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Working in the Weeds: How do Instructors Sort Engineering Students from Non-Engineering Students in a First-Year Pre-Calculus Course?

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

Mentoring, Advising, and Facilitating Learning

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

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Paper Authors


Kevin O'Connor University of Colorado, Boulder Orcid 16x16

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Kevin O’Connor is assistant professor of Educational Psychology and Learning Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. His scholarship focuses on human action, communication, and learning as socioculturally organized phenomena. A major strand of his research explores the varied trajectories taken by students as they attempt to enter professional disciplines such as engineering, and focuses on the dilemmas encountered by students as they move through these institutionalized trajectories. He is co-editor of a 2010 National Society for the Study of Education Yearbook, Learning Research as a Human Science. Other work has appeared in Linguistics and Education; Mind, Culture, and Activity; Anthropology & Education Quarterly, the Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science; the Journal of Engineering Education; and the Cambridge Handbook of Engineering Education Research. His teaching interests include developmental psychology; sociocultural theories of communication, learning, and identity; qualitative methods; and discourse analysis.

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Frederick A. Peck University of Montana

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Frederick Peck is Assistant Professor of Mathematics Education in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Montana.

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Julie Cafarella University of Colorado, Boulder

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Julie Cafarella is a PhD student in Educational Psychology & Learning Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Before moving to Colorado, she worked as a public school teacher in New England. Her current research focuses on issues of access and equity in STEM education.

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Jacob (Jenna) McWilliams University of Colorado, Boulder

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Jacob (Jenna) McWilliams is a postdoctoral researcher in the Learning Sciences program at the University of Colorado Boulder. Jacob’s research focuses on issues of gender and sexual diversity in education, and recent work involves developing queer pedagogies for supporting new media literacies practices in the elementary classroom and, most recently, drawing on queer and transgender theory for understanding the dominant discourses of engineering education and how those discourses marginalize and exclude people from traditionally vulnerable gender, sexual, and ethnic groups.

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Working in the Weeds: How do Instructors Sort Engineering Students from Non-Engineering Students in a First Year Pre-Calculus Course?


This research paper reports on a discourse analytic study that examines "weeding out" processes in a pre-calculus course. The calculus sequence is widely understood by engineering students and faculty, and by engineering education researchers, to be one of the course sequences that “weed out” students who are unlikely to survive the rigors of the engineering curriculum (Meyer & Marx, 2014; Seymour & Hewitt, 1997; Walden & Foor, 2008). While this “weeding out” process is often critiqued, it nevertheless has remained prominent in engineering education despite persistent efforts to mitigate its effects. How does “weeding out” remain so central? This paper addresses an important aspect of this question through a detailed examination of a meeting of instructors from multiple sessions of a pre-calculus course for first year engineering and pre-engineering students.

Theoretical Perspective

We draw theoretically on work on the “cultural production of the educated person” (Author, 2003; Levinson & Holland, 1996; Stevens et al, 2008). This approach examines culture as a dynamic process in which people draw on cultural forms as they act in social and material contexts, producing themselves as culturally located persons while at the same time reproducing and transforming the cultural formations in which they act. Educational success and failure, in this view, is an important way in which persons become produced within cultural groups, and thereby contributes to the production of the culture. Additionally, we draw on work that examines practices of classification in institutional systems (Author, 2014; Bowker & Star, 1999). This work demonstrates that classification is never a straightforward, objective process of assignment within an institutional category (e.g., the assignment of a letter grade to a student), but rather involves inevitable negotiation of tensions among various potential ways of interpreting and working within the classificatory system.

Methods and Analysis

Methodologically, we examine this negotiation of tensions through a microanalytic study of the discourse of course instructors as they assign grades to students. For the overall study, we attended the weekly meetings of the pre-calculus instructors and interviewed the lead instructor twice. Because testing and grading emerged as central practices, we attended two examination grading sessions. All meetings, grading sessions, and interviews were audio recorded and transcribed. For this paper, we focus on the instructors’ meeting during which final grades were assigned. We examine all instances of instructors’ representations of students; instructors’ representations of themselves; and instructors’ representation of others (e.g., past students) in order to show the multiple ways in which self and others are categorized in this meeting. We show how these multiple modes of categorization are often potentially in conflict with one another, and how instructors work to assemble 1) depictions of students as “deserving” or “not deserving” a grade that will allow them to pass the course and proceed to the calculus sequence; and 2) depictions of themselves as fair and neutral arbiters of who is and is not deserving. Furthermore, we show how, in doing this work, the instructional team draws from broader societal depictions of classification of people into “winners” and “losers,” for example, as this takes place in reality TV shows.


Our analysis suggests that a partial explanation for the persistence and strength of the “weeding out” metaphor and its instantiation in curricula is precisely its resonance with such broader societal ways of viewing success and failure in terms of objective assessments of talent and merit.


Bowker, G.C., & Star, S.L. (1999). Sorting things out: Classification and its consequences. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Levinson, B.A., & Holland, D. (1996). The cultural production of the educated person: An introduction. In B.A. Levinson, D.E. Foley, & D.C. Holland (Eds.), The Cultural Production of the Educated Person: Critical Ethnographies of Schooling and Local Practice. Albany: SUNY Press.

Meyer, M., & Marx, S. (2014). Engineering dropouts: A qualitative examination of why undergraduates leave engineering. Journal of Engineering Education, 103(4), 525-548. Seymour, E. H., & Hewett, N. M. N. (1997). Talking about leaving: Why undergraduates leave the sciences. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Stevens, R., O’Connor, K., Garrison, L., Jocuns, A. & Amos, D. (2008). Becoming an engineer: Toward a three dimensional view of engineering learning. Journal of Engineering Education, 97(3), 355-368.

Walden, S. E., & Foor, C. (2008). “What's to keep you from dropping out?” Student Immigration into and within Engineering. Journal of Engineering Education, 97(2), 191-205.

O'Connor, K., & Peck, F. A., & Cafarella, J., & McWilliams, J. J. (2016, June), Working in the Weeds: How do Instructors Sort Engineering Students from Non-Engineering Students in a First-Year Pre-Calculus Course? Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.27054

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