Sunday, July 18, 2010

Professors: Ease up on chemistry and math students

Did you know that English majors are smarter than chemistry majors? And education majors are brighter than math majors? It's true, at least according to GPAs.

A recent study by Wake Forest University analyzed grade point averages at an unnamed liberal arts school. The five majors that had the lowest GPAs were chemistry (2.78), math (2.90), economics (2.95), psychology (2.98) and biology (3.02). The five highest GPAs came from education majors (3.36), language (3.34), English (3.33), music (3.30) and religion (3.22).

The study reports that students get discouraged early by the tough grades in those majors and drop out for ones that offer the chance for higher GPAs. So people are debating whether professors should perhaps ease up on the grading in those disciplines, since the world needs more scientists, engineers and mathematicians. If the students can get through the early courses, maybe they'll stick with it for four years.

Thankfully I never had to take a chemistry class in college. A roommate took organic chemistry, which was regarded as perhaps the toughest course at St. John's. The roomie and his somewhat odd chemistry buddies - who appeared to have sniffed too much butane - gathered each week for marathon study sessions while I spent time playing Tecmo and writing my 10-page papers a day before the due date. I felt bad for them, even if a few of the guys gave off an uncomfortable vibe. They seemed like the type of people who might one day have the New York Times publish their poorly punctuated manifesto.

Another roomie took high-level math classes. He spent eight hours working on a single proof, absurd problems that left him drained but ultimately proud when he solved them. I'd go play basketball with the other roommate and we'd leave Mike at his desk, his head buried in his hands. When we'd return two hours later, he'd be in the same position. We'd leave for dinner and come back an hour later, only to find him still seated, still holding his head in his hands. It was no way to live. Still, the guy owns his own company today, so the hard work paid off, even though I don't think he makes much use now of his ability to solve 10-hour math problems.

I thrived in math through elementary school. I dominated in the flash-card multiplication game. Things started going bad in about eighth grade, which was about the time I decided to be a reporter when I grew up. State regulations were the only reason I took any more math classes.

At Worthington, I took calculus and trigonometry, the victim of a transfer coordinator at St. John's who insisted I had to take those classes before leaving community college. Each day I went into the classroom thinking, "This is the day I'm going to really listen. This is the day I will figure out what trigonometry is all about." And each day I stared at the board in disbelief, struggling to understand a professor whose fourth language was English. The night before my trig final, I spent all night studying, trying to cram in 10 weeks of information. The plan failed.

Once I finally arrived at St. John's, I learned I could take a math theory class and I spent a semester breezing through it, writing papers about famous mathematicians. That still didn't make up for the suffering I endured taking calculus and trigonometry, nor did it provide relief for the professors who graded my exams in those two classes. I didn't test well in those courses - in the finals or during the semester. Professors probably carried my exams over to their colleague's office so they could mock my answers while mourning for the future of the country.

"Can you believe this kid didn't know how to obtain a positive coterminal angle? God. And just look at how he tried to prove the law of sines. Look at it."

I majored in communications at St. John's, which included the journalism courses. It's not listed as being among the easiest majors for GPAs, which I find a bit surprising. I took several challenging classes at St. John's and had a couple of brilliant professors who were also hard-asses when it came to grading papers and tests. But overall it wasn't the most difficult of majors.

St. John's requires students to take a couple of religion classes. I breezed through one of mine, bored the entire semester. But the other one challenged me every day and actually made me interested in the Old Testament. The professor graduated from the Harvard Divinity School and was probably the second most-brilliant person I ever encountered in school. His passion inspired all the students, even atheists and agnostics. I say second most-brilliant because the smartest person I saw in school was one of the students in that theology class, a guy named Phil. Each day Phil sat in his chair, long legs stretched out in front of him, goofy hat on his head. He majored in theology. He battled the professor, debating theories and facts. The arguments usually sailed over the heads of everyone else in the class, but they still fascinated us. If Jesus had walked into class one day and heard Phil talk, he would have pulled up a seat and thought, "Now that's something I never thought about." Phil was probably a genius, even if, like other religion majors, he likely benefited from grade inflation.

By the time I turned 14, I knew I didn't have a future as a scientist, a chemist or an engineer. My college grades only reaffirmed that belief. But for those wide-eyed nerdy students who enter those disciplines only to find themselves crushed by impossible tests and low grades, I express my sympathy. I urge them to stick with it. Grades aren't everything. Besides, if the really smart people invade English, education, journalism, and language classes, all they're going to do is ruin the curve for the rest of us.


Jerry said...

It is never good when the student is smarter than the instructor. Did Phil have a 'zen-like' quality to him?

Shawn Fury said...

He was very Zen, very Phil J. like, though I don't think he dated the professor's daughter. He actually became an anti-war leader after school.