All work and no pay: Lab requirements antithetical to open course curriculum

By Gavin Meade ’20

Tags opinion

As a student at Hamilton college my GPA factors into my class rank, and class rank is used as a diagnostic tool for both personal and professional usage. At first blush there is no issue with how GPA and class rank are determined at Hamilton, indeed at colleges across the United States, but there are several factors I believe that should be discussed.

I am a Neuroscience major on the pre-med track. My courses are difficult and consume my weeks, and there is nothing wrong with this. It makes sense that courses that are more difficult than others are harder to get A’s in. Let’s say that I get a B in Organic Chemistry, where the average final grade is a B-, that looks worse than an A in a communications course or an entry level language course. STEM courses are intrinsically more challenging than other courses offered at Hamilton, and there is more to this equation than just differences in grade averages. 

For most every upper level biology, psychology and chemistry course labs are required. Labs range from 3-4 hours per week of actual lab time and, depending on the length of the lab report and a host of other factors, anywhere between 2-6 hours of additional work. Add in time spent preparing notes, homework sets, problem sets and other general work for the course itself and you get a disproportionate amount of time spent on a course where high grades are extremely difficult to garner. I spend more time on Orgo than all my other courses combined, and it is not as if I have a light course load. How, then, is it fair to compare Orgo to a class that meets three times a week?

Labs themselves really are not conducive to learning material that is presented in class even though that is their purpose. All too often, professors create labs structured around material that they have not yet reviewed in lectures, making them less conducive to learning. Labs are a time to follow instructions on a sheet and attempt to write a lab report that answers questions you do not know the answer to.

That students can receive credit from sources outside of class makes it even more troubling that labs offer students no source of academic recognition. Two of my good friends are actors and have been in the main cast for two productions this year. They earn course credit and an “A.” I am not all implying that they do not work tirelessly or as hard as students do for their science classes. Rather, I am pointing out that there is an incongruity here. Perhaps if lab courses counted for a quarter of a course credit that would be a step forward.

Additionally, the fact that labs are required for many courses in the science department is a deterrent for students looking to take a challenging or interesting class, regardless of their major. Hamilton’s open course curriculum is one of the school’s signature features, yet the department’s lab policies seem hostile to anyone looking to take advantage of the freedom from class requirements. Many first-year advisors encourage students to go outside of their comfort zone and take a challenging class, but when those students see the daunting (and mandated) labs that accompany even introductory courses like biology or chemistry, they opt-out. The fact that no credit is offered for these demanding supplementary classes further deters students who would otherwise be open to trying out the department. 

The result is fewer students taking science classes who are not majors or on the pre-med track, which seems to defeat the purpose of an open course curriculum, especially for a field as relevant and important as the sciences. It is not to say that this is the department’s intention, but rather that the stringent structure and time requirements of science courses prove to be a serious impediment in students decisions to stick with or remain in the department. If labs were not required, or at least some credit was offered, I would think that more students would be open to giving the department a try. 

I realize that I am coming from a relatively specific point of view, but that is my two cents in the matter. In sum, required labs often have excessive expectations for students while offering no credit, deter students from taking science courses and seem directed more at weaning less-committed students out of a pre-med track than making them better prepared for medical school and beyond. This is antithetical to Hamilton’s academic goals. I think it would be interesting if there were an option to take a bio or chem class without a lab and not have it count towards a major or fulfill a pre-med requirement. Until I hear a viable reason for not doing so, I think this should be pursued as a means of living up to Hamilton’s open course curriculum commitment. 

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