Monday, April 28, 2008

Should Undergraduate Programs Be Easier?

 
We have a biochemistry program for undergraduates. It would be called a major at most universities but at the University of Toronto we call it a Biochemistry Specialist Program. Here's an outline with the number of credits, where (1) is a standard two-semester course ...

1st year
Calculus (1), Biology (1), Physics (1), Chemistry (1)

2nd year
Biochemistry (1), Organic Chemistry (0.5), Physical Chemistry (0.5), Cell & Molecular Biology (1)

3rd year
Biochemistry Laboratory (0.5), Proteins (0.5), Nucleic Acids (0.5), Molecular Biology (1), 1.5 extra credits from a list of science courses

4th year
Advanced Biochemistry Laboratory (1), four (0.5) credit courses from a list of biochemistry and molecular biology courses

Here's the problem. Enrolment in this program is dropping because the students perceive it as being too hard. A number of easier, less rigorous, programs have recently become available in other departments. These other programs are being promoted as excellent choices for an undergraduate degree. Students are being told that these easy program will be just as acceptable as the more difficult ones when they apply to graduate school. (That won't be true in our department.)

Students believe that they will get higher grades in these other programs and that will make it easier to get into medical school or graduate school.

What should we do? There's a possibility that our program will disappear if we do nothing. On the other hand, making it a lot easier by dumbing down the material and giving higher grades goes against the principles that many of us believe in.

Have any other schools faced this situation? What did you do? What do the students think?



35 comments :

  1. My advice would be for you to investigate the first and second year graduate-level coursework at educational institutions to which your undergraduates might reasonably attend graduate school. If your undergraduate coursework is redundant with the graduate-level coursework at those institutions, then your undergraduate curriculum is probably too advanced. If there is little or no redundancy, your program is probably fine.

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  2. It is hard to say without knowing the contents of the other "majors" with which you are competing, but based on the list of requirements, I would say that the students are entirely correct. Having a biochemistry program or certificate versus some other major will make little or no difference to their medical school admissions, while their grades will.

    But really, I am not convinced that this is an issue of your program being "too rigorous." Instead, I think your program presents a structural issue that many students may not like. By requiring such a large load of science and math courses in the first year, you prepare the students for their later coursework in biochemistry. But many students will feel more comfortable spreading these science requirements across two or more years, including more electives in the first year or two. There are a lot of good science and pre-med students who want a well-rounded college experience, and this means more elective options in the first and second years. Unless you think that the other liberal arts are not "rigorous" enough for your students, I don't see the point of denying this option.

    And essentially, choosing your program requires students to make a large up-front (and make-or-break) commitment in these courses. They may be able to ease into other majors, testing them along with other elective courses before they decide whether they are really interested.

    How many students are failing or dropping out of the program after the first year because of their grades? That's a better indication of whether it is working -- and these students tell all their science-interested friends about their experiences in the program.

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  3. Perhaps I'm a curmudgeon, but I feel like many undergraduate programs are too easy. So often I see students passed through a course (especially on the introductory level) just because that's "easier" than failing them and making them take it over.

    This is partially the fault of grade inflation at the high school level leading to undergraduates without the fundamental knowledge needed to tackle college coursework. In my opinion, the solution is not to make the college courses easier, but to work with high school programs (especially those which tend to feed your own university) to ensure that they are graduating students who actually understand the material.

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  4. Yeah, I make it a practice of hiring people with 3.7 averages from less competitive programs over those with 3-3.3 averages in more challenging environments. And, I'd hire people from the University of Bohica-ville over those from Harvard, MIT or Stanford any day of the week, as long as their GPAs are better.

    Besides, everyone knows that a medical student from a less competitive program gets the choice residencies.

    Larry, if anything, I think the program seems a little 'light' on basic chemistry: Thermo? Quantum? Inorganic? Spectroscopy? And is it only a half-year of organic or is some of that covered in the Freshman chem courses? I tend to think that undergrad biochemistry programs should focus mostly on chemistry with biology/biochemistry as an add-on. It's much easier, IMHO to pick up the bio-side of biochemistry after obtaining a rigorous background in chemistry.

    And personally, I wish I'd taken math more seriously. It would have made a lot of work, particularly enzyme kinetics, modeling and biophysics much easier.

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  5. George in Oregon

    Interesting problem.

    Unfortunately, it is not something that can adequately be dealt with in isolation. The requirements for Med or Grad school need to be an undergrad program that rises to a sufficient level.

    That is, a degree in Chemistry, Biochemistry or Biology as pre-med should be level in difficulty. Same for Grad school.

    The whole system spirals down if you compete for students.

    Of course, you know this and I have no answers, except to say what is the point of accrediting programs if not to make sure they meet standards.

    All this is said as a pre-med Chem. major with a Biochemistry focus. Of course, I gave it all up to get a Masters in Electrical Engineering and then an MBS.

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  6. I highly disagree with the latter part of your post. There is absolutely no difference between Year 1 courses between the Biochem program and any other "lifesci" program at the UofT. Everyone has to take all of those exact same core courses.

    The only difference in year 2 is that Biochem majors have to take the full year BCH242 whereas other students (such as a Cell & Molecular Biology major like myself) can get away with a half-year BCH210. That is being changed, as next year they're offering a 2nd year BCH course to follow up BCH210 with. Pre-meds, whether they want to or not still have to take a full year of chem in 2nd year no matter what program they're in, as American medical schools require it. Further, many programs other than BCH have 2nd year orgo and physical chem as requirements as well i.e. So apart fom BCH242, many students take the exact same courses as BCH specs whether they're in the program or not.

    3rd year: again only 1 course difference, as most students end up taking MGY311 b/c it is taken to be the same as CSB349, a course most dread taking. MGY311 and BCH371 are not JUST taken by BCH students.

    4th year: There may be a 2 course difference here, but I'm not going to belabour the point much further.

    It's unfair of you to say that enrolment in BCH or the other BIG programs is declining because other programs offered by the faculty are easier, or watered down so students can get better grades. Look at any CSB/MGY/PSL
    3rd year course, the average is always around, with some exceptions, a C+. I have taken many BCH courses and I don't think they're harder than courses within my own program. In fact I would go as far to say that certain MGY/PSL courses are a lot tougher than BCH courses. However, BCH370 is brutal by any standard and the lowest mark on my transcript and I can't imagine what BCH371 (a requirement for BCH majors) would be like.

    I don't blame pre-meds for enrolling in programs like Human Biology. They're not "easier" b/c the content is watered down, they're easier because the material is admittedly easier than a microbiology, physiology, molecular biology, medical genetics, cell biology, or biochemistry course. Specialists programs are there to adequately prepare students for graduate school, not medical school, and most of UofT lifesci undergrads are pre-meds or interested in some related field, like dentistry. Those that aren't and want to pursue graduate studies, in BCH let's say, recognize that just the same. No one is being told that HMB will prepare them better for BCH grad school...those that just need the grades (and no one can blame them for that) go for HMB programs, those that are genuinely interested in the material and have intentions of pursuing graduate studies go for the BIG (biochem, immunology, medical genetics and microbiology) or physiology/cell biology programs.

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  7. Tough problem, because the solutions are not palatable. I think you need to maintain high rigor, there have always been easier programs/classes that students could opt into. Graduate school admission committees generally know which programs are rigorous and which are fluff, and that distinction matters. I would rather have B students from challenging programs than A students from weaker programs. Medical school programs are probably similar although I haven't served on those committees before. I generally consider medical students to be losses to the fields of bioscience as so few actually do or think about research than a biotech sales rep. Of course, what happens to those lost tuition dollars? There's the rub. From the tone of your post, it sounds like these competing majors are actually undercutting your major. If so it sounds like you may need to face up to some serious institutional problems. All the best, but only 1 semester of organic chemistry?

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  8. anonymous says,

    I highly disagree with the latter part of your post. There is absolutely no difference between Year 1 courses between the Biochem program and any other "lifesci" program at the UofT. Everyone has to take all of those exact same core courses.

    The Biochemistry Program requires a full year course in Calculus, Physics, Chemistry and Biology. There are some other programs that have the same requirement but they are also losing students. The Faculty of Arts & Science is threatening to pass new degree requirements that will forbid any program from demanding 4 credits in first year.

    Contrary to what you claim, here's a short list of life science programs programs that already do not require all four core subjects. The number in parentheses is the number of these four course that are required. (Note to others: our "specialist" is equivalent to a major at most universities and our "major" is closer to what you might call a minor.)

    Biology (Specialist (3) and Major (2))

    Botany (Specialist (2) and Major (2))

    Zoology (Specialist (3) and Major (2))

    Animal Physiology (Major 3))

    Developmental Biology (Specialist (3))

    Behaviour (Specialist (3))

    Ecology (Specialist (3) and Major (2))

    Evolutionary Biology (Specialist 3))

    Human Biology: Genes Genetics & Biotechnology (Specialist (3))

    Human Biology: Global Health (Specialist 2))

    Human Biology: Health and Disease (Specialist 3))

    Human Behavioural Biology Specialist (3))

    Neuroscience (Specialist (3))

    Human Biology (Major (2))

    Nutritional Sciences (Major (2))

    Psychology (Specialist (0) and Major (0))

    As you might imagine, the course that's most often dropped is physics, followed by calculus. In some cases students have to take either physics or calculus but not both.

    Those programs probably enroll about 75% of all life science students at the university of Toronto.

    Now, you were saying .... ?

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  10. I think the Biochem/Immunology/MGY specialists needs to do a better job of getting prospective students to understand the differences between their courses (that require a BCH242 prereq), and the easier analogues available to the majors. I think the general impression is that you can opt to not go into the specialist and still learn the same material (albeit at slightly less depth), while having a lower workload. The departments need to tell people why taking a BCH specialist is better for learning than the major, or why MGY specialist is better than Human Bio Genes, Genomes and Biotechnology.

    A nice comparison is the Neuroscience specialist. It's also not easy, but from what I gather, it's very popular in large part because (from what I understand) you have to be enrolled with the specialist to take any neuroscience courses at all.

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  11. anonymous says,

    The only difference in year 2 is that Biochem majors have to take the full year BCH242 whereas other students (such as a Cell & Molecular Biology major like myself) can get away with a half-year BCH210.

    My course, the full-year BCH242Y, is generally perceived to be a lot harder than the half year course required in other programs (BCH210H). That's the crux of the problem.

    That is being changed, as next year they're offering a 2nd year BCH course to follow up BCH210 with.

    Your information is incorrect. Next year the Biochemistry Department will offer a third year course in molecule biology (BCH311H). It will replace the existing PSL350H and complement the overloaded course BIO349H that most students have been taking in previous years.

    Part of the problem at this university—and at most others—is that students spread false information. It's very difficult to counter this.

    Pre-meds, whether they want to or not still have to take a full year of chem in 2nd year no matter what program they're in, as American medical schools require it.

    There are about 1500 life science students in second year. About 75% of them take the organic chemistry course (CHM247H) and about 37% take the physical chemistry course (CHM220H). If we subtract the students who are enrolled in those programs that require physical chemistry then the number is about 25% of those who don't have to take it, do take it.

    Apparently, there are a lot of students who don't care about the requirements of American medical schools.

    These students (~75%?) don't like programs that make them take physical chemistry.

    So apart fom BCH242, many students take the exact same courses as BCH specs whether they're in the program or not.

    Hmmm ... there seems to be a discrepancy between the actual numbers and what you say.

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  12. anonymous says,

    3rd year: again only 1 course difference, as most students end up taking MGY311 b/c it is taken to be the same as CSB349, a course most dread taking. MGY311 and BCH371 are not JUST taken by BCH students.

    The third year molecular biology course, MGB311Y, is a full-year course on molecular biology. The prerequisite for this course is my course, BCH242Y, a full-year course in biochemistry.

    You can't take BCH242Y unless you are enrolled in biochemistry or molecular biology (or immunology). Thus, you can't take MGY311Y unless you are in those programs.

    There will always be a few exceptions but what you say just isn't true. The enrollment figures for MGY311Y confirm this. The numbers are exactly what you expect if the only students in the course are those who passed BCH242Y the previous year.

    Once again, there seems to be a big discrepancy between what you say and the facts. Why is that? Did someone deliberately mislead you?

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  13. anonymous says,

    It's unfair of you to say that enrolment in BCH or the other BIG programs is declining because other programs offered by the faculty are easier, or watered down so students can get better grades.

    It's not a question of "fairness," it's a question of facts. I'm relying on what the students are telling me. I'm also relying on common sense. There doesn't seem to be any other reasonable explanation.

    As the new watered down courses and programs have proliferated, the enrollment in biochemistry has declined. Do you have another explanation?

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  14. Is U of T typical in allowing students to choose a program after their first year of study? If I had to choose a program at the time of application (i.e. while I'm in high school), I'd be more inclined to pick something like biochemistry. But once I'm in university, after I hear all these rumours about how hard it is, I might change my mind.

    It's really disappointing to see my peers go for programs like Human Biology because they perceive them to be easy. (Do you also get the impression that they've become really postmodern too?) It's like going to a CAM practitioner -- it feels good while you're doing it but in the end, it's utterly without substance.

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  15. My experiences in the Biochemistry program at Dalhousie University in Halifax, NS seem similar to the problem you're facing at U of T. During the 1st year of Biochemistry, for example, we had to take a full-year of Calculus, whereas Biologists took introductory Statistics (which is perceived as easier, of course). Biochemistry majors were also required to take several upper-level Chemistry classes that Biology students could avoid. The Biology program was always larger, though I don't think Biochemistry benefited due to its association with Health Sciences, thus luring the med-school hopefuls.

    However, I will say that despite my not-so spectacular marks, the 'tough love' learnin' served me well during my M.Sc. in Biochemistry (at Simon Fraser). I know of several students who entered the Molecular Biology and Biochemistry graduate program there from Biology undergraduate programs and failed their qualifying semesters.

    Please don't 'dumb down' the learning. Going into my sixth year of grad school, I often find myself thinking that the challenge of graduate work isn't sufficiently impressed upon those considering undertaking it. I've always felt that the purpose of an undergraduate degree in a given field is to prepare people to pursue a career in that field (if you want to go to Med School, that's your prerogative). What's the point of making an undergrad degree easier if the students will struggle more when they inevitably enter grad school as 'something to do' while re-applying for Med/Vet/Dentistry school*?

    -Sorry, that was a bit snarky...

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  16. Prof Moran, I know nothing about biochemistry, although I'm learning by coming here and to other excellent blogs. what I do know is Business, the field in which I spent all of my working life.
    Based on my experience, I have to agree with Unsympathetic reader to a degree.
    I have had young graduates who have come into entry level jobs, wanting to be a Vice President within a ten year span who have learned all the proper buzz words, have absorbed all the latest/greatest fads (think Covey's Ten habits - gosh that guy made millions on a perfectly executed scam), but who had no concept on what is acceptable in an ordinary business letter, nor did they know how to relate to a "customer". They were marginally literate, yet by virtue of a degree from an accredited university, they thought they were "hot Stuff".
    They were misled.
    The issue is not the degree. The issue is what they have learned, and how they apply that learning.
    What they learn is up to you and people like you. If you dumb down the program so more kids can succeed, are you doing those kids a favour? sure they graduate. Are you doing society a Favour? Probably not. IN this age of competition, with the universities in other lands, specifically the Asian lands, demanding more and more of their students, should we stand back and demand less and less? How will they compete in a global economy?
    Just a thought, Sir, and one from an ignorant retiree.

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  17. John Hawks says,

    But really, I am not convinced that this is an issue of your program being "too rigorous." Instead, I think your program presents a structural issue that many students may not like. By requiring such a large load of science and math courses in the first year, you prepare the students for their later coursework in biochemistry. But many students will feel more comfortable spreading these science requirements across two or more years, including more electives in the first year or two. There are a lot of good science and pre-med students who want a well-rounded college experience, and this means more elective options in the first and second years. Unless you think that the other liberal arts are not "rigorous" enough for your students, I don't see the point of denying this option.

    Our biochemistry program is not intended for pre-med students. As a matter of fact, we would prefer that they go elsewhere.

    Our program is intended to prepare students for graduate school in the sciences. It's not the only thing that our students do when they graduate but it defines the overall goal of the program.

    The issue of breadth versus depth is the key to understanding our dilemma. The current culture here at the University of Toronto has shifted toward more breadth at the expense of depth. This is a common phenomenon at most American schools but it's new to us.

    There are no remedial biochemisty courses in our graduate program. We expect our newly admitted graduate students to hit the deck running. It's a system that has been working for 100 years—next month is our 100th birthday celebration.

    If we dumb down our program then our students will not be as successful in getting into the best graduate schools in Canada and the USA. If we don't dumb down our program we won't have any students.

    This is not a happy choice.

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  18. I don't think the existence of easier, less rigorous problems is, by itself, the problem. Enrollment in the Biochemistry/Immunology/Molecular Genetics programs was never high as a percentage of total life science students. (Prof. Moran probably knows the stats better than I do, but I think it would have been maximum 120 between the three BIG specialists out of ~1500 2nd year life science students.) Obviously, easier programs need to exist for students not at the level of the BIG specialists.

    The problem would be that there are students who are definitely interested in science, and would be perfectly capable of doing the BIG programs, but are choosing these easier programs. Part of the problem may be that among high achieving students, medical school seems to be a more popular option than graduate school. For these students, GPA is what matters.

    However, there are definitely some misconceptions about the BIG programs that are driving away capable students who would otherwise be interested. (Based on conversations with fellow students, that I recall from first year POSt selection. Admittedly, this would be a small, non-random sample.) The first misconception is, everyone thinks that the cutoff for the BIG programs is around 3.5 (it’s not anymore) so some people in the low 3 range don’t even apply on that basis. The second misconception is that everyone assumes that U of T absolutely will not allow course averages above C+ (it’s hard not to get this impression during first year), so the reasoning goes: if everyone who gets in is above 3.5, and they get knocked down to a 2.5 GPA…gasp! In reality, Bch242 has around a B average. If this was moved up slightly to B+/A- area, that would probably be around the average grades for students entering into the program.

    The solution is definitely not to make the program easier. I came to U of T not in spite of a challenging biochemistry program, but because of it. Part of the solution would be for students to be more educated about the program, to cure the aforementioned misconceptions.

    As for people preferring medical school to graduate school, that's a cultural issue probably beyond the control of the Dept of Biochemistry.

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  19. I think everyone agrees that the molecular biology programs at UofT suffer an image problem. Since changing the curriculum is unfeasible, in which I agree, then the only option would be to improve the image and hope students bite. For instance, the science could be made more relevant by having a second year biochemistry lab, or else some sort of placement program for students to experience the lab side of science. Furthermore, if the department wants its undergrads to understand physical chemistry concepts, it would be better off teaching it themselves-- the second year physical chemistry course has been terribly organised for years now, with very few (no one) I know reporting a positive experience. That could be a stop-loss measure, since I believe the loss of students due to program switching is also a problem. A common excuse that a lot of non-molecular biology students mention when they talk about program choice, to my experience, is that they perceive laboratory work to be boring. I think this perception has a lot to do with the first year biology and second year cell biology lab components, which are indeed quite boring. Maybe you tell your colleagues to make it more interesting, although I don't see how they could have the resources for it. Perhaps you should tell President Naylor to speed up those undergrad enrollment cuts!

    I don't think there's a really good solution though. I always thought it was odd that out of 1500 students, recruitment of biochemistry specialist never exceeds a few dozen per a year, with the same applying to the other molecular biology programs.

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  20. I noticed you list lab courses separately from other courses. Do the first year (chemistry, biology, & physics) and 2nd year (Organic chemistry, physical chemistry) have labs attached to them as well?

    At my undergrad institution (an American small liberal arts college), there was the biochemistry program I was in and a molecular biology program. The difference was the biochemistry students took Physical Chemistry (currently a semester long course and a semester long lab) and an Adv. Biochemistry course along with a Adv. Biochemistry lab. The molecular biology program instead required a seminar discussion course and an elective course in cellular/molecular biology with a lab in place of the chemistry/biochemistry courses we had to take. I don't think there was a big fight between the two programs. Each had up and down years depending on the interests of the students.

    The pre-meds that were worried about GPA took the year of physics, general chemistry, organic chemistry, biology and calculus plus a semester course in biochemistry/genetic/molecular biology and majored in a non-science. At our school, all science courses save senior seminars had lab sections attached to them. Basically you took two classes but only got credit for one (lab and lecture grades averaged together) in terms of your GPA (transcripts noted the fact that students were taking labs with the lectures so grad/medical schools would understand).

    You are going to have to get students to understand the importance of physical chemistry and its application to biochemistry/biophysics. If the PChem course is poorly taught maybe your department should teach a PChem for the life sciences type of course.

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  21. Yes, there are courses with lab components, and lab courses separately. With respect to the physical chemistry course, it actually is a physical chemistry course for the life sciences, which proves the fundamental rule to avoid whenever possible any science for something else.

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  22. I find this interesting because I once considered a career in Molecular Anthropology. I recommend that you consider a business perspective. I suppose that the primary purpose of your program is to prepare students for a career in biochemistry. Is that correct? Perhaps this approach will lose some pre-med students, but such is life.

    And from your responses, I see that various biology programs no longer require physics. And you might get more students if you no longer require physics. Is that correct?

    I recommend that your department carefully evaluates the harm or lack of harm in letting biochemistry students graduate without physics. And if chemistry covers everything that your students need to know about physics, then reconsider your tradition that biochemistry students need to physics.

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  23. Although I'm in the botany program, I have many friends in BIG and I'm actually sorry to say that some of them dropped out of BIG. The BIG specialist program is definitely more rigorous and difficult but at the same time, I believe that it does an excellent job of preparing the students for graduate studies whether they are enrolling into graduate school, or a med school. One of my friend (nameless) who is currently in the BCH program says that he is definitely having a hard time and he is frustrated at how difficult the material is, but at the same time, he believes that he will be more prepared for post graduate studies than people coming from say the HMB program or even from other institutions. The materials from BCH210 pales in comparison to BCH242 and it is only a half year course. Students in CSB349 read papers and when compared to what is being taught in MGY311, well, I do not think you can really compare those two courses.
    In my opinion, prospective students nowadays want to find the easiest route to med/grad school. By going through HMB, they can get a higher GPA, and yes, they may get accepted for post graduate studies, but they run the dangerous risk of not being able to handle the material.
    Those are just my thoughts, and unfortunately, I do not have a solution to your problem. I do not think that dumbing down your program is going to benefit the students. Perhaps the department can make it clear that the BCH route is the best road to be prepared for graduate studies. Maybe a more aggressive approach to attracting the students?

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  24. I think part of the problem is that a lot of students aren't sure what they want to do, so they would prefer doing a major that offers more breadth. I would assume that very few undergrad students know what they want to do for grad school by the end of their first year. Many of them harbor hopes of getting into medical or dental school, only to figure out a year later that they want to do something else - some of them haven't previously considered grad school.

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  25. "Specialists programs are there to adequately prepare students for graduate school, not medical school, and most of UofT lifesci undergrads are pre-meds or interested in some related field, like dentistry. Those that aren't and want to pursue graduate studies, in BCH let's say, recognize that just the same. No one is being told that HMB will prepare them better for BCH grad school...those that just need the grades (and no one can blame them for that) go for HMB programs, those that are genuinely interested in the material and have intentions of pursuing graduate studies go for the BIG (biochem, immunology, medical genetics and microbiology) or physiology/cell biology programs."

    WRONG!!!!

    I absolutely disagree with this comment- as a BIG student who just finished 3rd year, I must say other pre-meds or general life-sci students have 1/10th of the course work and difficulty that we face. I took mgy377/8 which human bio majors are also apparently required to take- while non-BIG students complained of the level of diffulcty of these courses, BIG students (me and my classmates) found the courses VERY VERY easy; this is not an exaggeration but a simple example.
    IMM335, MGY311 and BCH371 are very demanding- interesting, but demanding.
    Also, half of my current classmates (in BIg, 3rd year) want to get into medical school- and we all agree that MCAT is nowhere as difficult as any of our term tests, etc.

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  26. I am an undergraduate student at UCSB in southern California and I am a biochemistry/pre-med student. I don't think it should be made any easier even though there have been times where I've studied my ass off just to get a C. The teachers make a huge difference for me since I am going to a research college. The professors are sort of forced to teach in order to continue their research and some of them were just NOT meant to be teaching. I feel good telling people what I do though and when I graduate this year with a BS in biochemistry, I think it will make a huge difference in how people perceive me for jobs, medschool, etc. I don't think the undergraduate classes should be made easier. If students aren't up for a challenge, they should definitely not be science majors.

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  27. If this university doesn't want to make their life sci undergraduate programs easier, how about creating a pre-med program? Smitherman is planning to bring in foreign doctors because of the shortage of doctors. How about the thousands of Canadian undergrads who want to be doctors and actually practice in Canada?

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  28. I would like to give you the perspective of a previous BCH242 student.

    A quick overview of my story and why I believe BCH242 should in fact be dumbed-down:

    After getting a 3.8 gpa in my first year at UofT with the calc, physics, bio, organic/inorganic chem, and psychology courses I wanted to enter a specialist that I found interesting, and so opted for the immunology route. My effort in the BCH242 course was more than I placed in my other 4 courses and I ended up with barely obtaining a B-. Along with about half of the other students in the class we opted to switch programs and many of us (e.g. myself) went in the genes, genetics and biotech specialist program.

    The program is marginally easier and in a university where the average of the first year students coming in was 90% in high school, and by 3rd year more than half have left with class averages of C or at best a B when competing against students from universities with B averages and requiring Cs from high school, it would be foolish to think such a tedious effort is worth it.

    I am all for learning, but memorizing a bunch of cycles and pathways that most if not all students will forget 2 weeks after the exam, and a break in the only thing that ultimately matters when applying to grad schools (the GPA) is not an attractive point. One can easily make the course much more informative but remove a lot of the tedious and pointless effort required with no rewards at the end.

    Another issue I had with the course was that the BCH210 average was significantly higher, the course was easier and anywhere one applies that is outside of UofT the courses are considered pretty much equal.

    So as a result like many others, I switched my program, raised my GPA and am to start my medical school in Miami this January. To simply say, "are you rewarding these students by giving them easier material?" is very cliche and lacking in insight. Students are not just some stupid bricks with no foresight of how best to represent ourselves to succeed in our future aspirations.

    These are the best students (the BIG program students) at the best University (UofT) in the country, give us some credit that we aren't just going to go into the workfield with a 3rd grade education.

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  29. Realistically, there are very few students that actually want to go on to do graduate work in any of the BIG specialists. As a result, you can't expect enrolment to be high in any of the programs. The programs difficulty effectively weeds out all students that have no intention of pursuing future studies in BCH. Those that remain are the ones that you want to cater to, prospective graduate students.

    By making the program easier, you will begin to attract students with no intention of continuing in BCH. If you were to hypothetically raise class averages for all the required BIG courses by a grade-point, the premeds would flood back in to the BIG specialists.

    Personally I think it should be left as it is. There will always be a small group of students that wishes to pursue graduate studies in BCH. They will stick with the BCH specialist regardless of the difficulty if you make it clear what the advantages of doing so are as PoSt seminars and the like.

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  30. Perhaps things need to be evaluated on a course by course basis. I'm all for the 4 core requirements in first year. Although neuroscience req. dropped to 3 (calculus OR physics), I took both since the switch was made when I was in first-year, not when I was entering first-year. I definitely think all of those should be taken, and I cringe when I hear people say that they will never need these in their lifetime again. I, for one, regret not taking more math and physics in both high school and undergrad (I am in neuroscience). I don't think things should be 'watered-down', but courses should be fair, and while some courses should be much harder than others, of course you will see enrollment drop if people feel like they are putting in ALL of their time into one course, still not doing well, and also then not doing well in their other courses. Furthermore, with my program, there are so many choices for courses that it is hard to say whether it is 'easy' or 'hard'. And pre-med and pre-grad students will always have different priorities.

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  31. I am a 2rd year CSB specialist and here are my opinions on why I did not opt for BCH.

    I agree with the notion that the BIG specialist programs do not have a good reputation amongst fellow students. Yes, it sounds impressive to your friends, but then your GPA aren't as impressive.

    Second of all, most, if not all of my friends are considering medical school. It's known that Med only cares GPA. I don't think medical schools other than UofT will likely know that BIG programs are more rigourous than, say HMB major. The problem is that when somebody apply to med, usually the first cutoff is GPA. Me, and most of my friends admit we rather take an easy course in CSB or PSY and end up with 90 rather than some hard course in BIG and end with with 70. Considering most life-sci students are pre-med, yet BCH is not designed to attract premed,as you admitted. it's evident why enrollment is low, and reputation stinks.

    Too bad Ontario is having a doctor shortage. Too bad MD or DDS earn 100k/year. If PhD in biochem guarantees 100k/year, I might consider it. but for now, me and my friends opt for MD rather than PhD or M.Sc (much to Prof.Moran's dismay).

    In conclusion, I feel the BCH program is well designed to specifically attract prospective graduates in biochem, but at U of T, where the gold standard (at least what me and my fellow life sci friends consider), is an MD or DDS.

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  32. Thank-you for your comments.

    The percentage of students in the rigorous programs who get into medical school is way higher than the percentage in the "easy" programs.

    As a general rule of thumb, I tell students that if in second year you are looking for easy courses to increase your GPA, then you aren't going to medical school.

    Students who are smart enough to get into medical school are confident that they can take any course and still get high marks. And they are usually correct. That's why you still find most of future doctors in the Specialist Programs with high GPA requirements and tough courses.

    Those students take the programs that are interesting and challenging and have a high proportion of good students who are also interesting and challenging.

    That may be changing because in the past five years there has been a trend away from specialist programs for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons have nothing to do with grades. Thus, there are more students successfully applying to medical school from the easier programs than there used to be ten years ago.

    I appreciate your frank admission that you are motivated to become a physician for the money and that you don't care about anything except your grades. I agree with you that this is a large part of the problem with undergraduate education at the University of Toronto.

    Do you have any idea how we can fix it? If we got rid of all the easy courses and programs would that have prompted you to apply to another university in order to maximize your chances of getting into medical school?

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  33. BCH242 wasn't hard, not in any sense of the word. If you got by first year through rote memorization, well there's plenty of that in Dr Pulleyblank's section and to some extent Dr Baker's section as well. I would even go as far as to say even Dr Rini's part involved quite a bit of memorization and factual recall, so there's absolutely no excuse if you did poorly on their sections.

    Now here's where I think the real problem is: the "other half" of BCH242 actually does a really good job at differentiating between those who actually understand the material as opposed to those who get by through rote memorization. This is especially true with Dr Moran's test. And because students are so used to just memorizing and regurgitating stuff for marks (sad how this is rampant in a lot of the life science courses at the UofT), their problem solving skills become weak with time, and this greatly hampers their ability to perform up to their expectations in BCH242, which I'll agree is "unforgiving" if you take that to mean "requires a lot more problem solving skills than your average life science course". Often students don't realize this until very late and by then it was probably too late to have done anything to salvage the situation, hence most students leave the course feeling disgruntled and "cheated".

    Sadly after a year in biochem I realized I was really more into the chemistry side of things and decided to pursue a degree in chemistry instead. I have to say I quite admire how BCH242 moved away from the usual life sci memorization BS and instead tried to focus more on problem solving, something not often seen in life science courses, but a common practice in the physical sciences.

    Also I must point out whoever said that grad schools *only* care about GPA is gravely mistaken. In fact it's not even the most important factor to a lot of them. Your research experience and reference letters make a far greater impact, and actually having a stellar research record is far more beneficial than a 4.0. I know of a few examples where the student had *only* ~3.3-3.4 when they graduated, but got into schools like Yale and Stanford because they had some 3-4 years of research experience under their belt. One of them also published 2 papers I believe.

    Anyway I just want to conclude with this: you're doing the students a disservice if you "dumb down" BCH242. If as you claim you're training them to become researchers of the future, then they NEED to build the problem solving skills NOW and learn how to think independently. That's what research is all about after all.

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  34. As a third year student going for graduate school from a hard specialist program from U of T, I'm starting to lose faith in the justification that I had in 1st year. In 1st year, I decided a specialist would be better for me since it would give me research experience and more depth (I love working in labs), I'm starting to think that might not be true and I'm heavily considering switching out AND warning my cousins not to make the same mistake that I did.

    Honestly, one of my friends from first year- who had the same GPA that I had- is maintaining >3.7, while my GPA dropped to a 3.2. Not only that, but it feels like profs for research would rather take kids with higher averages. Then, it gets worse when you consider GPA cutoffs for grad school. It's just so disheartening to continue in this specialist. What's worse, I really do enjoy my program and I don't want to leave it, but I've reached a point where I feel that nobody cares that I took the chemistry course with more lab work in 2nd year(CHM249), nobody cares that I took physics when those coming after me don't have to do it and just nobody cares in general about my major- just my GPA.

    Keep in mind, I am a student and I haven't actually been through the administration process. This is just what I see; you (grad school, summer profs) emphasize marks, ***well, fine, we'll give you marks at the expense of quality.*** Frankly, there are easier courses to take. I'm sorry.

    Also, Unrelated, I like your blog a lot.

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  35. Prof. Moran,

    I like your posting.

    Almost 7 years later after your initial post, my son is now in your program. I've always told my son that I expect only two things from him in college, regardless of which program he chooses to be in. One is a good GPA, the other is real solid knowledge. He has told me many times that the program he has chosen is very hard, and it is very hard to maintain a good GPA compared to other programs in UofT or in other universities.

    I did not quite agree with what he said until I read your posting and knew the general GPA levels of his high school friends now in other universities or majors.

    Now when I talk to my son, my expectation on him should be slightly modified: (1) Real solid knowledge; (2) Good GPA.

    The problem that you have pointed out is not limited to your particular program at U of T. It is a problem in our society, right now. Graduate schools, medical schools, employers, internship supervisors, etc., do not necessarily know, or accept, or agree about, the fact that your program is harder, so your students have a harder time to enter the next stage of life after graduation. Worse, some graduate schools or medical schools may permanently close the doors to those students whose GPA is not up to certain artificial level, regardless what GPA really means from each university. I know that many companies often set a minimum GPA level for new hires. Therefore, this is a problem in the society, and the students' reaction in general is merely a natural response to the "market". They are victims of the modern market-driven corruption. This is unfortunate.

    As a parent, I worry about the situation in the same way as my son would (if he knows enough to worry about it in the real sense), and I fully agree with you that this is a problem. Nobody alone would be able to solve it.

    The entire society should value the knowledge more than the formalities. Scholars should be less market-driven. Graduate schools, medical schools, educational institutions, etc., should be less commercialized. Governments should play a better role here.

    But those "shoulds" are just an ideal situation, which may never happen before we die. So what could we do? Back to the reality, if my son ends up nowhere after graduation due to a not-so-good GPA, I'll never blame him for having chosen a wrong program in college. I will value his knowledge, and remind him of what Confucius said over two thousand years ago, "a gentleman keeps his integrity even in poverty". Instead, I'll be willing to sell my home to support him as long as he does the right thing in learning. So both him and I are victims of this social problem. Your program might also be a victim.

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