Near the end of our time together in Physical Science, my chemistry professor asked who had taken a chemistry class before. Everyone’s hand shot up but mine. I tried desperately to make eye contact, hoping to be noticed. It didn’t work.
“Good,” the instructor said. “You all have.”
I barely passed Physical Science, a class that combined chemistry and physics (also an unfamiliar subject), and struggled just as much in Biology 101 — the first Bio class I took in about 7 years after a bad experience at a homeschool co-op. I passed both classes at Hillsdale thanks only to science-minded friends who helped me cram enough information to squeak by. I certainly didn’t learn anything.
Hillsdale needs a new system. The core curriculum requires 101 classes in biology, chemistry, and physics, but these classes are not necessarily aimed at beginners. The administration should decide if the core science classes are actually beginner courses or if all students should learn something new in each subject during their four years here.
Science core classes at Hillsdale are often taught as if students already know most of the material. In my experience, the problem largely pertained to professors’ expectations. All three of my science professors moved far too quickly through complicated concepts. Some would ask students questions about material that we hadn’t covered yet and appeared surprised and disappointed when no one had the answer. Sometimes, professors who were used to teaching upper-level science courses simply failed to put the subject into simple enough terms that first-timers could grasp.
At the same time, some students in core classes do have a decent understanding of the subject and are not challenged. After all, a freshman who recently passed Advanced Placement Chemistry could easily wind up in the same class as a senior who hasn’t studied chemistry in years — if ever. Many students end up either bored or falling behind. Either way, it’s hard to learn something new.
Some professors assume that their students have recently studied these subjects when that is not always the case. In his chemistry class, senior Nikolai Dignoti was having a hard time keeping up and told his professor that he had not taken a chemistry class in 10 years.
“Ten years?” the professor asked. “What are you, 25?”
“Yes,” Dignoti said.
Dignoti may be a bit older than most of his classmates, but his story should serve as a reminder that professors cannot expect their students to remember everything from high school.
If the science classes are to be truly at the 101 level, then students should have the opportunity to test out of them, either with an exam to determine previous knowledge or with AP or similar test scores. Then, professors can teach as if their students are really inexperienced in the subjects, because they all will be.
If every student is meant to learn something new in science classes, then the system should allow beginners to start at the beginning and advanced students to start at a more appropriate level. Students could work up to a certain level, similar to the requirement with language classes.
For instance, Biology 101 could cover the material that a high-school science course would likely cover, so some students would test out of it, while Biology 102 would take things further. It would probably be necessary to limit the number of subjects studied. Rather than having to take multiple semesters of physics, chemistry, and biology, Hillsdale could require students to pass a 102 class in two of the subjects.
Professors in other core classes don’t assume previous knowledge of the subject. Great Books professors don’t teach as if their students have all read the Divine Comedy before, and the U.S. Constitution professors don’t expect students to be familiar with The Federalist Papers. Why should the science classes be any different?
These courses are not designed for beginners, and students with little-to-no experience in the subjects often struggle. At the same time, those who received quality science educations in high school may not be learning as much as they could be. We need a system that accommodates both.
Chandler Lasch is a senior studying history.