“Are you sure you want to be a doctor?”
“Maybe you want to rethink going to graduate school?”
“Law school is really hard, you know.”
“It’s not too late to switch into an ‘easier’ major.”
Maybe you’ve heard of professors asking your friends questions like the ones above after going to them for help. Or maybe a professor asked you one of these questions during office hours after you didn’t get the grade you wanted on an exam, and you went to seek advice for improving. Regardless of the circumstances, if a professor asks you any of these questions, or doubts your capabilities because of a few exam scores, it can be extremely discouraging.
College should be a time when students figure out what they want to do with the rest of their lives. And it’s perfectly fine to switch your major or graduate still not knowing exactly what you want to do. However, it is absolutely not okay for professors or others who are supposed to encourage you, to create self-doubt and make you believe you are not good enough to go into your chosen field — especially if it’s a field you are extremely passionate about.
Saying something like “Are you sure you want to be a doctor?” to a student on a pre-med track can create immense self-doubt and a feeling of imposter syndrome, which many college students already face. If a student does poorly on a couple exams and then comes to a professor asking for help, it is because the student recognizes they are struggling and they want to do better, not because they want to be met with a condescending response and feel bad about themselves.
Besides, a few exam scores do not indicate whether someone is cut out for a certain profession or career path. Just because a student had a bad day, didn’t quite understand the material, or was unable to properly memorize exactly what would be on an exam does not mean they should consider switching their major or life plans. Being “good” at a certain job is more than understanding what is taught in a singular class. Life skills and personality traits, like compassion and empathy, can go a long way and are often much more important than simply memorizing facts during one’s undergraduate career.
Discouraging students in such a way is not a rare occurrence either — it is colloquially known as “academic snobbery” and is quite common in universities. The negative consequences of professors displaying overt signs of academic snobbery toward students includes, not only filling students with self-doubt, with them questioning whether they are “good enough” for their field of choice, but also turning away students from their chosen path. When students are given the impression, they will not succeed in a field by someone very familiar with said field, they are less likely to pursue it.
Rather than discouraging students and being condescending, professors must foster a more positive environment. When students approach them for help, they need to encourage them like teaching them better study strategies rather than questioning whether their ability to succeed in the field. In addition, if discouragement seems like a pervasive problem across the entire class, they should look introspectively and figure out how they can ensure more students succeed. Professors cannot set up students for failure because their class is too difficult — this does not foster a good learning environment.
This brings me to my next point: classes that have the reputation of being “weed-out” classes. Weed-out classes are extremely popular in STEM fields, and refer to introductory classes that are made to be extremely challenging so those who fail end up switching their major or career path. Such classes are extremely detrimental to the success of college students.
Performing poorly in weed-out classes, once again, could be for a multitude of reasons. Yet this is often taken as a sign that students are in the wrong field. Once again, rather than discouraging students from pursuing a passion, it would be much more beneficial to foster their love of the subject and encourage that they stick with it.
Another major concern with weed-out classes is that they discourage underrepresented groups, such as women and BIPOC from low-income communities, from entering STEM fields because many of these groups have not had the same access to resources that other groups have had.
In a study from Science Magazine, 46% of science chairs from research universities believe that weed-out classes are harmful because they discourage students who are interested in STEM fields from pursuing careers in the field. However, 57% of these same science chairs felt no need to change such introductory weed-out courses.
Rather than focusing on making their classes the toughest, most difficult learning environments to discourage students from pursuing careers in these fields, professors need to change the way they teach their classes. Whether this is by listening to feedback from students and changing the way they offer help or by restructuring the class altogether, learning environments in college must foster a passion for a subject, not discourage students to the point that they decide they are not good enough to continue in the field they want to pursue.
Positive learning environments can change the way students view their fields of choice and can immensely help their mental health as well. It is past time for professors to move away from condescending comments and weed-out classes, and instead learn how to better encourage students to pursue their passions.