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Prerequisite system off to slow start

More than a year after its introduction, a system for electronically enforcing course prerequisites has been slow to catch on and occasionally fraught with complications. While the system has proved helpful for some courses, professors said its future uses may be limited.

  The system, developed by Student Information Systems and Services and applied through ACES, is the first foolproof way to enforce prerequisites. Only the departments of economics and psychology have adopted the system, which makes it impossible for students to register for courses unless they have certain prior coursework completed.

  This intransigence caused problems for one of the courses using the technology this spring, an introductory psychology course called Biological Bases of Behavior (PSY 91).

  Dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences Robert Thompson said difficulties arose when enrollment was blocked for students who were concurrently enrolled in the prerequisite courses. Also, he said, psychology professor Christina Williams wanted to grant some students exceptions to the prerequisites, but could not because the prerequisites are "hard coded" under the system and cannot be bypassed with a permission number. Finally, the system mistakenly denied Advanced Placement credit as a prerequisite for the course. Williams said she would probably not use the system for Biological Bases of Behavior in the immediate future.

  "I guess that my current belief is that I've always allowed a fair number of students into [the course] based on what they would consider an appropriate course background," said Williams, who is also chair of the department of psychological and brain sciences. "It's called Biological Basis of Behavior and it therefore requires students to have a good feeling about biology. If they have that, then... I think it turns out to be easier to just let them into the class."

  Martha Putallaz, director of undergraduate studies for psychology, said the prerequisite enforcement system has been successful for two other psychology courses, Comparative Psychology (PSY120) and Life Span Analysis of Social Relationships (PSY 157S).

  She also pointed to an example of a course that would be an excellent fit for the system because a large number of students currently ignores the prerequisite. "In Human Sexuality, there's a biology course requirement, and I know from talking to a lot of my advisees they would have this listed and I would see their courses and would say, 'You need a prerequisite for this,'" she said. "They were point blank: 'I know you don't need it.'"

  The enforcement system works best, Thompson said, for courses where prerequisite criteria are very well defined and there are no exceptions.

  Thomas Nechyba, professor and chair of the department of economics and the original proponent of the system to SISS in September 2001, agreed. "Before we start enforcing, be sure that it's something you know students need to have," he said. "If we're going to switch to enforcing prerequisites, we need to make sure to only list those courses that actually are required. It almost certainly means in some cases we will switch to fewer pre-reqs, perhaps with some language in the bulletin saying, 'Also recommended: courses X, Y and Z.'" The economics department, which has used the system for Intermediate Economics II (ECON 105D) since last spring, has given it good reviews so far.

  "It's raised awareness among students that 'Look, this is a mathematical class, you should really be comfortable [with prerequisite mathematics courses],'" Nechyba said. "The instructor has been able to assume a greater level of math knowledge."

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