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Students, teachers discuss the value of taking higher level courses

Junior Claire Qu quickly studies for her AP U.S. History final during passing period. Qu said that finals week was especially stressful given her course schedule.
Leah Tan
Junior Claire Qu quickly studies for her AP U.S. History final during passing period. Qu said that finals week was especially stressful given her course schedule.

There is a common stereotype for a student’s junior year, and it is simple: it can be chaotic. For junior Varsha Chandramouli, “chaotic” is an understatement regarding her academic standpoint. Chandramouli is currently enrolled in six weighted classes; five are AP courses, and one of her electives is symphony orchestra, the top—and a time-demanding—orchestra.

But despite the rigor, Chandramouli said, for her, taking higher-level courses helps her engage more in her academics and makes school more enjoyable. 

She said, “The benefits (of taking a higher-level course) are being able to have a deeper understanding of many concepts. While different levels of classes may overlap in content, in higher-level classes I feel (I have) the opportunity to understand the content at a deeper level. Also, I think it is a good way to push students to challenge themselves and (to) build good study habits.”

However, while there are many benefits that can also come from taking accelerated classes, there are plenty of negatives that can come along with the decision to take even one higher-level course. One of the largest issues that comes along with taking an accelerated course, as stated by The New York Times columnist Jay Mathews in his article on how advanced classes can slow a student’s progression, is pressure. 

Matthews cites many pressures that can come along with taking advanced classes, and College and Career Programming and Resources Coordinator Melinda Stephan said she agreed. 

“There is definitely some angst or some anxiety that comes with ‘Am I going to be successful?’ Stephan said. “And some students (have) the fear of failure, and that definition of failure for everybody. I’m not talking about getting an ‘F’ necessarily, but for some students who have never gotten anything but an ‘A’ and they take a rigorous course and they got a ‘B’, they may think that’s failure.”

Chandramouli said the environment of these accelerated courses, even without the situations mentioned above, can be a difficult learning environment for someone who isn’t used to the speed and rigor of the course. 

“I have (felt pressured to continue with additional higher-level courses) because many times, when taking a high-level class, it feels like there is a precedent to continue on with the honor or advanced track, regardless of if it is best for your learning,” she said. “I did feel this a lot especially in elementary school when I did poorly in most of my classes but did not want to move down because it felt like I was regressing. In high school, I think the pressure has lessened because it is fairly common for people to drop out of classes that didn’t fit them well.

Junior Varsha Chandramouli practices her violin for symphony orchestra. At the time, Chandramouli no longer had evening rehearsals, and so she said she tried to practice more to compensate.
(Leah Tan)

“The environment may be a bit overwhelming sometimes because there are various levels of skill in advanced classes,” Chandramouli added. “This could make it intimidating to ask a question or admit that you are having trouble in the class. Another negative is that being in an academically competitive environment makes it easy to forget that academic accomplishments are not the only measure of achievement.”

Junior Claire Qu, who, like Chandramouli, also chose to take various intensive classes—she is currently taking seven weighted classes, six being A.P. and one International Baccalaureate (IB) course—said she agreed with Chandramouli. 

Qu said, “Advanced classes are much more demanding than other classes in terms of workload. If a student is not able to rise to the challenge of the rigor, higher-level classes may cause unhealthy stress.”

But despite the negatives, Katie Overbeck, IB diploma program coordinator and English teacher, said the coursework can be difficult at first, but as a student goes through an accelerated course they do often learn how to better adapt to the demands that college professors will make at a university level, time management and how to become an independent learner. 

“I think taking the right mixture of classes in junior and senior year does help students prepare themselves for what the demands of college are going to be,” Overbeck said. “Now, that being said, freshman year of college courses are not overwhelmingly difficult a lot of the time, so it’s really about time management. Maybe there’s an increased reading load compared to some of our regular-level classes we have maybe the writing assignments are a little more independent so the students need to know if a professor just says ‘This is the assignment, go,’ you don’t have all those frameworks that we have in place or the support that we have in place in some of our standard-level courses.”

Overbeck said higher-level courses in high school can help students prepare for the type of assignments they get at university level,  but she said the high school courses still have a lot of safety nets for students. 

“If students don’t turn in work, we don’t give them a flat-out zero and no chance to recover,” she said. “So even in a high-level course in high school there’s safety nets in place to help students get to that level, whereas if they wait until college, those safety nets are usually gone.”

Stephan said she agreed with Overbeck, and added, “There is something to be said about challenging oneself, to a certain extent. When you challenge yourself academically, you get an idea of what you’re capable of and you get an idea of what your limits might be and how to expand those limits. Certainly (the rigor) of the course is important, whether it’s an important class here at CHS or a rigorous course in college, the more you challenge yourself and get through the bumps and the obstacles at the high school level, when you have even more support available in terms of parents and teachers then you’re going to better figure out how to get through those bumps and obstacles when you take those rigorous courses later.”

Qu said there are additional benefits that can come from taking advanced courses than just learning to overcome challenges. 

She said, “Advanced classes allow you to really develop a thorough understanding of subjects that interest you. Aside from the course content, you will undoubtedly improve your time-management and study skills. Also, many colleges offer credit for AP (and) IB exam scores, so you can potentially save time in money in college.”

Weighing the pros and cons of higher-level courses, Chandramouli said accelerated courses are worth taking, but a student has to be motivated to want to take said course in order to gain more than just a good grade and college credit. 

Chandramouli said, “I do think the positives outweigh the negatives because most of the negatives of a heavy course load are external, such as pressure from how others are doing or dealing with the competitive environment. If students are well-rounded and make sure to expand their time spent beyond school, I think it would help them respond in a positive way to the competitive environment of advanced classes, and be able to get the full benefit of pushing themselves academically. I do think it is worth it to take a higher-level class because I think everyone has the skills to succeed in advanced classes, even though they may not know that. It is always good to try and I think everyone can succeed if they work hard enough and ask for help.”

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