If a college course is too difficult, is it the student's problem or the professor's problem?
A few days ago, The New York Times reported on such an incident. Students at NYU felt that the class in organic chemistry (a required course for applying to medical school) was too difficult. Many people felt that it affected their grades. Eventually, the professor of this course was dismissed by NYU.
Source: New York Times
Professor Maitland Jones Jr., aged 84 years old, has a high reputation in the field of organic chemistry. He has taught the subject for decades, first at Princeton and then at New York University, and authored a highly influential textbook in the field. He has won awards for outstanding teaching and is recognized as one of the coolest professors at NYU.
But during the pandemic last year, 82 of the 350 students in his class signed a petition against him. The students said that the organic chemistry course, a required course for medical school applications, was too hard, blaming Dr. Jones for their poor test scores and ending many students dream of attending medical school.
While Professor Jones defended his teaching standards, NYU has decided to terminate the employment contract with Dr. Jones before the start of this fall semester.
The school offered to let students who took the class to review their grades and decide whether to withdraw the class retroactively, in order to eliminate the impact of poor grades for them. According to the chemistry department’s chairman, Mark E. Tuckerman, the unusual offer to withdraw was a “one-time exception granted to students by the dean of the college.”
The university's handling of the student petition drew objections from the chemistry department and from students who supported Dr. Jones. Another chemistry professor, Paramjit Arora, said: "Schools want their students to be happy and have them say good things about the university, attract more people to apply, and the university will receive a higher ranking."
Source: New York Times
How Hard is Organic Chemistry?
In addition to authoring the 1,300-page textbook in organic chemistry (now in its fifth edition), Professor Jones, 84, has a unique approach to teaching students that rely less on rote memorization and more on problem solving.
About a decade ago, Professor Jones said in an interview that he noticed that students were having trouble concentrating, many of whom signed up for the course and hoped to pursue a career in medicine.
In his complaint against his dismissal, he noted that even though the difficulty of the exams had been reduced, students' grades were still falling because of "an alarming percentage of students who did not review their exams well." The pandemic has exacerbated the problem, "for the past two years, students' grades fell off a cliff, and even saw single-digit scores, and zeros."
Professor Jones said that after the pandemic, not only did students stop studying, they didn't seem to know how to learn anymore.
To address student learning problems, Jones and two other professors recorded 52 organic chemistry lectures, for which he personally paid more than $5,000 for. These lecture are still used by the university.
Other professors also reported various problems, including students cheating on online exams. Even though NYU has further lifted restrictions this year to allow more students to return to campus, many students still wouldn't attend lectures, or watch recorded lectures, and could not answer questions raised in class.
Students enrolled in this course can choose between two course modes, one that focuses on problem solving and the other that uses a more conventional approach.
Students posed questions in GroupMe chats and started venting about the class, directly contributing to this spontaneous student petition. “We are very concerned about our scores, and find that they are not an accurate reflection of the time and effort put into this class,” the petition said.
Why Did Students Petition?
Students have criticized Professor Jones' decision to give only two mid-term exams instead of three, reducing their chances of making up for low marks. Students said he tried to hide course grade point averages, offered no extra credit, and removed access to Zoom lectures. Students also complained the professor's "condescending and demanding" tone.
(Students posted mixed reviews for Professor Jones on Rate My Professor)
“We urge you to realize,” the petition said, “that a class with such a high percentage of withdrawals and low grades has failed to make students’ learning and well-being a priority and reflects poorly on the chemistry department as well as the institution as a whole.”
In response to these student complaints, Professor Jones defended himself in an interview:
Dr. Jones said that they were impossible to provide because 25 percent of the grade relied on lab scores and a final lab test, but that students were otherwise aware of their grades.
1. He reduced the number of exams because the university put the first exam date after six classes, which he thought was too early.
2. Regarding his allegation that he concealed the average grade for the course, the professor said they were impossible to provide because 25% of the grades were relied on lab grades and final lab tests.
3. As for Zoom access, he said the technology in the lecture hall made it impossible to record his white board problems.
In an email defending Professor Jones, Zacharia Benslimane, teaching assistant of the course, now a Ph.D. student at Harvard, wrote: “I think this petition was written more out of unhappiness with exam scores than an actual feeling of being treated unfairly, ...I have noticed that many of the students who consistently complained about the class did not use the resources we afforded to them.”
But students also expressed surprise at the dismissal of Professor Jones, which was not called for in the petition and which, the students had agreed, was thought of as unlikely.
The outcome also came as a shock for faculty members at the institution. Nathaniel J. Traaseth, one of about 20 chemistry professors, mostly tenured, said the university’s actions may deter rigorous instruction, especially given the growing tendency of students to file petitions.
“Now the faculty who are not tenured are looking at this case and thinking, ‘Wow, what if this happens to me and they don’t renew my contract?’” he said.