Saturday, January 5, 2008


I really enjoy reading the Learning Curves blog, written under one of the great pseuds I have ever seen, Rudbeckia Hirta. But I digress. Her job is coordinating the Calculus Circus at a large research university, leading to a lot of the same kinds of problems I have to deal with (albeit on a larger scale).

Reading about her problems can be a bit therapeutic at times, and quite helpful at others. One can always use new ideas. But she has one problem that I do not encounter very often, because her university does not have any automated mechanism for enforcing prerequisites.

One of our nearby institutions has no policy on prerequisites, so I have seen the consequences of letting students loose in that environment. Her observation "It's like they spin a wheel to pick their classes" is right on the mark.

Fortunately, Prof. Hirta's university does have a policy that allows administrative drops of students who lack the required prerequisites, but that is a labor intensive process. She has brilliantly automated mailing the offenders to get them to change classes before they get manually dropped on the first day of class, but I wonder if any of them even read their e-mail!

My usual problem is that students sign up for my class (calculus-based physics for engineers and the physical sciences) who really belong in a different class (trig-based physics for life science majors). They can do this, of course, because their majors generally require calculus. And some need to do it, because their goal includes a grad school that requires my course. But most do it because the other class is not taught in the spring semester, and have no clue that it might be, oh, five times harder than the alternative. E-mail never gets this across, mostly because they don't read their e-mail. (Maybe our new portal will improve that.) The next best thing seems to be to actually teach physics on the first day of class. That gets their attention.

My prerequisite problem is actually someone else's problem. A sister university does not have any mechanism at all for enforcing prerequisites. None. Not only does their registration system literally allow any student to register for any class (want to take 3rd semester calculus? sure!), they don't even allow faculty to drop students who do not meet the stated catalog requirements. They are truly "student centered".

My apologies if you don't believe me. I would not believe it if I had not seen the transcripts myself. Worst case ever had to be the student whose math grades were Calc I F, Calc II F, Calc III F and showed up in my 2nd semester physics class without having even passed physics 1 at his home institution. (OK, maybe the kid with a C in each of three calculus class and differential equations who could not take the derivative of x2 was worse.) And I've got another one this semester.

You see, our system makes it pretty easy to pull up your class roster and click a button next to the name of a student and see their transcript and advising information. (Great way to see where a new kid is coming from, or why some kid can't do enough algebra to get out of a paper bag.) So, one of the things I do between mundane pre-semester tasks is see what new faces have shown up in my second-semester physics class or the associated lab. Here is what I found this week:

The student passes Bio for majors I, but failed Bio for majors II the next semester. No surprise there, since the student had not yet taken any chemistry, which is required for these courses because of the biochemistry used. Krebs cycle and all that. (First example of where this "student centered" institution hurts a student who does not grasp the concept of prerequisites.) So what does she take in her third semester? Chem II. Amazingly, she passes. Maybe she had the person who gave a C to the kid who could not take a derivative. Who knows. Anyway, she fixes that problem by taking Chem I in her fourth semester, along with Physics II. (Second example, although she does have the math prerequisites for physics, just not the physics one.) That is where I come in. She manages to pass the lecture class, but fails the lab. (She also manages to fail the Chem I lab despite having passed the Chem II lab, so maybe she had an attendance problem.) In her fifth semester, she fails Bio II again, so maybe the chemistry was not her real problem. Or maybe it was, because she next fails Organic I along with Physics I.

So there she is in my lab. Her institution says she is qualified to take my lab, even though we require a grade of C in both lecture and lab for Physics I as a prerequisite for the second semester lab, so we have to take her. Our computer system ignores special students like her. And she might be OK. I've encouraged the Dean to let someone take Lab II with only a D in Lab I and repeat the D later, and she got a D in Lab II. She should have learned enough about proper use of significant figures in the chemistry lab she passed and the physics and chemistry labs she failed to handle the lab part, although she might have to relearn the physics she has forgotten since she passed Physics II. Did I mention that she passed Physics II seven years ago and failed Physics I two years ago? Yeah, she will have a lot of catching up to do.

PS - I don't actually have first-hand knowledge of their administrative drop policy, or lack thereof, but I have that info from two different people in two different departments who have also worked for us. I have seen way too many insane transcripts to wonder what SACS would say if they actually cared about this subject.


Unbalanced Reaction said...

That's so bizarre. I'm also surprised that students would choose to sign up for calc-based physics when they don't have to.

As an aside, glad you found me. The Boss hates the Oxford comma; the omission of it is maddening to me, so I always add it back into my first-author papers....right before submission. ;)

Astroprof said...

We used to have that problem. Our old system did not automatically block students who did not have the prerequisites. So, I had students taking calc-based physics while still taking remedial math. That is, they signed up for PHYS I without calculus first. I am afraid that they didn't complete the course. Our new system does better.

Doctor Pion said...

Unbalanced, for the same reason a student planning to major in Interior Design chose to take Majors Chemistry instead of the gen-ed "kitchen chemistry" class. They think they must all be the same if they meet the same requirement.

plam said...

Wow. That's so bizarre. My mind boggles. 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.

When I was a student myself, I used to like ignoring prerequisites---or better yet, taking the successor course to get the silly prerequisite waived as a program requirement. That was fun, but perhaps not recommendable for everyone.

Doctor Pion said...

I'll address Plam's observation in a followup blog comment today.