In any discipline, a student needs a strong fundamental foundation in order to succeed. This makes introductory courses very important for an institute of higher learning. Unfortunately, from what we at The Poly hear, universities rarely get intro classes right.
The often-ignored problems are the diversity of backgrounds and educational goals. The gap between incoming students who have seen the material before and those who haven’t is significant in technical fields. In calculus courses, the difference can be between needing to brush up on derivatives and not knowing what a derivative is. In addition, some students are just taking calculus so they can use derivatives for engineering, while others need to understand more fundamental concepts, theorems, and proofs for their majors.
Students who feel they already know what they’re doing often sleep through 1000-level classes (and even some higher-level ones). Drills for practice quickly turn into busywork. For example, computer science major—even a freshman—doesn’t learn much from blindly re-implementing basic code. They’d much rather be doing real problem solving, even if the programming itself is simple. That rarely happens until junior and senior year.
On the other hand, there are many people who struggle through introductory courses. If you haven’t read about it before, mechanics is counterintuitive. If you’re not a physics major, you don’t care about proving Newton’s Laws—you just need to know what they are. It doesn’t help that there are people who already took AP Physics in your class answering all of the professor’s questions, making it seem like the entire class is keeping up.
This issue isn’t unique to Rensselaer, of course. Most schools have these same problems for the same reasons. However, there are ways to make things better. RPI’s physics department has the right idea by offering honors intro classes. This lets the professor do important proofs for students who need to know them, and move slower for people who may not have as much background knowledge coming in. Other majors might also work better if split into regular and honors courses. It can be difficult to juggle students who are ahead and the ones who are behind; sometimes, taking the middle road is bad for everyone.