Wednesday, November 18, 2015


The Prereq Temptation

(“The Prereq Temptation” was a rejected John LeCarre title.  A lot of people don’t know that…)

In my imagined, more perfect world, there would be exactly one reason for a prerequisite to attach to a class: the students would need to know material from the prior class to be successful in the second one.  For example, a student wandering into a calculus class who had never taken algebra or trig could be expected to be lost.  (“Why are you doing math with letters?”)  In sequences of courses that build on each other, the folks who teach the later courses should have some reasonable assurance that they don’t have to go all the way back to square one.  

But in this world, that’s not the only reason prerequisites get put on classes.  For example:

Leaving aside the more sinister and self-serving reasons, people often argue for prereqs out of a sincere, if unproven, belief that they’ll set students up for success.  The argument could be tested empirically, but almost never is.  It should be.

Individual prereqs can make sense, but when they proliferate -- as they tend to do -- they make timely completion of a degree much harder.  A student who has to wait for a prereq class to fit her schedule may add a semester or a year to her time-to-completion, just because she’s following an unproven rule passed through a combination of ego and wishful thinking.  

To my mind, the burden of proof should be on prereqs.  In the relatively rare cases in which the relevance is obvious and well-demonstrated, keep them.  But subject all of the existing ones -- not just new ones -- to actual empirical tests.  If our four-year counterparts would do the same -- hint, hint -- we could drop the prereqs that are only there to appease them.  

The prereq temptation is subtle and pervasive, but it does real harm.  If we could get that long list of reasons down to a single one -- where it actually helps -- students would benefit tremendously.

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