Academic journal article Journal of Applied Research in the Community College

Challenges Inherent in the Assessment of the Impact of Prerequisite Courses

Academic journal article Journal of Applied Research in the Community College

Challenges Inherent in the Assessment of the Impact of Prerequisite Courses

Article excerpt

In this study, the different types of research designs used to assess the impact of prerequisite courses are presented. Supported by an indepth literature review, the challenges that are faced in the assessment of the impact of prerequisites, from statistical to political, are identified and their pitfalls are pointed out. In particular, the challenges inherent in the use of quantitative methods -the preferred method in assessing the impact of prerequisites- are presented and discussed. In light of these challenges, the inference is made that efforts to validate prerequisites before they are established should replace efforts to assess their impact once they have been established. New trends to validate prerequisites based on novel identification and design paradigms are identified.


Prerequisite courses are those that students are required to complete successfully as a condition to enroll in subsequent courses. The most common types of prerequisite courses are English and mathematics, which may be required for target courses ranging from further English and mathematics to a multitude of liberal-arts and career and technical courses. Much of the discussion in this study applies to the use of English and mathematics prerequisites for non-sequential target courses, that is, for nonEnglish and non-mathematics courses. This discussion does not address either the use of sequential courses such as Biology 100 as a prerequisite for Biology 200 and the like. The latter can be considered as pieces of one whole and are not set using the same principles as English and mathematics prerequisites.

In academia, other than for health and safety considerations particularly with career and technical education, the only justification for the addition of a prerequisite course is to prepare students for success in the target course. In a state regulation published in several documents (see, for example, "California Code of Regulations," 2008), the California Community College (CCC) system, comprised of 109 institutions, defined prerequisites as those courses without which the student is highly unlikely to succeed in the target courses, in an apparent attempt to control their proliferation. The difference between these two definitionspreparing for success versus increasing the likelihood of success-will be elaborated upon in this study.

Handling prerequisite courses is a delicate affair. An excess leads to an unnecessary prolongation of the time needed to graduate resulting while insufficient prerequisites lead to inadequate preparation and thus inadequate performance on target courses. In either case, the outcome is an increase in withdrawal rates and a drop in graduation and success rates. In many institutions such as this author's, the number of prerequisites has been rapidly increasing over the years, leading the college administration to invest in a major effort to not only scrutinize the validity of the current prerequisites but also to re-examine the processes used to establish them.

Processes to Establish Prerequisites

Empirical approaches to the addition of a prerequisite course to the curriculum are based on two distinct consecutive processes: the identification of the course, then its validation.


Two approaches are used to identify prerequisites. In many institutions, the instructor's choice is implemented without need for much supporting documentation. A more structured approach consists of comparing the skills and competencies in potential prerequisite courses with those needed in the target course. To become a prerequisite, the course should cover a sufficient number of relevant competencies. It is important to note that the definition of "sufficient" is by and large left wide open. In a document describing the CCC system regulation, "Establishing Prerequisites and Corequisites" (2001), a grid called the "Content Review Matrix" was expanded. The grid helps instructors identify and mark in a structured manner the number of skills that are common to the prerequisite and the target courses. …

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