Tuesday, November 25, 2008

What Part of Prerequisite Don't You Understand?

Hi, my name is Student X and I have a few questions regarding Science as a major and Your Field. See, I am a transfer student from Another University and I have an interest in Science and Something Kind of Related to Science. I was not able to take any Science classes last term and I would like to take one this term. Your upper-level class in Z Science is offered next term and I was wondering if you think it would be a good class for me to start with? My Science background is a bunch of intro Science classes. If you can, please get back to me and let me know what you think. Thanks a lot.
-Student X

Student X,

The Z Science class has some prerequisite courses: LIST. It doesn't seem from your email that you have taken any of these classes. You need to start with these classes, including Y Science, and then you can take Z Science, which is offered every year.


I guess it's always worth a try to email a professor and see if the prerequisites are flexible or not. Despite the rude title of this post, some prerequisites are more serious than others, and some can be taken concurrently with the class for which they are a prerequisite (though this is typically noted in the course description).

I get email like this every year before the Z Science class. Some students have had a lot more science and math than Student X but are missing the most directly relevant prerequisite for my class.

In my extreme professorial youth I was sympathetic to tales of woe regarding the academic consequences of a student's not taking my Z Science class in a particular term, even without the prerequisites. For example, if a student takes Z Science first and then the prerequisite Y Science the following term, they may be able to graduate one term earlier than if they have to wait a year to take Z Science. In order for a student to graduate by taking Z and Y Science out of order, though, they must have taken other courses out of order, including ones that have Z Science as a prerequisite. So I figured: If my wise and all-knowing senior colleagues waived the prereq (my class), who was I to insist on the prerequisites being taken seriously?

That's what I used to think, anyway. Over time, though, I realized that even very smart and motivated students could only make up for the missing prerequisite classes by asking the TA's and/or me to spend substantial extra time helping them understand the prerequisite material. That wasn't fair to the TA's or me; neither of us have the necessary extra time to help a student make up for all that they have missed by taking the courses out of sequence. And for every smart and motivated student who struggled with the class and managed to get a decent grade with lots of effort and assistance, there were other, less smart and less motivated students who failed the course in much higher numbers than students who had taken the prerequisite courses.

Fortunately these courses are offered every year without exception and the schedule is organized to minimize overlap with other essential courses the students are taking if they take the Science classes in the correct sequence. This minimizes the number of students pleading for exceptions to the prereqs, but there is always at least one.

I no longer waive the prerequisite. I have had too many students get a poor grade or fail owing to their not having taken the prerequisite course(s), and then some of these students were angry at being allowed to take a course they couldn't pass; guess whose fault this was?

Some courses do have 'soft' prerequisites that could be waived if necessary, but in some cases the REQUired part of a preREQUIsite is there for a good reason.


Anonymous said...

Could you give a hint of what the course topic is? Maybe not giving away the name of the class.

At my school physical chemistry and mammalian physiology has extensive pre-reqs for the class.

NeuroPostdoc said...

sometimes there are issues with transfer credits, etc. for example--I initially attending fancy pants private U that accepted my AP credit from high school in physics (I got 5's on both the mechanics and E&M calculus-based exams), I then went on and took the next level up physics course and did well and an even more advanced physics course the next semester and did well. I ended up having to transfer to local public U because of illness/money. Well, local public U did not accept my AP credits for physics and therefore I did not have the prerequisites for the advanced courses that I had already taken and if I had decided to remain a physics major I would have had to go back and take what was high-school physics for me in order to take the next level up from what I had already had... It was a pain...luckily I had decided to switch majors away from physics and somehow convinced the chair of the department to let my advanced physics course (complete with E&M lab) count as the basic physics course I needed to get a B.S. in Biology. Although, the same thing happened in the Biology department too (the intro to biology I had at fancy pants private U did not count as intro to biology at local public U as I didn't take the lowest level intro bio course at fancy pants private U, I took the advanced one and it transferred over as an elective)...I had to go back and take Intro to Biology after I had gotten A & B's in Biochem, BioPChem, Genetics, Microbiology, and Senior Seminar...luckily they let me waive the pre-req and take them out of order, otherwise it would have taken another year to graduate just to take a course that was lower than the one I had already taken.

The Bear Maiden said...

As an illustration student who started in the middle of the year, the upper level classes that were offered in the semester I was starting in were preceded by a prerequisite lower level class. Which was not offered in the semester I was in. The administration waived all the prereqs, and pushed me into the upper level classes.

Then, cuz they were stupid, I still had to take the prereqs the following semester.

The first semester, I cried. The stuff was SO over my head, and it was a credit to the professors that they took the time to have me understand fundamentals of things I had no concept about. I felt like such a slacker, and felt bad slowing the rest of the class down. It was awful.

The second semester was a joke, cuz now the fundamentals were almost pointless for me to take. Although I did finally understand some things.

So no matter the subject, a prereq is a prereq for a reason. And as someone who struggles in math (though did OK in science cuz I loved it) I cannot IMAGINE even attempting to take a class when I hadn't taken the prereq. But people try, cuz you're right. In a lot of places the administrators waive the prereq. I guess they figure you're paying right? But it does all in involved a huge disservice.

Anonymous said...

I was an undergrad at Caltech, where many students came in with insane backgrounds from high school in some subject or other, often through independent study or research experience rather than formal coursework. Prerequisites at the school were merely recommendations, so many of us were able to start out taking some graduate level/upper division courses as freshman, often against instructor recommendation. Some students realized they were not as smart or well prepared as they thought they were, and either dropped these courses or failed them (or failed out of the university entirely); the professors didn't seem to mind much. Others did spectacularly well, despite what on paper seemed insufficient preparation. Enforced prerequisites would have definitely been a waste of time for many of us...if I was in your position I would just warn the student in question,and let her/him try and fail.

wordfalling said...

I've been arguing with myself about sending an email to my professor/advisor about getting into a course he's teaching this spring even though I'm missing one of the prerequisites. Knew I shouldn't since I probably would not do as well as I could with the prereq and this post has further convinced me that it is a bad idea. Thanks FSP!

Were you annoyed by Student X's use of your first name or has that become fairly commonplace? I'd never do that without explicit permission to do so from the person with the PhD.

Mister Troll said...

Usually the prereqs are necessary.

I do, however, still remember with bitterness taking two sequential prereqs in university for the class I actually wanted to take, and finding that neither prereq mattered from a content perspective. Total waste of my time. *BUT* prereqs are usually very important.

I believe these days there are a number of honors programs for which its members do not have to abide by prerequisites. Sounds very neat to me.

Anonymous said...

This is the first time I've ever violently disagreed with you. When I was doing a MechE and a Computer Science major at a small university, there is no way I could have graduated in even six years without taking classes before their pre-reqs. If Major A and Major B has a required course at 10am, and it's only taught in the fall, what is the student supposed to do? Some scholarships only last 4 years.

Furthermore, most pre-reqs for higher level classes are poorly conceived. I can't tell you how many classes required "Topology" and used "This is a open set," or required "Advanced Prob/Stat" and only used "So, we average these values."

If you're going to reject a student for not having the pre-reqs, at least tell them what kind of math the course covers. Saying "Sorry, linear algebra is required" is much different from saying "Sorry, this course uses gaussian elimination, qr iteration, and psuedospectral properties of matrices. You really need linear algebra." This at least tells the student what would be expected of them. And you never know, perhaps she's already seen spectral theory as part of another course.

A postscript- I ended up dropping MechE in favor of Math because one teacher was so inflexible about pre-reqs that there was no way I could double major in that area. I find out later that those "pre-reqs" weren't really needed for the course, and the professor was just being a self centered jerk.

Anonymous said...

I think it is about time we stop treating university students like children.

Students should be warned of 2 things:

1) what he/she is expected to know before taking the course;

2) TA's and instructors will not teach the prerequisite material.

If one wants to take the challenge, so be it. If they fail or have immense difficulties during the course it is fine. They are adults and it is their choice.

Provided you warned them what they will be up against, leave the choice to the students.

It is absurd that we don't let students make simple choices like that at the same time they are being prepared to make important decisions regarding the life of others.

Female Science Professor said...

worfalling - As I say in the post, some rereqs are more serious than others, so it's worth asking a professor about any particular course. In the case of my Z Science course, the prerequsities -- one in particular -- are essential. It depends on the class, though.

I wasn't annoyed by the student's use of my first name, nor by the request about taking my class without the rerequisites -- there's no harm in asking.

Anonymous said...

I ignored prerequisites all the time for Computer Science classes. Math, not so much.

Now I'm a bit surprised when I get requests to override prerequisites: all we were told when I was an undergrad was "This course has a prerequisite" when registering (on the phone system).

Pagan Topologist said...

Our courses now have a hard prerequisite system; transfer students typically cannot register for courses unless they get an instructor override, since they do not have our particular course on their records. It does seem to me to be outrageous to make students retake material that is far below their current knowledge and skill level just to satisfy a rigid rule.

After 40 years of teaching, I sometimes waive prerequisites, and sometimes refuse to do so. The decision is an intuitive one, and I have only rarely let a student into a class that s/he could not handle.

I am reminded of an incident that happened to a friend of mine who was working on an MBA after finishing his Ph. D. in engineering. He was required to take an elementary probability course, which the professor refused to waive. He then asked the professor a question about a probability topic which had come up in his research from Feller, Vol. II which was at a level far above that of the course which the professor had refused to waive. The professor changed mind. Apparently, many people posting here would not have done so, which I find most unfortunate.

Anonymous said...

As an undergrad, I fumed about being made to take two quarters of basic calculus despite getting a 5 on the AP exam. It was a complete waste of my time and I didn't learn anything remotely new during those two quarters. Worse, the school was totally inconsistent--friends in other departments who got 3's and 4's on the AP exam got to start with Diff Eq.

Sadly, now that I'm an instructor, I can see why my college was so strict with me. I've had so many students who are ridiculously unprepared for my classes--even intro level classes--but if they fail, I'm in trouble with their department and mine. The student worked hard, right? S/he turned in the homework, right? Then what's with the D or F? Maybe it's because I didn't spend enough time helping him/her.

Maybe as I get more teaching experience, I'll be better at making the kind of judgment call Pagan Topologist describes. It's not fun to be the kind of professor I would have disliked as an undergrad, but I have a hard time trusting students to assess their own knowledge.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I took courses out of order as an undergrad...
Oddly enough, the three courses that I took without having done appropriate prereqs while I was an undergrad ended up being the best "science" grades I got the whole time I was there.

Anonymous said...

One of my spring courses has a prereq that's also only offered in the spring. I used to draw a hard line on it but then my departmental colleagues voted not to recommend me for tenure. So now I don't care and there will be about a dozen students in the spring taking the two classes concurrently.

Quill2006 said...

I think that both you and the student did the right thing here.

Transferring schools can cause a lot of problems when it comes to which classes transfer as which classes, so it's often best to find out if the instructor thinks the student will be able to handle a class based on the things they've learned in earlier classes. The student should have included some descriptions of the topics covered in the courses he or she has already taken, because they may have covered enough that the student would be ready and able to take your class.

And you were of course right to tell the student they weren't ready. It can be very difficult for a student to know if they have the background knowledge for a class based on, perhaps, a paragraph of description in a course guide. Letting a student in knowing they'll probably fail is a waste of the student's time and money and your time and energy!

One other "prerequisite" that was common at my small liberal arts college was "junior or senior standing" or something similar. 300-400 level courses were considered too hard for freshmen and often for sophomores, who might not have the study skills, writing ability, or research experience necessary to succeed at a course even if there was no specific background knowledge required. The registrar all too often let students into classes they didn't have the standing for, and I was really impressed with one professor who told a student "I think you could take this course now if you really, really want to, but you'll have to put in much more effort and time than the other students will, and you'll be constantly struggling to keep up. You've got the brains, but not the experience. Why don't you try one of these classes and sign up for my class next year?" The student did what he suggested, and given how much we seniors struggled with the course, I'm sure the professor was right!

quasarpulse said...

I'm running into the prerequisite problem right now. I'm trying to take Elective Math X, which has as its prerequisite Precalculus Course A, and even though I've completed Calculus Courses D and E, Math Elective Y, Physics Course F, and Chemistry Courses G, H, and I, all of which rely on this precalculus course, the college refuses to recognize that I've met the prerequisite for X because I took precalculus (and AP Calc) in high school, and therefore can't present an official college transcript of it. This school apparently isn't used to dealing with this situation.

And the professor (who, by the way, taught the calculus courses and the other elective math, and is encouraging me to take this specific elective) isn't sure if he can waive the prerequisite because it's not something professors normally handle here.

FSP, I think you did the right thing. But prerequisites can be frustrating and confusing, and you can't blame students (especially those with complexities like transfers or AP credits) for asking.

Anonymous said...

A Long Time Ago I took my Thermodynamics & Stat Mech class a year early, without having any of the sophomore-level prerequisites. That wasn't too bad--the freshman-level physics classes provided enough context, and I got A in the class without fairly effortlessly.

But then logical next step in my Attempt To Cram Two Majors into Four Years was to take the Solid State Physics course first semester of my junior year, during the time slot which would have been for Thermo, without having had any of the junior-level Electromagnetism or Quantum classes. THAT was all bad. Somehow I managed to keep up with the homework and get a B in the class, with only the extra assistance of my classmate who lived two floors down from me. But I swear I learned nothing. It's like without a proper pre-existing structure of E&M and QM, the material from Solid State class couldn't find a way to fit into my brain. So all that information just sort of... slid off in the shower and went down the drain immediately after the final exam. To this the day, whenever I crack open that particular textbook, I feel like I'm reading it for the first time.

Tomato said...

Now I am curious about something. When you go to register for a class and you don't have the prereq for it, does "the computer" allow you to register and you need to get permission as a nicety or are you actually prevented from enrolling in the class?
I ask this in general because at my school, as far as I can tell, there's nothing to stop students from enrolling a class if they don't have the proper prereqs. I did :)

Anonymous said...

I ended up having to drop the one course I took out of my own area. There were no prerequisites - but there should have been, I think.

Anonymous said...

@PhysicalScience Ph.D student - Caltech has a much later deadline for dropping classes than is usual, so the common approach of registering for an impossible courseload and deciding halfway through term what to drop won't work in most other places - it might not be clear that the prerequisites really are needed until it's too late to drop.

Anonymous said...

I'm with FSP on this one. Pre-reqs matter. The first year we convinced the university to let us enforce the prereq on CHEM 101, our fail/drop rate went from 40% to 25%. We passed the same total number of students. Effectively, the students kept out of the course for not having high school chemistry would all have failed.

That's not to say I'll never waive a pre-req. I've had students (usually mature students or senior students in other majors) approach me the semseter before the course to ask how they can pick up equivalent background to the pre-req. I give them a list of topics to go over in an intro-level text and, if they come back to me the semester of the course, having done that homework, I'll waive their pre-req. Those students tend to do pretty well - but I have to make a judgement call (and, if in doubt, I'll ask them some questions about the material they read to make sure they really did read it).

So, I have some sympathy - mostly based on the fact that I had to take Anal Chem 3 before Anal Chem 2 due to an insane semester where 6 of the courses I needed to take were all offered in the same timeslot so I was scrambling to find a full courseload of relevant courses. But I had to teach myself a month of electronics (Anal Chem 2 material) before the first midterm and I had to do it without much faculty support. I'm only willing to put a student in that position if I feel they can handle it.