What Do Students Think About Prerequisites? Give a Listen to Their Views!

Curriculum Committee Chair

At the 2009 Spring Plenary Session, faculty passed two important resolutions concerning prerequisites. One of them asks the Academic Senate to recommend changes to Title 5 requirements for the validation of computational and communication prerequisites from the current statistical requirements to content review only. It also requires that local senates should have a valid challenge process and conduct research to analyze the effects of this change. Another resolution on prerequisites asked the Academic Senate to research a pilot for general application of basic skills prerequisites to general education courses. An example of this might be a specific reading or writing level or course applied to those courses requiring college level reading, college-level texts or ample writing. For those of you who did not attend the Spring Plenary Session, you may be surprised to hear about this new approach to prerequisites. Knowing a little history may help to explain the resolutions.

In 1991, a suit was lodged by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) against the California community colleges. It was this suit, settled out of court, that created an agreement under which we have operated for the last 15 years. The agreement signed into law requires content review, statistical analyses, and disproportionate impact studies to validate and apply a prerequisite. Title 5 55003(e) (e) states

A course in communication or computation skills may be established as a prerequisite or corequisite for any course other than another course in communication or computation skills only if, in addition to conducting a content review, the district gathers data according to sound research practices and shows that a student is highly unlikely to succeed in the course unless the student has met the proposed prerequisite or corequisite.

These validation techniques are required course by course, program by program, college by college. Additional requirements and instructions for applying prerequisites are found in The Model District Policy on Prerequisites, Corequisites, and Advisories on Recommended Preparation (Board of Governors) and Good Practice for the Implementation of Prerequisites (Academic Senate). The upshot of these requirements, which are not required in other states, is that California community colleges have very few prerequisites for courses outside of the specific disciplines and very few basic skills prerequisites for transfer level courses. The Basic Skills Initiative work and external reports have cited lack of clearly delineated student pathways as a major reason for poor success.

The Academic Senate has collected data looking at student success in courses from colleges that have this research capability. We have also collected feedback and qualitative data from the CIOs, CSSOs and the Student Council for the Student Senate for California Community College. During the 2009 Spring Plenary, we also collected faculty input and plan to have more thorough discussions at the Student Senate General Assembly in May and the Curriculum Institute in July this year.

So far, we have heard from everyone but the students. As faculty, we all consider the professional meaning of prerequisites, and our administrative colleagues are concerned about the funding and enrollment implications that go along with these discussions. But as we move forward, it seems invaluable to consider the articulate and very useful input we have gathered from the ones who will be most affected by the changes-our students.

Here are the views of the statewide Student Senate, as summarized by Richael Young, its president, at the Spring 2009 Plenary Session:

  1. Student defense for prerequisites: Prerequisites +Guidance = Better Preparedness = Higher Success Rates
    Students often enroll in courses for which we are not academically prepared, which hurts us individually and cohesively as a student population in the short-term and long-term. Instituting mandatory placement will increase the likelihood of our success.
  2. Equalizing the "playing field" in the classroom. Assessing and placing us according to our preparedness will ensure that our class skill sets and the curriculum are compatible. It's otherwise difficult for us to all equally benefit from the instruction when we're at different levels and our professor is splitting time to meet our various needs.
  3. Basic skills courses are not seen as relevant to our choices of study; no one goes to school to study "Basic Skills" or conduct remedial coursework. Taking non-transferable prerequisites is perceived as a waste of time and money; this could delay our completion of transfer or of a certificate or degree program.
    Our colleges' supply of such courses hasn't met student need and demand. Mandatory placement is going to prove difficult not only to us, but to instructors and our colleges, should availability of these classes not change.
  4. Our Questions and Our Recommendations:
    • What's "Assessment and Placement" and what does it mean to me?
      Not only do we need to learn this at orientation or matriculation, but our classes must be made relevant to our majors or the skills we seek to acquire also.
    • So I've taken the Assessment Test; what do my scores mean?
      We need deliberate counseling on moving from assessment to placement, which means an integration of student services and instruction.
    • Where are the classes?
      We recommend that should mandatory placement be enacted, that colleges are granted sufficient funds to make available these courses we need.
    • Will these additional units hurt me when I apply for EOPS?
      In implementation, we think it's crucial to exclude basic skills coursework from eligibility for EOPS and other aid programs.

And here's a personal testimony from Cristela Ruiz-Solorio, student representative on the Academic Senate Curriculum Committee, Rio Hondo College student and Student Senate Representative:

Ask any number of students about their opinion on prerequisites, and you will get a number of different responses. I come from a background of prerequisites; I happen to have assessed in a very basic math class and had to work my way up. From elementary math, to taking an honors statistics class, and finally, currently taking finite math. It was difficult to deal with the fact that I had to take math that dealt with simple addition, subtraction and multiplication when in high school I was in geometry but nonetheless, I knew I was there because I had not tested to where I needed to be in order to qualify for the higher math courses. Assessing into those courses helped me acquire the basics I missed the first time around and it helped me along my journey in my later classes. I will not argue, it did take longer than one would hope and sometimes I felt like I was not being challenged but that was just for a few chapters. This was not the feeling for the whole class. Looking back at my college career I saw a huge improvement. I had progressed so much. It never crossed my mind that I would have the capability to take an honors math course. I owe a huge part of my successes to taking the prerequisites because it provided me with the tools I needed to succeed. Constantly stressing over simple math homework or upcoming tests is a thing of the past. Another unforeseen positive consequence was that I was able to focus on my other courses. Taking the prerequisites gave me confidence not only inside the classroom but outside as well. I am amazed to see where I began and where I currently stand; it really gives me something to be proud of myself.

As the Academic Senate moves forward with prerequisites, we will value input from all of our community college partners in an attempt to create well designed pathways for students that contribute to student success.