Re-evaluate crediting of science labs at the University
Students entering Brandeis with plans to major in a life science or embark on the pre-health track tend to have a specific plan for their first semester of study. Advisers often recommend that these students begin taking introductory classes for their prospective major — usually core biology courses or General Chemistry I with lab. Sometimes, students looking to get ahead decide to take all three at once, thinking that they are taking on the work of only two and a half classes. However, adding a lab to one’s course load is actually the equivalent of adding a full-credit science course.
Despite its two-credit value, a lab course actually requires the time commitment of an average full-credit course. This causes students to underestimate the difficulty of their schedules for freshman year and, in turn, feel overstressed.
Unfortunately, when students are overwhelmed and unable to perform as well as they had hoped, some may become discouraged from pursuing a major in the sciences. Something as small as a single lab course should not dictate an entire change in the path of one’s education. When a course students are struggling through is only considered half the commitment of a “regular” four-credit course, an entire degree or even career in the field can seem daunting. For that reason, the lab courses at Brandeis should either contain a workload that more accurately reflects the two credits it awards, or it should recognize the course as a full four-credit class.
At Brandeis, students seem to work for as much time on their lab courses each week as students in typical lecture courses do. For example, each week, the General Chemistry I lecture course has three one-hour-long lectures, one chapter of reading and a weekly quiz on the material. In comparison, the General Chemistry I lab requires seven graded assignments related to the weekly lab project, the attendance of a weekly 1.5-hour lecture and the performance of a weekly four-hour lab. To most, lab simply does not seem like much less of a time commitment than the lecture course.
In a poll administered to students of General Chemistry Lab (18a), the Justice asked participants to share their expectations of time commitment for the lab, as well as their actual time spent each week. Out of 64 total respondents, 84.375 percent said that the actual time commitment of 18a was more than they expected before beginning the course. Further, 43.75 percent of students reported spending more than twice the time they expected to spend. On average, respondents reported that they spent 3.6 hours more on the lab than they expected. Only two individuals expected to spend more time in lab than they do currently, and seven respondents expected the same workload that they are required to put in now. One respondent reported no expectations for the time commitment of General Chemistry lab.
By comparison, responses to the expectations and actual time commitment of the General Chemistry lecture were more balanced: Of the same pool of respondents, 29.6875 percent expected to spend less time on the lecture, 29.6875 percent expected to spend more and 40.625 percent reported that their expectations matched their actual time commitment. This shows that respondents did not have unrealistic expectations for the General Chemistry program as a whole; rather, only the lab component had an actual time commitment that exceeded the expectations for a majority of students.
This poll reveals a problem with the credit assignment of General Chemistry lab in that it simply misleads students. Considering this lab only half of a class may have its justifications, but it also comes with considerable unfairness as it seems to mislead so many individuals who think their schedules will be more manageable than they actually are.
This can be detrimental to those who have developed a serious interest in the sciences. If the semester is partially completed and a student has a relatively bad grade due to their overwhelming course load, that student should not simply forget their years of dreaming of becoming a doctor or pursuing research just because chemistry lab is simply too much of a time commitment.
A single course should not be something that prevents students from pursuing their interests, particularly if the difficult course that the student is taking is not even what they had planned on pursuing — for example, a biology major getting discouraged by chemistry.
Some might call the two introductory chemistry courses at Brandeis a set of “weed-out” courses, which aim to instill fear in students about the sciences — often the premedical track, specifically — so that only the most dedicated pursue these fields. Although medical schools and medical employers simply do not have enough room for every student who enters Brandeis on the pre-medical track, this concept is problematic for many reasons. Many students with excellent potential — who may just need a semester to adjust to the strain of college courses — end up changing majors, often due to the pressures of needing high marks for medical school, graduate school or one’s career.
With all of that said, there is still a fair argument for continuing to count the chemistry lab as two credits instead of four. In an interview with the Justice, Prof. Milos Dolnik, who teaches General Chemistry lab, explained that the lab course ends a month earlier than most four-credit courses. Thus, the lab would only fill two-thirds of a student’s semester. Further, Dolnik pointed out that there are only two midterms in the class, as opposed to the standard four. For these reasons, Brandeis considers the lab only a partial-credit course.
While such reasoning is understandable, there are serious flaws to it. Because the first two months of students’ college semester are crucial to their success, the intense amount of work for chemistry lab is still a surprisingly heavy burden for many students — many of whom are first-years and may need time to adjust to the demands of college. Additionally, obtaining only half credit for a class that lasts for two-thirds of the semester makes little sense.
There is an immense amount of academic strain in those first two months of each semester as the lab students are given work from their regular courses, as well as an entire course. Even Prof. Dolnik agreed that, for the first two months of General Chemistry lab, the workload of the course was the same as a four-credit class. This seriously impedes students’ potential for success in both that course and other courses, as it is often very challenging to maintain success when taking a workload equivalent to five classes or more. This holds true even if it is for only the first two-thirds of the semester.
Brandeis could choose from at least three alternatives to effectively solve this problem. Academic advising services could do more to ensure that students have a full understanding of labs’ demands, the Chemistry department could make the course less time consuming or the University could change the course value from two credits to four.
Of course, the actual implementation of one of these alterations to the Brandeis curriculum would need to be an extensive, carefully considered process, but eventually, students hoping to major in science would benefit significantly from a new approach.