• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


The Meanings of Prerequisites

The pros and cons of letting students decide.


March 20, 2017

Why should courses have prerequisites?

I’m not saying that some shouldn’t. I’m just asking what the criteria should be.

In much of the burgeoning research on student success, remediation, and community colleges, “prerequisite” is a dirty word. Prerequisites amount to speed bumps on the road to graduation, and many students have sufficiently complicated lives that a speed bump or two is enough to send them careening off the road.  

Yet among many faculty, prerequisites are considered positive goods. Getting a prerequisite for your class is considered a win, and any attack on a prerequisite is an attack on academic rigor, academic freedom, truth, justice, virtue, beauty, and all that is good.  

I think much of the distance between the two views comes from using the same tool to solve very different problems.

If you define the major problem as too many capable students being stopped short by arbitrary obstacles, then you put a heavy burden of proof on prerequisites. From this perspective, prereqs are likelier to be problems than solutions, so you’d need some pretty serious evidence of their necessity before embracing them. Yes, some students who bypass the newly-lowered gate may be pretty spectacularly unprepared, but in the aggregate, more will get through without the prereq than would have with it. As long as that’s true, the gates should be down. This is the theory behind co-requisite remediation, which allows students who don’t immediately place into college-level classes to take them anyway, but with extra support.  

If you define the major problem as too many underqualified students in your class, though, the gatekeeper aspect of a prerequisite may seem like a blessed relief. Requiring, say, college-level English before students can take a biology class should make the lab reports somewhat better. If it slows some students down, well, education takes time.

Over time, I’ve migrated from mostly in the second camp to mostly in the first. The weight of evidence just got to be too much.

Part of what convinced me was a program review I read several years ago. It was by, and about, a science department that had successfully pushed a couple of years prior for a new English prereq for a lab class. It looked at data from before and after the change, which showed literally zero difference in success rates. It concluded that the prereq should stand anyway, because the prereq made a statement about the intended rigor of the class.

To whom the statement was made was left as an exercise for the reader.

But the CCRC and similar studies showing that students who skip prereqs wind up doing just as well as, if not better than, students who follow the rules suggested a deeper issue. There’s more than one path to figuring out how to succeed.  Chains of prereqs exist on the theory that knowledge or skill is acquired linearly, and always in a set order.  But that’s simply not true. When I took French in high school, we started with isolated words and some verb tenses, using flashcard drills and frequent quizzes.  My French is still terrible. When I learned English as a small child, I picked it up in the course of immersive daily life. I didn’t know what “infinitives” were until I took French, but I used them all the time.  My English is pretty good.  

We’ve had students fail the arithmetic placement test but pass the algebra test.  If knowledge were as linear as we usually assume, that wouldn’t happen; after all, if they can’t pass arithmetic, how could they possibly pass algebra? But they do, and frequently enough that it can’t be written off as a fluke. Students take different paths to get there.

To be fair, many prereqs were put in place “for their own good.” The idea was, at least in part, to save students from themselves. But it’s turning out that students are often better judges of their own academic needs than curriculum committees are.  

On campus, getting from the second camp to the first is a piecemeal process, and it’s always subject to special pleading. (“Well, yes, but my class is different because…”) I get that; at one point in my career, early on, I would have said the same things. It’s lucky for me I didn’t have to say them in French, though; that methodical step-by-step approach with which I learned it left me with almost rien.


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