Classes must fit like snuggly jeans

Illustration by Sam Measner
Illustration by Sam Measner

Sometimes, things just don’t fit right. No matter how cute those jeans are, you can only squeeze yourself so far until you find your legs losing circulation.

A couple of classes were enough for me to realize that my introductory chemistry class fit my educational background as badly as my jeans fit my legs. The syllabus for the course seemed to be a glancing review of everything I had learned in high school chemistry, and my accelerated chemistry sequence awarded no Advanced Placement credit.

I contacted my professors about any alternative placement options. The response I received was sympathetic but clear: the professor’s hands were tied. “At this point, we don’t offer any type of placement out of this course.” And that was that.

I felt like I had hit a wall. A part of me had expected this answer, but I still felt frustrated by my lack of options. My frustration was in no way directed at my professors, who probably had no say in the matter and merely followed procedures from overhead decision-makers, but rather at the lack of a culture of exceptional accommodation among certain departments.

I’m not suggesting that every UM course sequence develop its own placement exam like those of the mathematics or foreign language departments, although their systems are very helpful for students who possess adequate understanding but fail to earn credit through traditional routes.

However, one of the marketable advantages that UM has over certain overpopulated public schools is its ability to administer individual attention. “You won’t just be a number in the system,” emphasized my P100 tour guide while I was visiting campus last year.

Yet clearly, to some extent we still are.

In order to live up to our reputation as one of the best universities in the nation, our administration and faculty leaders must accommodate the needs of some of the nation’s best students.

This means acknowledging the possibility that some students may have mastered material through untraditional means not indicated on their transcript, whether through self-study, research or simply classes whose credits do not apply.

This is by no means an elitist manifesto meant to benefit only a select handful. Both ends of the spectrum benefit from more flexible placements.

In my chemistry class alone, there is a noticeable division between the students who have taken AP or IB chemistry and those who have only taken a semester or two of chemistry in high school.

As a result, my professor finds herself maintaining a challenging balance that is meant to be a compromise between the two groups but can never truly satisfy either, to no fault of her own. Less experienced students struggle to keep up with the fast-paced overview of concepts, while those with years of chemistry under their belt absorb little new information.

However, if such stratification didn’t exist due to more precise placement options, then the professor would be able to focus on the needs of students with similar backgrounds in chemistry.

In comparison, a student at Harvard University says that it is common practice among students to solicit individual permission from their instructors to advance into higher classes. Professors may administer on-the-spot quizzes to students interested in placing out of the class, or, more commonly, there are no assessments involved at all.

It is understood that the student will bear the responsibility for the consequences of their decision.

In the years to come, I hope that students here at our own wonderful institution will receive a more flexible response when they ask about placement or other academic needs. Perhaps an “Unfortunately, we don’t offer a formal placement assessment out of this course– but why don’t you come in Thursday afternoon and we’ll talk.”

Is it possible that students may overestimate their proficiency in a subject? Of course, but let the consequences of that estimation fall upon an assessment or upon the student’s shoulders.

Let there at least be an option, a glimmer of hope, to achieve an intellectually satisfying, efficient, individualized education plan, one that fits as snugly as a pair of hip-hugging, perfectly-sized jeggings.

Jackie Yang is a freshman majoring in neuroscience.