences.

V
VU23
1 month ago

As a patient, I care more about if a doctor can do their job over what their background is.

A
Anonymous :)
1 day ago
Reply to  VU23

You’re stupid. I care about my doctor’
s background as much as I care about their ability to do their job. Educate yourself on workplace diversity before you try inserting your white privilege into minority communities you could care less about.

I
Idk
1 month ago

Get mad at the American medical association for limiting the number of seats med schools / residencies offer, but the answer to that problem isn’t to get mad at Vanderbilt for promoting academic rigor. Everyone can’t get an A or there’s no value in the A…and subsequently. The real world is a distribution

R
Rachel K Johnson
1 month ago
Reply to  Idk

We’re not saying to make the classes any less easier. We’re asking to be given support as minorities and to be put on the same playing field as our white counterparts that have gone to feeder schools vs minorities who have gone to public schools with no APs there. We know it’s going to be rigorous and I think the point thay the argument is making is that minorities deserve to have the same opportunities to succeed as our white counterparts by the university making an effort to really be inclusive.

W
Wants good docs
1 month ago

This inclusivity stuff is going overboard. Doctors need to be capable and smart, end of discussion.

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