January 4, 2013       
Posted by Jay Livingston

What kind of prerequisites do we need for sociology courses? 

I’ve been wondering about that because the administration here has told us to stick prerequisites on all our courses except entry-level courses.  Students who want to take a sociology course numbered in the 400s must have taken a 300-level course – the department gets to specify which courses will serve.  Similarly, 200-level courses must have 100-level prerequisites.

This makes sense for sequential courses.  If you haven’t mastered basic Spanish grammar and vocabulary of Spanish I, you shouldn’t take Spanish II.  In some math and science courses too, students may need specific knowledge from other courses.  But in sociology, we have very few sequential courses.  Even with more technical courses like Statistics and Methods, some departments sequence them with Methods first, other schools put Statistics first. But for topic courses, will students do better in Mass Media (SOCI 407) if they have had Urban (SOCI 311)? 

We have a 200-level course called Sociology of Rich and Poor Nations (SOCI 220).  It fulfills a General Education requirement, and we’ve always let in students regardless of what other courses they have or haven’t taken.  Under the new rules, we’re supposed to add a prerequisite – some 100-level sociology course.

I wondered whether prior sociology courses actually make a difference so I looked at the grades of the 300 or so students who took the course in the eight sections we offered in two semesters last year.  If prerequisites make sense, then students with no prior sociology courses should get lower grades.  Students with more sociology courses should do better – the more prior sociology, higher the grade in 220.  Here are the results.

The groups are all the same except for the two-prior group (there were only 11 of them, so a couple of high scorers could skew the average).  The average grade for the others - no priors, one prior, three or more priors – was the same: B-minus. 

Prior courses or prerequisites are not a good predictor of  performance in the course.  They make no difference. 

What does make a difference?  Being a good student.  Overall GPA was the best predictor of the grade in SOCI 220 (r = .3).  The correlation with prior sociology courses was effectively zero.

This is just one course in one department.  Does anyone have other data on the efficacy of prerequisites?


PCM said...

I've got no data.

But my two cents: prerequisites are yet another bad attempt to legitimize social science by playing by the rules of hard science. I also blame the concept of "scaffolding," which seems to be the latest pedagogical fad.

Prerequisites and scaffolding might look good on paper (and they might very well be beneficial for math, hard science, and language classes). But mostly, from my perspective, they provide material to fill meetings and countless hours of paperwork with which administrators can justify their workday. They're also largely irrelevant to the realities of how social science classes are taught and how students learn.

What I find most interesting, though, is (by my rough calculations for the picture) the average grade for SOCI 220 was just 2.80! Boy, whatever happened to grade inflation!? At Columbia University any grade below a B+ is discouraged and needs a written justification from the TA.

Jay Livingston said...

Grade inflation may be one of those fashions that filters down from the elite. Even at Montclair, we've been drifting higher, though we've got a long way to go to catch up with the elite schools. The mean GPA is about a B for females, B- for males.