October 25, 2020

WU | Grade Toxicity, Weed-Out Culture, and Other Gen Chem Qualms

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First day of freshman year, I’m a little late to my first Chemistry class. I end up packed into the balcony seats of Baker 200. Our professor is introducing office hours, study resources and the help classes we could enroll in for the semester. He introduces the professor for the supplemental class. The supplement class professor tells us to introduce ourselves to our neighbors, shake hands, get to know them a little bit. I do just that. He then deadpans, “You and your neighbor are not getting an A in this class.” Well, welcome to Cornell.

Over the years, I’ve found that my grades are of far higher importance in my STEM classes than in my humanities classes. Perhaps it’s because many science students are aiming for medical or graduate school, or perhaps it’s because some of our intro courses have turned into “weed-out” courses, made intentionally more difficult than they need to be. Perhaps it’s just the combination of classes I’ve chosen to take in my Biology major. Somehow, many of our STEM courses have become far too results-oriented — about the grade that we get at the end, and not about how we improve or how we learn as students.

During the pandemic, this became painfully obvious. Faculty opinion of universal versus optional S/U fell nearly entirely along humanities versus STEM lines, with most STEM professors advocating for optional S/U and humanities professors for universal S/U. My instructors for my two humanities classes both encouraged me to take their classes S/U. An instructor for one of my Biology classes advised me to do the opposite.

In May, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ advising put together a program titled, “Is S/U Right for You?,” perhaps in response to the many STEM students unsure if they could actually take their classes S/U. In bold, the programming information noted, “The May 12th grading change deadline is approaching. Be informed about your options. Pre-health students should be aware of implications when exercising the S/U grading option.” In other words, if you’re pre-health, don’t take your core classes S/U. You need letter grades to get where you want to go.

In reality, however, grades represent very little. They reflect how well I crammed for a series of tests, or how meticulously I can put together an essay the day before it’s due. They fail to capture how much or how little I learned in a class, or how interested or disinterested I am in a particular subject. Yet in STEM classes, we put so much weight on these grades. So much so that sometimes, it feels like I am taking these classes just to get a grade or just to graduate — and not to learn.

This semester, we have returned to our pre-pandemic grading scheme, and to that hamster wheel of college. However, we aren’t learning nearly as well nor as much as we were in our in-person classes. More than ever before, most of our learning is happening outside the classroom, as we attempt to navigate through the chaos of the pandemic, the elections, and our personal lives.

For the record, I got an A- in general chemistry that semester. I studied harder than I ever did in high school, but I only studied the material  enough to get the grade I wanted, and nothing more. While I didn’t take the supplemental class for chemistry, the words of that professor certainly left an impression on me. My interest in learning in that class was quashed on day one.

Yes, getting good grades feels rewarding. And yes, we need good grades for med school or grad school or that job that we want. But our grade-obsessed culture stifles learning and human empathy.  It would be nice, for a bit, to stop focusing so much on our grades, and start focusing on our learning.

Lei Lei Wu is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached atlw534@cornell.edu. Her column, Get Lei’d, runs every other Monday this semester.