I overheard a conversation on the bus the other day that didn’t sit well with me. A guy was talking to his friend about his exam score — a 30 percent. He told the kid that he didn’t know one thing that was going on in his class and spent most of his time making intelligent guesses on test material that should have been checking his retained knowledge and skills he learned throughout the semester. The guy was thankful he got a 30 percent though. In the world of education, a 30 percent translates into a B.
Now, people have their own opinions on curved exams. However, as a senior, I’ve taken a diverse set of classes at the University. So I think that my observations of some of the teaching methods here have bearing. I am a double major in English and Biopsychology, Cognition, and Neuroscience. I have a Certificate in Entrepreneurship. I am also a student note-taker for Students with Disabilities. I have been assigned to classes varying from computer science to music theory to calculus. Each class and subject has its own thinking skills associated with it. But overall they share some common themes, styles and flaws.
When I stepped into my first class at the University of Michigan (Chemistry 130), I was extremely grateful. I came from a small town where I had neighbors who used cardboard to separate their walls. I did my homework by a space heater with my sisters. I had never heard of ACT prep. And thank God I was an obedient student who listened to my teachers. Otherwise I would have completely screwed myself and not taken the ACT seriously — like half of my friends back home. I was lucky. Hardworking, sure. But lucky.
Unfortunately, the barrier of getting into the University of Michigan was not the tallest in terms of my education. Day one, my chemistry professor told us that about 30 percent of our class would drop and that we should as soon as possible, so that way we weren’t wasting our time. Chemistry 130 is a weeder class. We’ve all heard this term before. A “weeder” class refers to an extremely challenging class put in place to weed out the dumb students, the ones who give up. But what exactly are these freshmen (mostly from a lower-SES and/or underrepresented racial/ethnic group) giving up on?
Are they giving up banging their head against a brick wall or from climbing a set of stairs provided by the University’s education system?
The order of skills taught through each major and class needs to be seriously reconsidered. I shouldn’t be learning how to read and write a basic research paper in a 300-level psychology class. That should have been extensively taught in a lower-level class — that way, we could all understand the many readings we are handed. I shouldn’t walk away from a Stats 250 class feeling like I got nothing out of it except feeling like I worked hard. Each subject teaches a skillset that the University is not capitalizing on in terms of the job market. These skills should be made clear at the beginning of the term. I will never be a famous calculus genius. But, if I can take a class in calculus and feel like I’ve gained analytical skills instead of pounding my head against a wall — then I have been taught something. That is a more important lesson as a freshman, facing the adversity that I did and getting the door slammed in my face when I already felt like I didn’t belong.
There is a general theme in some classes that it is simply survival of the fittest. My question is what are the students actually getting out of the class — are they getting fit?
If a curve is being set by someone who gets a 100 percent on every exam, do you really think that the professor/that class is necessary for them to learn the material? The professor might as well give everyone a book and say sayonara for the next four months and see who survives. If that is the principle we are operating on, that is not a $50,000 education.
There is a huge barrier that entering freshmen coming from more disadvantaged backgrounds face. Most of their classmates have learned the material that is being taught in 100-level classes through high school AP courses. This increases the speed that most weeder courses are taught at and warps the perception of the lessons’ effectiveness. These disadvantaged freshmen usually lack the study skills that are primed by family influence and a well-funded school. Generally, they are also (like I was), dealing with trying to keep their confidence up and paying for their own school bill. I can’t tell you the number of hardworking students I have worked with as an RA who are fighting a language barrier.
I don’t think that it is just the professor’s responsibility to fix everything. I think our services need to step up. The amount of time students put into getting help for a resource or direction to the right office is ridiculous. There are people, like my friends and me, who are working two or more jobs on campus. Efficiency and effectiveness should always be a goal for this community. That being said, I don’t think programs such as the Comprehensive Studies Program — which oversees the Bridge Program — are the solutions to this gap. I consider those programs Band-Aids to what is really going on here, protecting enough kids for the University to use on advertisements. We are playing a losing game.
Just like the diversity of classes and thought at this University, people designing the classes and educational system should keep in mind that there are students from different backgrounds as well. If the University of Michigan wants to advance, we shouldn’t be mindlessly disadvantaging our lower portion of the bell curve. By setting aside a little time for academic strategy when the students are young, the University can help disadvantaged freshmen and give advanced students more learning opportunities. We need to be preventative and proactive instead of reactive. If the goal is to get us to the top, stairs are more helpful than walls. Let’s get a B back to retaining 80 percent of a lesson, please.
Devin Eggert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.