Making a Prerequisite Feel like an Elective

Alan Herman

I remember the prerequisite courses during my college years. I was never happy about them. I felt left out of the ‘normal process’—whatever that was. How could the prerequisites help me? Why did they have to help me? Thank you, college, for having my best interests in mind, but no thanks. Other students felt as I did. We talked about the prerequisite annoyance. Rudiments and elementary facts we already knew—or so we thought. We’ll just do it, not think about it. What next, we sighed to ourselves? We had attitudes. Now, as a teacher of a prerequisite, I sense these attitudes when I look out at my students on the first day. Many will also become friends over this common enemy. Could the prerequisite ever feel like an elective?


Appreciating the context helps. College offers choice, independence, and opportunities. Colleges intend achievement but expect students to take responsibility and be realistic about ability and readiness. Can students accept this responsibility? How can students begin with the best chances for success? These questions inform college policy regarding admission and advancement, and prerequisites. It is assumed that students may not understand their weaknesses, may not sense the value of ‘success’ skills and fundamental knowledge, and may fail without remediation. As a result, they may not willingly accept the need to take a prerequisite. While prerequisites can strengthen the potential of higher education (USDOE, 2006), and insure that “all accepted students have the foundational… knowledge to successfully complete the advanced courses…” (Northwestern University, 2010), prerequisites may only be hoops colleges impose, hoops without guarantees that can mean higher costs for students, and greater risks for colleges. “Insufficient prerequisites lead to inadequate preparation and thus inadequate performance…

This leads, in turn, to an increase in withdrawal rates and a drop in success rates. On the other hand, an excess of prerequisites leads to an unnecessary prolongation of the time needed to graduate and, consequently, an increase in the likelihood of dropping out” (Abou-Sayf, 2008). The data are, at best, ambiguous. One Education Resources Information Service report found no relationship between students’ completion of prerequisite courses and their success in an advanced course (Kauffman, Gilman, and David, 2008), while another study reported enhanced academic success after completion of a prerequisite course (Biggers, 2006).

These findings, however contradictory, can inform a syllabus-making strategy. I put myself in the place of students and imagine what they are thinking once they decide to continue learning beyond high school. They likely have worry and uncertainty, and hope. Higher education can mean costs and debt, a way station during a recession; but also, a credentialing link to self-support; and a place in which to grow and leave changed for the better. 31 My strategy assumes that a prerequisite can feel more like an elective, and that benefits of prerequisites depend on principles, the teacher and the student, and answers to these questions (among others): What are the pedagogical chall enges for the teacher presenting a course not willingly chosen? And what are the psychological challenges to the student compelled to take a course not willingly chosen?


The answers can inform the components of the syllabus, overcome students’ negative attitudes, and counter their belief that a prerequisite is a waste of time. For example, the syllabus can explicitly incorporate skills and competencies needed in later courses, or to success in a career (Abou-Sayf, 2008). Emphasizing the importance of attendance both to success in college and to success on the job may help. Asserting that the transition from the first job to a promotion is the same as the transition to more desirable study may then breed more interest not only in attending, but in participation and achievement in the prerequisite. This approach is suggested by the ‘Pre-requisite Tree’: The Pre-requisite Tree is composed of two elements, an obstacle and an intermediate objective. The intermediate objective is the stage a teacher and student must reach to overcome the perceived obstacle of the prerequisite course. Teaching methods that can reach this stage arise from testing one method versus another using a system of branching. If one branch does not help to remove the attitude, then another branch may offer a better method, and so on until a branch leads to the most success-driven syllabus (Youngman, 2009).


I employ the Pre-requisite Tree to determine components of my syllabus. I choose components that convey the benefits of attending and taking an interest in class, grounding these benefits in a comparison between succeeding at work and a path to more desirable courses. Accordingly, completion of the prerequisite is not a hoop, but instead the achievement of a credential. Just as a diploma is a credential for landing a job, so too, a prerequisite is a credential for landing a major, and also for admission to a four-year school. This is not ordinary teaching. Students’ negative attitudes need to be appreciated. Try to remember the prerequisites when you were in college; imagine what might have thwarted your cynicism. I tell students that my role is to give them the means to get to the next stage in their academic careers. I also tell them that getting to this next stage is similar to getting the job they want. In a job search, for example, this means surmounting the interview; in college it means, among other things, succeeding in the prerequisite. I give them no illusions about the importance of passing for the near and long term. I spend a lot of time preparing the syllabus, and a lot of time explaining it to students. They hear that they cannot be lackadaisical and expect to pass. They hear they are expected to prepare and engage course content; to take weekly quizzes; to participate by writing and speaking in class. They hear demands similar to those an employer imposes.

To create an atmosphere of seriousness, and serious commitment on my part, the syllabus states that BMCC policy forbids distractions in class, distractions such as idle talk and personal digital devices. Again, I refer them to the dismay of an employer with a job candidate who is distracted. The syllabus also states that I will do whatever I can to help them succeed; and that I am accessible before, after, and outside of class to prevent and manage any problems. Students could, and should, expect the same resolve from a company investing in them. 



Keeping In Touch 

Faculty accessibility is vital to making the prerequisite feel like an elective. I encourage students to email me as often as desired. Approximately 25% write to me. Most of the email content during the semester concerns taking missed quizzes; and much of it, of course, conveys reasons why they cannot attend a class. At the end of the semester and soon after, most of the content concerns final grades and INC’s received. I find that being vigilant and responding to emails promptly is a successful way to diffuse prerequisite tensions that may arise. Such cooperative use of email helps students take responsibility for their success or failure, in a prerequisite course as in the world. 


Importance of Preparation 

I find that a portion of my students think a text is unnecessary, so I urge them to have a copy of the text, continually emphasizing the connections between a prerequisite, a credential, and a job. I tell them that showing up for an interview for a second-best position without your best outfit, a resume, references, etc., may leave you sadly out of luck if you find the job is really what you’re after. Showing up to a second-best class, the prerequisite, without a copy of the text can be a risk if the class is not a pushover and passing and moving on may not be as easy as you thought. I know texts are expensive, so I share options for getting a copy less expensively (of which there are many these days). 


Clear Understanding about Evaluation 

I use the importance of having a text as a segue to telling them there is a quiz every week. Each quiz has 10 short answer questions; all questions are taken from the text. I add that I do not give a midterm or final. I also state the quizzes are open book, and only five minutes in length. I bring a timer and quizzes are collected when the buzzer goes off. Amidst an air of relief, I then caution that five minutes will not be enough time to use the text unless they read the chapter ahead of time. My syllabus also states an additional alert that any student missing even one of the quizzes will receive a final grade of INC. Allowing students to use their texts for quizzes is particularly helpful for the ESL student who may be on a learning curve for vocabulary and comprehension. But it helps all students because they can feel my commitment to help them succeed amidst the need to prepare for and attend class. Frequent testing also allows students to learn and move on to the next topic, free from the pressure of cramming once or twice during the semester. Many students tell me they appreciate this feature of my class. I too found that frequent tests worked best for me when I was student.


Anticipating questions about how grades are determined, my syllabus shows a table equating total correct answers received on all the quizzes with a final grade. The syllabus also shows a table equating total correct answers received each week and the estimated grade for that week, to provide an assurance or alert. I mark the quizzes by hand and write the number of correct answers on the top. This is a lot of work, but it is worth the effort. I am better able to keep track of my students’ progress both from a macro, class view, and from a micro, student view. I use a spread sheet and can see at a glance how each and every one is doing. I also show the correct answers for each of the incorrect answers to help students judge their reading and comprehension. Indeed, by doing this, I purposely give them a reason to appeal, so they can also test my accountability and commitment, should they believe an answer is not in the text, or the question is confusing. I find that many students don’t measure their progress and potential final grade despite the help the syllabus gives them. As a result, at several junctures during the semester, I print out my grade sheet so they can compare scores received against scores on the sheet. I also let them know I will promptly correct any mistakes. 



Extra Credit Option 

I offer an evaluation extra, a chance to earn one higher grade by doing a short research report on a course-relevant topic. The condition is that all quizzes must be taken by the end of the last class. After the last quiz is handed to me, I confirm each student’s eligibility; each eligible student then receives instructions for writing the report. I discuss plagiarism; and require at least two citations and two references. I suggest the APA style and explain how it works. The completed report must be emailed to me no later than 5pm the next day. A student who completes the project successfully receives a final grade one grade higher than the final grade based only on the total correct answers. Students again see how they can truly be in charge of their success. 


Eye Contact for Recognition 

I present the weekly content by lecturing. Generally, that’s about 40% of the class. I stand up the entire time. My style is informational and confrontational; and encourages students to ask questions or comment. I tell students to follow along with my presentation by having the book open. Doing this also helps them prepare for the quiz. By standing, my eye contact is continual; and my glance changes to be sure everyone is noticed. Distracted students don’t go unnoticed, and I respond immediately to any challenge to an unfocused classroom. Maximizing the chance of a dialogue is my goal. More talkative students are tempered while the timid are assured when I state that speaking up is not graded. I make sure I respond to any student who raises a hand. I state that there should be no worry about saying something incorrect, saying something in an accent, or saying something when unsure about using English. I encourage students to speak up stating that it is good practice, once again, not only in the classroom but for a job interview and in the workplace.  


Writing Exercise 

A writing exercise, also ungraded, takes up another 40% of class time. I give them a theme based on chapter content about which to think critically. They have five minutes. I tell students not to be concerned about spelling, grammar, or the amount of words; but to instead write what they know, and to allow themselves to think spontaneously. I read their comments in class. While doing this may daunt some students, I tell them that writing is a valuable skill needed in school and out; and can be a way to share opinions with the class and get recognition. I make sure everyone is writing, encouraging students to orally add to what they have written, and to comment on what others have written. The next 5% of the class time is the quiz, leaving the remaining 15% for students to pick up and review quizzes from the week before, and for commenting and asking questions. This tends to continue for a few minutes after the end of class. Building and then implementing a syllabus that emphasizes reading, writing, and speaking, teacher and student accountability, and connections to self-support is critical to making a prerequisite feel like an elective. Most students tell me they like my method, but a few, I sense, are still not convinced. For them I can try the Pre-requisite Tree again and seek an even more convincing syllabus.





Abou-Sayf, F K (2008) Does the elimination of prerequisites affect enrollment and success? Community College Review. Available at: http://findarticles. com/p/articles/mi_m0HCZ/is_1_36/ai_n27947400/

Biggers, Sherry S. (2006) Are students who complete prerequisite courses successful in completing calculus? Unpublished doctoral thesis, Clemson University, South Carolina. Available at: http://gradworks.umi. com/32/15/3215802.html

Kauffman, Colleen E., Gilman, David A. (2002). Are Prerequisite Courses Necessary for Success in Advanced Courses? ERIC. Available at: nfpb=true&_&ERICExtSearch_SearchValue_0=ED475157&ERICExtSear ch_SearchType_0=no&accno=ED475157

Northwestern University (2010) Prerequisite Courses. Available at: http://www.

U.S. Department of Education (2006). A Test of Leadership, Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education. Available at: bdscomm/list/hiedfuture/reports/final-report.pdf

Youngman, K.J. (2009). A Guide to Implementing the Theory of Constraints: The Pre-requisite Tree. Available at:

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