As you can tell from past blogs, I often draw my topics from things I hear faculty saying. And one common refrain I’ve heard throughout the years is faculty commenting on the fact that students never seem to learn what is expected of them before they get to their classes. In our first-year classes, students never seem to learn what they were supposed to in high school. In our upper-division courses, students never seem to learn what they were supposed to in lower division, especially in specific prerequisite courses. Interestingly, in all my years of going to Back to School Nights for my kids, this issue seems pervasive throughout a student’s education. The 7th-grade teachers assured me that they were going to teach the kids what the 6th-grade teachers failed to teach; the 9th grade said the same for the 8th; and all the way up the chain! While I cannot comment on the K-12 issues, I thought it was worth reflecting on the upper-division/prerequisite course relations in higher education and some of the things we might want to learn from this space.

Before we jump in, I should clarify one thing. While I’ve heard comments that blame the gaps in student learning on either the student or the faculty, I would argue that this is actually a failure of the system. There are two aspects of the system that I believe come into play. First, despite having a general sense of how courses in a major fit together, we rarely have time in our system to discuss and evaluate these connections. Second, even if the courses are meant to fit together, there are external pressures that force an increase in the content included in lower-division courses. The pressure of learning this additional content comes at the expense of learning the necessary material that students need to be successful in subsequent upper-division courses. 

With these systematic failures in mind, let’s consider how majors and the necessary courses within each major are designed. Though we have various processes for assessing our programs and the student outcomes within them, we generally think of individual courses as independent entities in this process. They are something an individual faculty member teaches, and we tend to focus only on the outcomes for that course without considering how these outcomes will impact subsequent courses. Only recently have we added a tool to the COMPASS suite that allows faculty and academic administrators to compare how outcomes in one course correlate with outcomes in a subsequent course. And to be completely fair, with all the other service and research expected of faculty, we rarely have time for a comprehensive analysis of the interaction between courses and the material in the individual courses. 

When we think of prerequisites only at the individual course level, our focus tends to be on a broad set of course characteristics instead of zooming in on the specific skills and information that will interact with other courses. Without the time and space to address the central question of “what is needed for later courses”, there is a tendency to increase content in lower-division courses at the expense of a more focused approach.

It is essentially a law of nature that we never remove things in academics. At the course level, I have been at UCI through at least two attempts to have units evaluate and reduce degree requirements, neither of which lead to significant change. Why does this matter at the course level? Well, think about a course on a particular topic. Something happens that suggests adding a new topic, approach, concept, and/or issue to the course. This happens frequently as new things are happening all the time due to new research, current events, etc. So, the instructor finds a place to add it to the course, and too often, nothing is removed. Why? Perhaps because the existing material is clearly important or it would not have been included in the first place! 

When we continually add new course content without removing other material or evaluating how this new content connects with later courses, we end up oversaturating lower-division courses with information that students are expected to learn in order to pass the class. This is how our failure to evaluate course connections and an increase in course content work together to create structural deficits that leave students underprepared for upper-division courses. Both of these issues actively minimize the fraction of any given lower-division course that is directly related to what is needed at the upper-division level. As a result, students are less likely to master the critical material they’ll need for upper-division courses because they were forced to devote much of their limited time to studying less relevant content.

So, what do I recommend faculty consider when we experience students in our upper-division courses that do not seem to have the required skills, content knowledge, or competencies they need? I suggest getting together with your colleagues and carefully evaluating how your major is structured. What base knowledge and skills do students need coming into certain courses? Where do you expect students to learn this material? Then carefully look at those courses. Are they constructed in a way that students can focus on the material they really need for later courses or is the material buried by other content? 

I understand that this isn’t an easy task, and many faculty may not know where to start. Fortunately, a number of units on campus have done this type of analysis and there are resources to help with this process. One great resource to utilize is the UCI Center for Assessment and Applied Research.  

At the heart of this evaluation process is a bit of letting go. We need to trust the core philosophy that I have mentioned many times—we are here primarily to teach students how to learn and how to think within certain disciplinary frameworks. The exact content is less relevant. Too often, when we get to the nitty-gritty details, it is difficult to let go of our “favorite” content and focus on the core objectives. But I believe that finding the time to do this exercise can have huge payoffs for students and faculty alike.