Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Synonym for Prerequisite?

I've put the background information below the fold so I can keep the question up front.

Today's question is whether many of our most at risk students, the ones who struggle because they don't have the prerequisites to succeed in college level classes, don't understand what we are talking to them about because the word we use, prerequisite, has four syllables? Does a typical CC student who placed into a pre-college reading and writing class understand this word? I doubt it, but maybe someone who teaches english will wander in here and offer some advice.

Can anyone suggest a clear, simple phrase that gets the idea of "prerequisite" across using a middle school vocabulary?

The idea we must get across is that we expect them to retain what is taught in the class, not just cram to get past the next test. To learn it so they can apply it in the next class, because they will have to write or do basic algebra in their next class and the next one and the next one.

The Backstory

If you have read my blog much at all, you know that student comprehension of the idea of a prerequisite is a pet peeve of mine. It even rates its own blog category. Students generally don't get the idea of actually learning a subject for future use, so they often "take" a class with the apparent objective of forgetting it all as soon as they earn their C. For the better students, this might even work in a range of classes from high school through some of the general education classes, but they often run into trouble when they need to actually know trig and the rules of logarithms to succeed in calculus or physics.

But I'm not writing about that today. I'm writing about the ones who are struggling in pre-college "prep" classes because they never learned reading or english or how to work with symbols in the most basic algebra class but somehow managed to pass the high school exit exam or the GED. They also are the most resistant to the idea that they need to learn (not just pass) the material in their prep classes. [Older, returning students seem to understand the need for prep classes because they are under no illusions about remembering anything from high school. In contrast, recent high school grads seem to operate under a large number of illusions about what they learned in high school. The vast majority believe some myth about "not testing well" as the explanation for why they can't do fractions or solve an equation.]

This is a serious problem, and using a ten dollar college word for it only helps in discussions amongst professionals. We need a better way to talk about this to students.

Some Synonyms

NECESSARY before you can do something else

REQUIRED prior to taking the next class, REQUIREMENT




Some of these don't work when used with "course", since students seem to associate that with getting past the class rather than learning the material. Maybe the important thing is to talk about skills rather than the class. Would it make that recent grad more comfortable if we said they lack specific skills needed in college classes rather than imply they lack skills, period? I have no clue, but this is something to think about.


The Thomas said...

You WILL see this AGAIN!

Just think of this as a test question that you will see again as with "You Must Have Cheated".

Dr. Crazy said...

Of the options for synonyms that you note, I think "basic" is the best. My theory is that when people think that something is "basic" knowledge they think it's *base-line* knowledge that *everybody has*. "Essential," well, there's somehow room for doubt with that, as with necessary, important, key, etc. And "important" may just be "this is important for you to know but I just won't test you on it" and "mandatory" means basically nothing. It's mandatory for students to take four years of English - even if they write horribly and can barely read, they may still graduate. "Basic," I think, will appeal to their desire to be "basically" average, acceptable. If you can't do "basic," then you suck.

Now, ways to make this really work are to mention - throughout the course, how what you're teaching as "basic" actually leads to other stuff. Example: "This basic technique we're discussing here will really help you in X class because you'll be expected to know basic technique." It takes barely 15 seconds of class time to connect it to a follow-up course, and this will make them pay real attention. This is what I do in any comp class I teach. The reality is that if you don't connect the dots for them then they believe that they can forget the minute that the final exam period is over. If you remind them - early and often - about what the material means later, then they retain it better. And yes, that's tedious. But when I teach comp, I tend to force myself to include such a caveat *every single class period.* They don't all stick, but it does make a difference. So it's not just a matter of how the course is labeled - it's about reminding them every step of the way that what they're doing will continue to matter to them. But no, "prerequisite" totally doesn't penetrate.

Doctor Pion said...

You have no idea how strange it is to see a comp teacher say the same things I say in my soph-level engineering physics class, but that's what makes cross-discipline blog reading so valuable.

I'm not sure "basic" will work at the college-wide (frosh orientation) level, since it might sound like "remedial" to the audience I have in mind. Maybe if we frame it as basic COLLEGE skills? That would give us an excuse for why it might not have been learned in HS.

But what I got from your comment might be more important than the "prep" advising goal I had: We have periodic discussions about the preparation (or lack thereof) of students moving through our math and science curriculum that are usually centered on which chapters get "covered" and which are optional, but never discuss how it gets presented.

I'll wager that a large fraction of our math faculty don't know what we use in other classes, so they can't do what you and I are doing. That can be fixed more easily and probably with more effect, and the same might be true in the "prep" classes as well.

Anonymous said...


You have to beaat level n in order to get to level n+1. The way to beat level n is to earn a certain number of points. (70% of them, for instance.)

But you will never beat level n+1 if you don't still have all the points you earned at level n. You can try earning all the new points for level n+1 while you're re-earning the points from level n, but it is going to be very very hard and it is going to take you at least twice as much time as it would to have the level n points saved and just start earning the level n+1 points.

?? I'm not sure how well this works, and I'm not a gamer so I'm not even sure how badly I've mangled the metaphor. But I would expect recent high school graduates these days to be able to comprehend the idea of moving from one level to the next, collecting *something* on each level that they will really need in order to beat the level.

k8 said...

I came here through Dr. Crazy's blog.

I teach writing and I am constantly describing/explaining/showing students ways that what they are learning will be used in other contexts (and not just academic contexts). I try to use real examples - like explaining that a friend who is an accountant writes short reports almost daily or that scientists will probably need to write lab reports and grant proposals. Throughout the semester I will discuss how specific skills and rhetorical techniques are used in different situations and ask students to think of other ways they might use them.

We also get the students who don't think about the larger context of learning; that is, how we can integrate knowledge from all of our coursework as a way to move forward academically. One of my favorites was as student who wanted to be a history major, but didn't think he'd need to do much reading or writing. And then there was the pre-med student who couldn't understand why spelling might be important (his classmates quickly informed him that they wouldn't be getting prescriptions from him).

Of course, I've also had some students who think they don't need to be in a writing course because they already know how to read and write. With those students, I try to show them how I am constantly learning how to read and write better than I do now. I also try to show them that while one might do these things well in disciplinary area "x", s/he doesn't do them as well in area "y" so perhaps that person does need more practice/instruction/etc.

And there are many students who do get it and honestly want to improve their writing and realize that written communication is important regardless of one's major. But, for the others, I do tend to focus on the practical and pragmatic reasons for learning and retaining this material/knowledge. It seems to help, but I don't know the long-term results.

Doctor Pion said...

K8 says: I try to show them how I am constantly learning how to read and write better than I do now.

Fantastic idea. (Like Dr. Crazy's suggestions, it's more about pedagogy than the linguistic re-framing of "pre-req" in advising, but who cares?) Fluency is what we seek in algebra as well. I know that my solutions to physics problems are much improved from the "quick and dirty" approach that worked fine for me as a undergrad, and I need to weave that into my teaching like you are doing.

It's too bad you don't get feedback from upper division students, but the little that I get says that those efforts are appreciated later.

By the way, it is definitely the case that memo writing is critical to my engineering students. Maybe we can cajole The Thomas into blogging about it and get him to link to it here. There is no more important paragraph you will ever write than the one that gets you the money to keep your project (and your job) going. I am working on a pair of articles about teaching labs, and writing is the subject of one of those.

Doctor Pion said...

LEVELS is an interesting suggestion. It is certainly a great analogy to use in an intro class, but I worry that it does not solve the problem.

You see, the biggest problem for us at a CC are students who think they have earned the points to get to the next level when all they were given was a cheat code in the form of a HS diploma. [Hmmm. Interesting analogy there! Also applies to getting a C in a trig class based only on extra credit.] College is the next level after HS, so they figure they should be in college classes and blow off the ones they really need to succeed in life.

That is the problem with REQUIRED course, since they took all of the english or math required to graduate high school and thus blame "don't test well" for placing in to a basic reading or math class.

Anonymous said...

Same poster as before.

I suppose that to actually solve the problem, I would not worry about explaining things so much as demonstrating them.

What if various instructors were asked to produce short quizzes that students would be expected to be able to ace on the first day of class without extra studying, and these were available to advisors or whoever the first contact was? At first I thought that it would be a good idea to put them online, but then it occurred to me that a number of the high school graduates I know would just get a book, look up how to do the problems, and consider that a demonstration that they'd mastered it.

(I realize, of course, that community college instructors already have plenty of work on their plates, but if it helped steer people who had no chance of success out of their classes that might be motivation.)

To be honest, I know a high school graduate who has never been encouraged to go to college but who I think could succeed at least at the 2-year level -- *after* she picks up a lot of the skills she never learned in the education she's had thus far (helicopter parents who demanded that various schools provide her with helicopter teachers), and neither she nor her college-educated parents understands why she's not getting hired as a programmer. After all, she would like to learn programming and that's all it takes, right? So I sort of suspect that there are some people who will never get it. I just don't know how many.

k8 said...

Slightly off topic (but on the topic of writing in the sciences), one of my favorite paper assignments I saw come through our writing center was from an upper-level undergrad physics course. The professor assigned students to write an article/paper about a specific topic related to that course for non-physicists Something in the vein of a Scientific American article. The students really had to think about audience, and part of what they liked about coming to the writing center was to see if us English folks could understand what they were writing about.

I think it was a good assignment because not only should students learn how to converse with non-scientists about their work, but they also need to keep in mind that when they write grants, reviewing committees won't be composed of specialists in their specific area of study. Plus, many of the students I saw with these papers seemed to be having fun with them.

Anonymous said...

At a conference I heard a presenter describe his favorite writing assignment.

On the first day, he'd fold a basic paper airplane (one fold lengthwise for the bod, two triangular folds in the front for the nose, two lengthwise folds for the wings) in front of the class. Then he assigned everyone to write out the instructions as if for someone who had never seen a paper airplane and who wasn't going to have anyone to demonstrate. Then he'd collect the instructions, pass out scrap paper, and start reading the instructions (not saying whose was whose) with the students following along. They ended up with very few recognizable paper airplanes. The students reportedly found it very entertaining, but they also had a fast and nonthreatening lesson to the effect that even though most of us believe we can write well most of us could stand to improve.

Doctor Pion said...

Grants are reviewed by experts, but not always ones who know all of the buzz words used in your local group, so there is some relevance tehre. But k8's assignment is really important in "real world" jobs where the report will be read by Dilbert's boss or his boss - some business school grad.

That paper airplane writing assignment is a lot like some of the critical reading ideas that Dr. Crazy wrote about last year (see the "reading" category), one of which I used to some effect that year. It could certainly help with the problems we have with getting our students to simply follow directions in the lab. Might be a good thing to try in our first lab!

k8 said...

Ah, that's what I meant. Experts will read the grant, but not necessarily experts in the individual's sub-specialization, so attention to audience is still very important. I don't think I worded that part well in the earlier comment.