Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

The Development of a Learning Gap between Students with Strong Prerequisite Skills and Students with Weak Prerequisite Skills

Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

The Development of a Learning Gap between Students with Strong Prerequisite Skills and Students with Weak Prerequisite Skills

Article excerpt

Expertise in a technical discipline requires students to master a series of increasingly complex skills and is often built as students journey through a preplanned sequence of courses that start at the primary level and continue through college. A general understanding of how cognitive models develop over time, a concept often framed in terms of learning progressions, has been the focus of significant research aimed at identifying and distinguishing key concepts that are foundational for understanding more advanced concepts later in the learning progression (Duncan & Rivet, 2013). However, understanding and validating the elements of these learning progressions remains an open problem (Duncan & Hmelo-Silver, 2009). Studies showing that between 20%-60% of college students take remedial courses have highlighted the difficulty of implementing efficient learning progressions (Porter & Polikof, 2011). Prerequisite courses often ensure students have the fundamental knowledge and skills required for subsequent learning. Students with at least a passing grade are generally assumed to have the skills necessary for follow-on courses, although some institutions require a minimum course grade of a C to proceed. Exceptions to prerequisite course requirements are sometimes granted to students who have demonstrated a mastery of the required prerequisite skills. Examples of exceptions include accepting advanced placement (AP) courses, prior work at other institutions, or equivalent course work outside the traditional program track.

Previous studies have examined the impact of prerequisite courses on student performance in subsequent courses. McCoy and Pierce (2004) showed that carefully enforcing prerequisite policies in junior-level biology courses decreased course withdrawals and D/F grades by up to 31% and 18%, respectively. Green, Stone, Zegeye, and Charles (2007) found that replacing a two-course math sequence with a single course math sequence significantly increased D/F grades and withdrawal rates in follow-on economics courses. Both of these studies underscore the idea that a course curriculum is developed around a logical learning progression, which benefits from careful quality control of its foundational elements, both in terms of appropriate course selection and rigorous standards.

Prerequisite courses are often cross-disciplinary in nature, as highlighted by the strong correlation reported between physics grades and math grades, and between physics grades and math pretest scores (Donovan & Wheland, 2009; Kontur, 2015; Meltzer, 2002). In addition, mastering key concepts is an integral part of a successful, sequential science curriculum. Bao and Redish (2002) showed that student understanding of basic probability concepts at the beginning of a senior-level quantum mechanics course correlated strongly with student learning. Prerequisite courses should clearly be more than a tool to separate weak students from strong students; they should be used to develop foundational concepts that are vital to future success.

These previous studies have suggested that prerequisite courses build fundamental skills that are important for success in subsequent dependent courses. The minimum required passing grade in a prerequisite course does not necessarily require that students achieve mastery of the fundamental skills needed in subsequent classes. Furthermore, the difference in learning gains between students with strong fundamental skills and weak fundamental skills remains unclear. In this study, we examine the relative learning gap between well-prepared students and poorly prepared students to determine whether the learning gap narrows, widens, or remains constant during the semester. We find that the learning gap between students widens as a course progresses. Instead of steadily catching up with their classmates, or even just keeping up with them, the students with the weakest fundamental skills fall further and further behind their peers who have mastered fundamental skills. …

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