Prerequisites are optional at Florida State University

Update (4:45 pm, Friday 3/20):  An anonymous source assures me that Tallahassee Community College has been checking prerequisites in its student registration system for at least 15 years.

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Courses like the first calculus-based introductory physics class taken by majors in engineering, physics and other physical sciences have prerequisites.  At Florida State University, students are presumably required to have passed Calculus 1 before registering for the first calculus-based physics course, which is called General Physics A.

The problem is that FSU’s student records system does not check for prerequisites, so a student can register for General Physics A without having already passed Calculus 1.  A professor or other staff member who wants to make sure that all students registered for General Physics A have passed Calculus 1 has to go through the students’ transcripts one by one and look for a passing grade in Calculus 1 somewhere on the transcript.  This can be done, but given the hundreds of students who register for the large lecture sections of General Physics A, it generally isn’t.  I check by hand for my studio physics sections, so my own students have the prerequisites.  (Maybe this is just a sign that I don’t have enough to do.)

A dispassionate observer might think that since it is now 2015, computers and software would be capable of checking to see that a student has passed Calculus 1 before allowing that student to register for General Physics A.  At FSU, that observer would be wrong.  At a recent meeting, administrators were informed by the Registrar that the university’s present student records system is not capable of checking prerequisites, and that it never will be.  Participants were told that the university’s standard prerequisite enforcement mechanism would be to list the prerequisites on course syllabi (along with a mountain of other information that has been mandated to appear on syllabi in the last decade).  In other words, with the exceptions of those classes in which an individual professor or staff member takes on the task of picking through transcripts one by one, prerequisites are now optional at FSU.

At this point, a reader might say, “So what?  Isn’t it the student’s problem if the student fails a class because she or he is unprepared for it?”  Well, no.  Courses like General Physics A tend to fill up, so an unprepared student is likely keeping a properly prepared student from taking the course and staying on track toward an on-time graduation date.  Is this a small problem?  It depends on your definition of “small.”  Typically, 10% of the students who register for my courses have not successfully completed the prerequisites.  Our department generally has about 350 students in General Physics A each semester, so that about 35 well-qualified students are excluded from the course because unqualified students are taking their seats.  If one really cares about efficiency, that is significant.

So what should we do?

In my opinion, this is a problem that should have been solved a decade ago, when the process of replacing FSU’s even older student records system was begun.  The folks on campus who supervise this stuff are not going to solve it.  So this is the time when we should start thinking seriously about a single statewide student records system that would serve both the State University System and the State College System.  If we are serious about improving articulation among Florida’s colleges and universities, we should do this, anyway.  There are already glitches in the system that sends grades from the former community colleges to the universities.  In fact, I recently had a problem obtaining a grade a student of mine received for a course he took at another campus of FSU – we couldn’t even communicate grades efficiently within our single university.

At the beginning of January, I informed a student who had registered for my course that she would be dropped because she had not completed one of the prerequisites.  I got a response I hadn’t seen before:  She said that she had been allowed to take the lecture version of the course in the fall, and had failed it.  And then she argued that because she had been allowed to take (and fail) the lecture course that I owed her the opportunity to take (and presumably fail) my studio version of the same course.  I disagreed and dropped her, anyway.

So this is what it’s come to at FSU:  The absurdity of having a presumably modern computer system that can’t execute the simple task of checking prerequisites is being followed by the absurdity of a student declaring that she is entitled to waste a scare public resource because of the shortcomings of the computer system.

It’s a Brave New World.

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