Friday, June 20, 2008

Basics for Prerequisite?

First, thanks folks.

I want to summarize what I got out of the discussion of my first article seeking a good synonym for prerequisite when advising students placing into pre-college "prep" classes in math or english. (There was also a backstory about the issues encountered in college-level classes, particularly with mathematics in my physics class.)

I found the suggestions quite interesting, although most concerned getting the idea across when teaching a college-level course in english or math or physics rather than motivating kids placing into "prep" classes, either in new student orientation itself or advising students going through orientation. I will summarize these two topics separately.

Teaching college-level courses

Here I think the term BASIC is perfect. It helps get across the idea that the bar has been raised in college. The freshman or sophomore class they are is is just a foundation for what is expected in the next LEVEL class. What might look advanced right now, especially when entering freshman comp or freshman algebra or pre-calc, will be the minimum expected in the future. It might even work in a "prep" class, but it sends a more powerful signal when you talk about the derivative in calculus being a "basic" skill!

While re-reading the previous discussion, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to analyze the word PREREQUISITE in conjunction with the syllabus on the first day of any class, but particularly a comp class. Might even make a good subject for a one paragraph essay the first day. Take it apart into PRE, before, and REQUISITE, required, but then ask what "required before" really means for the classes that have comp I as a pre-req. Is it "mandatory" in the sense that pass-and-forget will still result in a degree, like in high school, or is it a set of MINIMUM SKILLS that must be learned if you are to have any chance of not failing the next class? Could even create an assignment where you ask them to find someone in that next class and ask them if they (fill in the blank with skill, such as writing a big research paper or a lab report, that you already know has to be done in that class).

I already make it a habit to do what Dr. Crazy described, but hearing it from her and k8 reminded me of just how important it is to give students this information on a regular basis. That means it can't be just me and you. It needs to be everyone who teaches my future students algebra or trig (or english composition). And that only works if we give them a list of things that will be used again, and where, so they are all on the same page.

Now I'll tell you why I brought this up. Our math faculty have been working at reforming some of the classes that lead up to calculus. (I think they are finally figuring out that some of the problems seen in calculus or physics are our own creation.) They have gone so far as to start to talk to those of us who teach physics, that is, to the people who have their classes as a prerequisite. With an opportunity like this showing up, I want to make the most of it.

So the follow-up question to anyone who teaches physics or engineering is: What single mistake from algebra or trig most revolts you when you see it made? What should be punished unmercifully in a pre-calculus class?

Motivating under-prepared students

This is a bigger challenge, because the term has to survive on its own the first time a student hears it, without the kind of elaboration or repetition that is possible in a classroom.

OK, maybe it can be explained further during advising, but I am hoping to find a term that reframes the concept away from "required" or "mandatory" (which these kids have learned means nothing, because most classes pick up about halfway through the previous one) and towards "essential minimum knowledge". Our humanities classes don't teach you how to write a research paper, they expect you to Just Do It. Ditto for algebra and trig in our calculus and physics classes.

Maybe referring to those "prep" classes as presenting COLLEGE-LEVEL BASICS, the minimum skills needed to survive in a college english or math class, is the way to go. What do you think? Would that make it easier to explain to a kid that their placement scores are a result of being taught HS-level basics, the minimum needed to pass the HS exit exam, rather than what is needed in college? Might be worth a try.

Any suggestions about how to do a better job of getting this across to the recent grads who place into pre-college math and english classes? I don't mention returning students because it just does not seem to be a problem for them. They know they don't remember anything from high school, or know they weren't taught it. [True story: A student who had graduated high school circa the 1970s had not taken any math beyond 9th grade. She was told it was better if she took chorus, since girls didn't need to know math. She had plenty of motivation when she came back to school to get a business degree a quarter century later, and she succeeded.]


Dr. Lisa said...

In California, the community colleges are collaborating on a "Basic Skills Initiative" to focus on the needs of under-prepared students. I don't know if it will be productive, but the goal is to identify a strategy to help those students who want an education who, unfortunately, didn't get what they needed from their K-12 education. (Although I have to say one of my recent CC students who was awful at math already had a degree from a university, so it isn't just the CCs that need to address this issue!)

So, because you were interested in the terminology, I can at least say that one large group of CCs is using "basic skills" for this issue. And at my CC, we already have what we call "Personal Growth" classes that fall under this heading - study skills, etc... - to which students are referred if they are in danger of failing out of school.

Doctor Pion said...


Actually, I worry about calling it "basic skills" because students often seem to associate that with a HS "duh-dee-dum" class. [Mind of Mencia reference.] That is the idea behind saying "college-level basics", even if it is mostly a lie. I tell them that it typically covers two years of high school in 15 weeks (which is true), or try to motivate them by challenging them to prove our placement test wrong by attending every day and getting 98% on every quiz or test in the class.

We also have a "Personal Growth" class, and are working on ways to get at-risk students into it earlier rather than later.

Name Under Development said...

In my last job (at a rural CC) I developed a proposal for a course skills advisement grid that would address the concerns you describe. A couple of nearby CCs had created something similar and found it tremendously helpful. We got as far as a pilot before institutional politics killed the thing, but I still love the concept.

In a nutshell, the grid outlined the basic skills students needed at the beginning of the semester to have any chance of passing a given course. Faculty teaching courses with no or few prereqs but high D/W/F rates were asked to score their courses. Courses were rated on a scale of 1-4 in math, writing, reading comprehension, and basic computer skills—so a course might need level one (very basic) computer skills but level four (college sophomore level) reading comprehension. The grid included specific examples at each level, so neither instructors or students were flying blind. We still couldn't stop students from taking courses that were far beyond them, but the grid helped guide the conversation about why doing so was a really bad idea.

I can send you a copy, if you’re interested.


Doctor Pion said...

NUD - Sorry I did not see this comment until today. I would be interested in that grid. My e-mail is in the sidebar of the blog. A pdf would be great.