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Faye Flam: An NYU professor got fired. Then everyone missed the point

From the commentary: Whatever went wrong at NYU, there’s good reason to change a punitive system where professors have to worry about student petitions and students fear too many mistakes on a test will disqualify them from the career they want before they’re even out of school. University science departments need to find more evidence-based ways to evaluate students and professors.

A New York University flag
A New York University (NYU) flag flies outside a Covid-19 test tent outside of the NYU business school on Aug. 25, 2020, in New York City.
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The disruption associated with the COVID-19 pandemic is loosening society’s grip on some stubborn assumptions about different facets of life, especially work and education. The latest: that the hardest college classes are the most rigorous, as exemplified in last week’s hullabaloo over the case of an New York University professor of organic chemistry fired after students protested their bad grades.

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The general public is rightly nervous about any changes that could degrade the quality of future doctors. Our lives could be on the line here. But where’s the evidence that we get better care by weeding out students who don’t get an A (or at least a B) in this course?

It’s easy to paint students who complain about their grades as entitled. But we can’t say whether the students were struggling despite working hard, or whether the professor, Maitland Jones Jr., was doing a good job of teaching.

And the reason the situation captured headlines isn’t because of that narrow question. It’s because it raises so many others: Is it the job of a college professor to identify the best and the brightest, or to create the best and the brightest? Are test scores the best way to evaluate students — and are student evaluations the best way to appraise teachers? Has something about the pandemic hobbled students’ ability to learn?

In the traditional weed-out model of medical education, there’s an underlying assumption that patients get better care from doctors who’ve passed an organic chemistry class that was failed by 80% of the students — surviving a kind of trial by fire. But maybe that’s wrong. Maybe we’d get better treatment from a doctor whose teacher was so skilled that only 20% of students failed that class.

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It’s a conundrum that had me seeking out experts in science education. Chemistry professor Stacey Lowery Bretz of Miami University in Ohio has won awards both for teaching excellence and for research. She told me she “detests” the very idea of weed-out courses.

“I’d like to be a gateway, not a gatekeeper,” she said. “I don’t want to punish students or pronounce them unfit.”

She told me that when doctors find out what she does for a living, they often tell her they hated organic chemistry. “That doesn’t exactly instill confidence,” she said. “It’s a tragedy because chemistry is a really elegant and beautiful way to see the world.”

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Organic chemistry teaches people something she thinks is fundamental to medicine — the ability to see how a reaction can have a different outcome if you change the external conditions. That’s how the body works, and how drugs work, so it’s good for health professionals to be able to think this way. Students who just learn to pass tests by solving equations don’t come away with the deep understanding that helps to solve novel problems.

She’s not alone in feeling repulsed by the idea of weeding students out. “That is absurd … how can I be the one who decides an 18-year-old is not qualified to be a physician?” asked Oluwatoyin Asojo, chair of chemistry at Hampton University in Virginia. She also taught at a medical school — the Baylor College of Medicine — before coming to teach undergraduates at Hampton. To her, the goal is not to make classes easier, but to give students the tools they need to get through hard classes.

But there’s another thing brought to the forefront about this case that’s not right — and that’s the way professors are evaluated. Are university administrators are putting too much weight on what students think about their professors?

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Student reviews loom large in professors’ careers and they are a terrible barometer of quality, said Vicente Talanquer, a chemistry professor at the University of Arizona. Studies of reviews have found that they don’t measure teaching effectiveness.

Professors usually get their jobs based on research skills, then they get thrown into teaching with little or no instruction or support, Talanquer said. Universities could do a better job of supporting their faculty members’ teaching skills.

As much as people want to find a villain in the NYU controversy, it might not be Jones or the students. Jones was there because he wanted to keep teaching after retiring from a tenured job at Princeton University. He has expressed concerns that in the last couple of years, students were not just unprepared, but also unable to focus. He told me via email this could stem from something beyond just the disruption of the pandemic.

A problem concentrating is different from laziness or a sense of entitlement. And the students told the New York Times they never intended to get Jones fired; they just wanted better grades.

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Whatever went wrong at NYU, there’s good reason to change a punitive system where professors have to worry about student petitions and students fear too many mistakes on a test will disqualify them from the career they want before they’re even out of school. University science departments need to find more evidence-based ways to evaluate students and professors.

Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering science. This commentary is her opinion. Send feedback to: opinion@wctrib.com.

©2022 Bloomberg L.P. Visit bloomberg.com/opinion. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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