Course Selection 101: Finding the Right Balance

By Julie Alexandre  P’06,’08,’11,’13; Haverford, PA

Teachers encourage our children to “finish up strong,” but spring term is also the time for envisioning new challenges. While our seniors decide among college acceptances, Deerfield’s course selection process affords our juniors, sophomores, and freshmen the opportunity to have a say in the mix of courses they take next fall. I met with Academic Dean Peter Warsaw on the eve of spring break to discuss how the course selection process works and the role we parents can play in it. 

Q. What is the time table for course selection this spring?

A. The deadline for 2012-13 course registration is April 16. The chairs and I meet with each grade level right after spring break: rising seniors on March 27, and rising sophomores and juniors on March 29.  That gives students time to meet with their advisors and to consult with their parents and classroom teachers before submitting selections.

Q. That sounds very straightforward. Are the students’ course selections a done deal in mid April?

A. No. During the summer, department chairs do the final vetting of courses based upon students’ past records, recently recorded end-of-year grades, and formal written comments, as well as informal discussions. Placement is easy if all data are aligned, but if there is an anomaly, chairs go back to teachers for more information. Chairs have the final say in course placement.

Q. OK, that is a little surprising especially if a student gets positive feedback from a current teacher about a course selection.

A. It is important to know that the current teacher is at most another advisor, not the vetter. Let’s say a sophomore goes to her current History teacher and asks, “Should I take Honors U.S. History?” and the teacher encourages her to apply. That exchange is no guarantee that the student will be placed in the honors course. The chair sees the big picture–the entire grade level–and follows a multi-point rubric to make placement decisions.

Q. Let’s talk about honors and advanced placement (AP) courses. How many should a child take in a given year?

A. There are myths about how many AP examinations Deerfield students take.  Many students think you need seven or eight by the time you graduate. In fact, across their entire Deerfield careers, four or five AP exams is the norm for our students. And not all APs must be taken by the end of junior year, though junior year is an important one for AP courses.

Q. What are the most popular AP exams?

A. Junior English—with well over 100 AP Literature candidates each year—and Honors U.S. History traditionally generate the most AP candidates. This year, AP Biology saw a surge in enrollment: we had 92 juniors out of a class of roughly 180 enrolled in AP Biology last fall, though that number is now in the mid 70s as students have chosen to drop down due to the rigor of the course.

Q. So a junior can take the U.S. History or English AP exam in the spring without having taken an AP course?

A. Yes. While we have AP courses in math, science, and art, we do not have any in the humanities. However, as evidenced by English III and U.S. History, many of our humanities courses prepare students for AP exams. About two-thirds of the junior class will take the AP English Literature exam, with almost that number taking the U.S. History exam, and recent experience shows that they will average over 4 on a scale of 1 to 5. The point, of course, is that even though we do not designate those courses as AP, they do a solid job of preparing most students for the AP, should they wish to take it.

Q. So how does a student come up with the right mix of courses for a given year?

A. In my end-of-winter term letter to parents, I write that we want our students to be in the most rigorous courses in which they can be successful, which we define as healthy, happy, and productive.

Q. As the mother of a junior girl, that goal sounds lofty but not realistic. Isn’t Deerfield a high stress place?

A. This junior class has exhibited legendary levels of stress, especially the girls.  If I may generalize for a moment, boys tend to stop studying when they recognize they are no longer effective. Girls often keep going and their studying can become counterproductive. I recently spoke with a three-year junior girl who as a freshman and sophomore had struggled academically, but who just submitted easily her best term yet, raising her average over six points.  I asked her how she did it and she replied, “I’m not stressing out.”  As a freshman and sophomore, she would finish a paper and then worry that it wasn’t good enough. As a result, she would spend another hour or two trying—but ultimately failing—to make it better. This year she resolved simply to do her best on the work as assigned and be content with the results. As soon as she stopped worrying about her grades, her average went way up.

Q. What can we parents do to help our children select the right balance of courses?

A. We want course selection to be a student-driven process with input from advisors, teachers, and parents. My winter letter has links to the resources necessary in the decision process:  graduation requirements; course catalog; departmental course maps; sample programs; and a four-year planning worksheet. Parents have found the departmental course maps particularly helpful. While it is important to be informed about these academic requirements and choices, I believe that parents should be listeners and guiders. Parents can help their children align abilities with aspirations and balance the rigor of their overall academic schedules with other commitments (athletics, arts, leadership positions, proctorships, and extra-curricular interests).

Q. What should a parent do if his or her child is not placed in a requested AP or honors course?

A. Parents need to trust the judgment of department chairs. Chairs do an amazingly good job of placement. Yes, a parent may know his or her child better than Deerfield does, but chairs and teachers have seen tens of thousands of adolescents pass through their classrooms. This gives us a broader, deeper perspective. Chairs understand the rigor of Deerfield courses and the various pathways through its curriculum. In short, chairs see so much more “data” and it gives them special insight in placing each child in the appropriate course.

Q. Finally, what if next year my child finds her AP course to be too demanding?

A. If a child feels overwhelmed in any course, she should share those feelings with her teacher. Sometimes the teacher’s advice will be to “hang in there,” and sometimes the advice will be to drop down a level. The student’s advisor can also help—at least serving as a sounding board—but the most important step is for the student to go to the teacher.

Q. Thank you, Peter. We appreciate your insights.

Find out more about Peter Warsaw and review the discussion he had with Julie Alexandre last fall about academics at Deerfield.


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