Sunday, January 13, 2008

Followup on Prerequisites

First, an update:

The student whose transcript was described in last week's post on prerequisites dropped (or maybe got dropped by our system) before the semester started so that is one less hassle to face. The karmic balance will be described at the bottom.

One of the comments to that article (by Patrick Lam aka Plam) observed that "It seems that the students at my institution now basically get 0 choices in courses (the wonders of engineering degrees), so I guess that this problem doesn't show up." Well, they have essentially zero choices at Nearby University (NU), but that is not enforced.

Since I never met her, I'll just have to speculate that her major is Biochemistry. That fits with all of the classes she has taken. Your first two years are taken up with 2 semesters of biology, 4 semesters of chemistry, 2 of physics, and 2 of calculus plus maybe a choice or two for the required history and humanities general education classes. That did not keep this student from not starting in chemistry as required by the prerequisites.

My other example, the student who showed up in my Physics II class despite having failed all four semesters of calculus, was an engineering major (OK, a wannabe engineering major) at NU! If there is no administrative system in place, many students will just treat prerequisites as an annoyance and fail to achieve their career goals as a result. (My thoughts on orientation for students fresh out of HS and on what is needed to be ready for college were blogged about last spring.) Fortunately, our college does it automatically and another nearby school (Wannabe Flagship) also does a good job. Only NU, where they appear to get no guidance on this, is a problem for me.

My first post was prompted by Becky Hirta's hassle with manually enforcing the prerequisites for the Calculus Circus. I can't imagine that. A minor snafu in our system let students without a math prerequisite into chemistry, and manual checks showed that something like 20% ignored what was in the catalog. Now I, myself, exploited my rights as an Honors undergrad to ignore anything if I could talk my adviser into it, but what works for Patrick and me does not work for most students.

I think one of my great teaching successes is that I manage (with the help of former students) to convince my students that they need to learn (actually remember) physics to make their life in engineering school go more smoothly.

Small world shout out!
Patrick is at Waterloo. I still have (somewhere) a button given to me by a Waterloo CS student at a July 1 party celebrating Dominion Day along with a pre-July-Fourth party in western Michigan, back in a previous century. [The button said something about beware of trojan horses.] Awesomely crazy kids; I hope you have lots more like them. And I have a cousin working at the MIT AI lab, although I suspect he went there after Patrick left.

Karmic balance:
A student added my Physics I class with the glorious record of two F grades in Physics I from another institution. Of course, said student has not done any of the homework this semester. Must think our CC classes will be easier than those at a large university where no one cares if students learn. Bad guess.


Unbalanced Reaction said...

I still can't get over how many students ignore the prerequisites there! I was always too scared to. :)

plam said...

Dr. P: I forgot to add you to my RSS reader, so I only found your post now.

First year Engineering students do get 0 choice, but in a much more heavy-handed way: "All of your classes are selected for you."

From what I understand, that means that they basically get to tick off a box which says "Yes, I register for these 5 classes." Definitely intrusive advising. In fourth year they get to choose some electives, I guess. I'm glad that I did a science undergrad (ignoring not just prerequisites but required classes) rather than an engineering undergrad.

I don't know about the craziness of Waterloo kids vs the craziness of MIT kids. Some of those hacks ( are crazy. I left MIT in December 2006, so I may have intersected your cousin.