Student Focused? DFW Courses at NDSU

Provost Beth Ingram discussing courses with high DFW rates.

As I walk into Gate City Bank about 20 minutes before 7:00 p.m., I can feel the tension in the air. No amount of studying or all-nighters seems to prepare you for the exams in this class. Someone casually states they aren’t too worried as their friend’s eyes grow wide. The nerves can be cut with a knife.

The students are nervous. They are scared. For some people, this is it. This exam grade can easily determine their future.

Are they going to end up as an engineering major? Or are they doomed to be a dropout, just merely a statistic?

This is what exam night for Mechanical Engineering 223, Mechanics of Materials, felt like. For the non-engineering folk out there, this class teaches young engineers about material’s internal characteristics such as torque and bending.

As my friend put it, “Expect the final (for ME223) to drop you at least one letter grade.”

I wasn’t sold on his warning, though. I work hard and study, perhaps I might be alright. This was quickly washed away.

“No one succeeds in this class, one only survives this class.” Where this might seem like a statement from a senior about to graduate, this was actually my professor on the first day of lecture.

As a student going through that class, it seemed impossible. But I assumed I was being irrational. I didn’t know the number, however.

A weeder course, or a DFW course, is a course where many students receive Ds, Fs or choose to withdraw altogether from the course, taking the dreaded “W” on their transcripts.

For the Mechanical Engineering department, ME 221, Engineering Mechanics I last fall had an enrollment of 213 with 15 percent of students receiving Fs or Ws. The next semester courses include ME 222, Engineering Mechanics (202 enrolled, 11 percent Fs or Ws) and ME 223, Mechanics of Materials. The next year course, ME 351, Thermodynamics had 114 students enrolled in the fall of 2016. These courses exist for students to be weeded out of the program.

I met with Student Body vice president, Anuj Teotia, and discussed DFW courses.

When asked if he believed weeder courses exist at NDSU, Teotia responded by saying, “Personally, yes I do.”

This answer doesn’t shock too many NDSU students. For the people who have been in weeder courses, it is a known fact. There are classes that are designed to be unfair happening here at NDSU.

The aforementioned ME 223 seemed impossible. It wasn’t until I saw the numbers that I could truly appreciate the issue.

In fall 2016, at the start of the semester, there were 231 students. Over the course of the semester 27 students received a D, 35 failed and 40 students withdrew. That means roughly 44 percent received a D, withdrew or failed. These students, including myself, produced a class average of a 1.65, a C- average.

My same professor exclaimed this after the second exam, “I am surprised more of you haven’t dropped this class yet.”

Weeder courses are a necessary evil, in a way. Some people simply are not cut out for engineering. Some people aren’t passionate about theater or communication. Some people love writing for newspapers, but hate journalism. Weeder courses do serve a purpose.

This is a thin line to dance on. NDSU claims to be a student-focused university. If this is truly the case, for these classes that are a traditional DFW courses, why aren’t we providing the best professors?

“I think it comes down to the professor,” Teotia said after asked about NDSU’s responsibility to provide fair instructors for a class that is considered a DFW class.

With professors that teach traditional DFW courses, they almost become legendary for their low-performance. You hear your friends curse their name. It may be the beginning of the semester and you show your friends your schedule. If you have a certain professor they might cry “good luck,” only leading to more horror stories, rude encounters or perhaps putrid grades.

I sat down with Provost Beth Ingram to discuss classes that have a large percentage of DFWs. Does the university have a responsibility to provide a fair instructor for DFW courses?

Ingram told me the university has a code of conduct and ethics that governs all professors. To present the appropriate material and in an appropriate manner.

She also commented on grading structure. “The grading is not capricious (unpredictable) that it reflects the class and material.”

“Do we have a responsibility to make sure students are successful? Yes, we do,” Ingram stressed, addressing the courses that seem to not work. Looking at the data they identify certain classes and expect deans and chairs to respond appropriately.

I asked Provost Ingram to comment on professors who consistently under-perform. She stressed for students to go to the department chair and make sure they hear those concerns.

“Oftentimes, things happen in the classroom and students talk to each other,” Ingram said. “They all know something untoward is happening, but they think their voices won’t be heard so they don’t take the step to go to the chair or to the dean. If something really serious is going on, I would certainly say go to the chair.”

NDSU has a responsibility to its students. We as students have a responsibility.

A class where 44 percent of students receive a D, F or W is unacceptable. It is gross. It is not student-focused. NDSU has a responsibility to weed out professors who consistently under-perform. No matter their status of tenure.

No matter what we as students invest in our education. To the students who care about their grades and care about their future, DFW courses are not doing them any favors, even if they do pass them. DFW courses only serve to hamper their GPAs. It only makes them look worse when applying for scholarships and internships.

Weeder courses aren’t going anywhere. They serve a purpose, as upsetting as it may be to admit. But NDSU, please provide effective professors who want to be there.

Professors that are willing to state, “This is going to be a hard class, but I am going to engage you. I am going to do my best to teach you. Some will fail, but I am going to do my best to be available and transparent.” Is that too much to ask for as a student?

For the students who have withdrawn already or the students who have dropped out it is too late. But it is never too late to invest in future Bison now.

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