Weed-out classes could push students out of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors and contribute to doctor shortage.
Difficult classes are a guarantee for college students in any degree program, but specifically STEM majors. There has been a lot of debate about whether these intentionally difficult classes are causing more problems than solutions, especially in the medical community.
Intentionally difficult classes are colloquially referred to as weed-out classes. The theory behind weed-out classes is to guarantee those who continue on in the path of study can handle the pressure of future classes and the field. The goal of a weed-out class is to eliminate students from the program.
Weed-out classes are generally taken in the first two years of college and have large enrollment numbers, sometimes with over 1,000 students attending the class in one semester.
The Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics did research on the amount of STEM majors who changed majors. They found that 35 percent of STEM majors switched their major within three years.
Adrian Munoz, sophomore in prebusiness, switched from a biology major partially due to the required science courses at Iowa State.
“[Biology and chemistry] were hard. I definitely underestimated them in a way,” he said.
Munoz said he had planned to attend medical school to become a doctor, but ultimately decided against it.
“Changing majors wasn’t easy,” he said. “I felt like a failure, like I couldn’t do it. I had this passion for being a doctor for a really long time, and then I had the realization that I couldn’t do it.”
Those in the medical field are increasingly worried about a shortage of doctors.
The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) conducted a study called The Complexities of Physician Supply and Demand: Projections from 2018-2033.
“The new study, which advances the calculations by one year, projects shortfalls in primary care of between 21,400 and 55,200 physicians, and in specialty care of between 33,700 and 86,700 physicians,” a summary of the report read.
These numbers do not reflect how COVID-19 has impacted the medical community, but researchers believe the shortage has only been accelerated.
One contributing factor for this projected shortage of doctors is retirement age and physician burnout. According to the projections, two out of every five doctors will reach retirement age by 2032.
Another contributing factor to this shortage, according to the report, is less students attending medical school due to the stress of classes.
Ashley Foster, a premed student in Memphis, had a tweet about weed-out classes go viral in the medical community in late 2019.
“I don’t pay these institutions to ’weed me out’ from my chosen field,” Foster tweeted. “I pay you and the professors to teach me what I need to know to continue on my path.”
Michal Elovitz, director of maternal and child health at the University of Pennsylvania, replied to Foster’s tweet.
“Let me say that as [a] tenured professor at [a] large academic university, [science] courses have absolutely nothing to do with your future ability or love of medicine,” Elovitz tweeted.
The idea of weed-out classes has been around for many decades and is supported by some for not wasting time and resources on those who ultimately will not succeed in the field. These classes are specifically designed to make sure a student can handle the pressure of their chosen path.
In Weed-Out Classes and Their Consequences, a research paper co-written by Timothy Weston, Elaine Seymour, Andrew Koch and Brent Drake, the researchers interviewed students and faculty about weed-out classes.
“[Professors] view the challenges of weed-out classes as tests of intellect, determination, and interest, and seek to identify students with sufficient stamina to handle the challenges that lie ahead,” they wrote. “Indeed, they see it as no kindness to students to let them continue if they cannot surmount the challenges of what they often refer to as disciplinary ‘rigor.’”
Foster disagreed with this point of view.
“Think about it this way: there is a doctor shortage that isn’t keeping up with our aging population,” she said in an interview about the tweet. “Why? Because these self-professed ‘gatekeepers’ are taking more than eager-to-learn students who would otherwise be great physicians and forcing them out of academia.”
Weed-out classes continue to impact individuals and the medical community. Neil Garg, chemistry professor at University of California Los Angeles, is passionate about teaching philosophy. He published a paper about it in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.
“Students want to learn and we must never lose sight of this fundamental reality,” he wrote. “Teaching is all about the students. We must challenge them, support them, make them feel connected to the class, and give them opportunities to do amazing things.”