Why We Don’t “Weed Out” Students at Make School

Is your daughter or sister being “weeded out” from pursuing her passion and a good job?

tldr — Weed out classes and their justifications make education worse and prevent gender equality in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). At Make School’s Product Academy we use recent educational and behavioral research to develop a community and curriculum that supports the success of all our participants.


Remember your college organic chemistry class? The professor began with a frown and an ultimatum: “Look to your left, now look to your right. One of those people won’t be here at the end of the semester.” The frown didn’t fade, but the students certainly did. By half way through the semester the classroom was half empty.

“Look to your left, now look to your right. One of those people won’t be here at the end of the semester.”

This is the typical beginning of what is called a “weed out class”—a class that purports to weed out less capable or less dedicated students.

But do weed out classes actually succeed? Do weed out classes remove the weeds and leave the vegetables and flowers in the garden?

Recent educational and behavioral research now suggests that weed out classes do not remove less capable or less dedicated students; instead, they arbitrarily remove people with certain learning styles and behavioral preferences. In the STEM fields, this translates roughly into weeding out women.

Make School and Gender Parity

My team and I at Make School’s Product Academy puts achieving gender parity in our school is at the top of our list of priorities. We believe that gender parity is both a cause and a sign of excellence in education and in organizational management.

Our first step to making our community more gender inclusive is to not hold “weed out” classes. These classes dramatically and needlessly reduce gender parity in STEM classrooms. We hope that our example convinces the universities and colleges of the world to also halt the useless practice of “weed out” classes.

Learning Environments Matter

What is the learning environment like in a weed out class?

Well, in a word, it’s hard. But hard in what way?

Weed out classes focus on solo work that is intensely competitive. Even the open ultimatum of “look to your left, etc” is a competitive statement. It says to students: “Look around you. You’re competing with each other.”

We all know there are other sorts of challenges in life besides grinding away alone to beat out all the others. It is hard to be an excellent teammate. It is hard to be a leader. It is hard to communicate effectively with a group in public and in writing. It is hard to teach what you know about a solution to others. It is hard to be patient with a colleague who is coming to their own understanding of a challenge. However, these hard challenges do not come up in weed out classes. Why not? Why do we just focus on intensely competitive solo work? Outside of these bizarre educational environments there is rarely a real life environment where solo, competitive work is what makes you successful.

Research shows that many women (and a good deal of men) are demotivated by high-stakes competition and by lack of collaboration and teamwork. Two economists Muriel Niederle and Lise Vesterlun showed that competitive environments consistently demotivate 75% of women and 35% of men. In the same study, these economists also showed that women predominately prefer to work and be rewarded together on teams.

With this research, its not a big surprise that these STEM classes don’t have gender parity after high school.

Why Not Lean In?

But shouldn’t women follow Sheryl Sandberg’s advice and just Lean In? Don’t women just need to overcome “the confidence gap” (popularized by the recent atlantic article)?

At Make School we take a different approach. The same way we wouldn’t blame a plant for dying if it were put it in the close and wasn’t watered, we don’t expect women to succeed in an educational environment that has been proven to demotivate them. Instead, we change the environment.

At Make School we have deliberately removed high-stakes, tournament-style dynamics from our projects and teams, and we nest solo work inside of teamwork.

Group Pay, Group Grades

The above research suggests women would prefer team compensation as well as team work. In education this would be the same as receiving a team grade. Maybe if we did that women would succeed even more?

The idea sounds radical since Americans are used to individual workers being rewarded or promoted individually. Team compensation does not so radical of an idea when you consider that products and companies rise and fall as a team. Moreover, Kuhn and Villeval (the above researchers) actually found that the teams in their experiments were more productive than the solo workers.

We don’t actually have grades at Make School’s Product Academy, so the point is moot; however, maybe a more traditional school should experiment.

Biases and A Growth Mindset

Unfortunately because we believe in this silly bias that women are somehow genetically worse at STEM, educators have to constantly fight the bias to treat students differently and thereby confirm the bias.

If a man is struggling with his STEM homework or concepts, an educator might communicate to them that they need to work harder to succeed. If a woman is struggling the same educator might communicate to the student (intentionally or not) that she is predisposed not to succeed in STEM.

http://www.nber.org/papers/w19277

Gender Parity at Make School’s Product Academy

Showing off her iPhone app

Going Forward

Educators and managers can construct a roadmap to achieving gender parity in all subjects and fields if they wish. Any lack of gender parity is just the continuation of the underlying bias against women.

Make School just got started using this research to build a community and a curriculum that will naturally support gender parity in software engineering, product development, computer science, and entrepreneurship. We’re excited to show our success in future years.