Nothing takes place of IQ in ‘weed-out’ classes

A new study claims that enduring what are known as “weed-out’ classes in STEM has less to do with innate ability than with social connections with classmates (“Surviving Weed-Out Process May Be a State of Mind,” The New York Times, Nov. 17).  I don’t doubt that social connections are helpful in outcomes in these classes, but I submit that innate intelligence is more important.

STEM classes are notorious for their rigor – and rightly so.  The material is hard by its very nature. Therefore, no matter how many friendly classmates there are, they are no substitute for IQ, which I continue to believe is largely innate.  I’m not saying that environment doesn’t play an important role, but it is not enough to overcome intellectual deficits.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, algebra was a requirement for graduation.  I was in a class with math whizzes, who breezed through the material.  I passed the class, but there was no way I could have competed with my classmates.

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2 Replies to “Nothing takes place of IQ in ‘weed-out’ classes”

  1. The linked NYT article is pretty thin stuff — suggesting that writing a 15-minute essay re Topic A rather than Topic B somehow caused students in a Coumbia U intro bio course to make a few more friends in the course + the making of those additional friends in the course then somehow caused a few more students to continue as science majors.

    Not a statistician, but seems like the raw numbers involved are pretty small + that the causation vs. correlation problem is obvious.

    Not surprised that female and minority students are less likely to succeed in STEM introductory/weed-out courses. There are several obvious societal-based explanations. Seems that the remedies should be addressing those societal-based explanations rather than dumbing-down the introductory/weed-out courses. Hard to see how students who have difficulty succeeding in the introductory STEM courses are going to suddenly bloom in the advanced STEM courses.

    As to potential problems with the introductory STEM courses themselves — seems that STEM courses (as opposed to liberal arts courses generally) probably have very thin textbook support/explanations. In other words, in STEM courses, you either understand the concept from what the professor says in class or by staring at a one-page outline that is mostly formulas/symbols rather than words. There is no alternative word-heavy explanation available to the student. If Student X has a high IQ and is reasonably diligent, but for some reason fails to grasp STEM Concept A immediately, it is very difficult for X to find an alternative word-heavy explanation of Concept A. By contrast, if X for some reason fails to grasp an English Lit Concept A immediately, X can go to other texts or just re-read the original text several times in search of an alternative word-heavy explanation. And, some people are much better at abstract-symbol thinking while other do better with word-heavy thinking (I’d guess that, on average, males do better with the abstract-symbol thinking while females do better with word-heavy thinking — not sure if that is nature or nurture). Of course, ultimately the abstract-symbol thinkers will have an advantage in most aspects of STEM over the word-heavy thinkers (or at least they will so long as STEM careers emphasize the formulas rather than communicating the formulas to others).


  2. Labor Lawyer: STEM classes, which are usually referred to as “weed-out” classes, are intrinsically more difficult than other college classes. That may be because much of the material is abstract. In any case, it takes a high IQ or high quantitative aptitude to handle the material. Why Asians seem to excel in such classes remains unclear.


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