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Making the Case for Prerequisites—Or, at Least, a Defined Course Sequence


Mon Jan 14 2013


Making the Case for Prerequisites—Or, at Least, a Defined Course Sequence

My undergraduate degree is in chemical engineering. The entire degree plan took me (and the majority of my classmates) four years to complete. It seemed as though I participated in most of the required courses for my major with the same group of students. Essentially, we had no choice but to travel through the curriculum together—taking the same classes with each other, each semester.


How Course Sequence Aids Success

When students would fail to show up in a particular course during a given semester, we all knew that they were probably on a five- or six-year academic plan. If you missed a course, you couldn't just catch up with the rest of us during the following semester because you most likely needed the current course to move on to the other courses in the curriculum.

You see, our undergraduate engineering curriculum relied heavily on prerequisites to guide us through the program. Prerequisites sequenced our courses and increased our chances of being successful. For instance, we needed to know the content of the General Chemistry course to be successful in the Organic Chemistry course, which gave us the knowledge required to excel in the course on Chemical Process Principles. That course then laid a foundation for the Transport Processes course, which included content to help us to complete senior lab projects. You get the picture. It seemed so logical to lay out the curriculum in a sequential fashion that I probably took it for granted.

Fast forward a decade to when I am entering graduate school in pursuit of a PhD in human resource development (HRD). I remember that when I was preparing to register for my first semester of the program, it seemed that my logical starting point would be to enroll in the Foundations of HRD course. There was no requirement that I start the program with that course, though. And I was particularly baffled when I consulted with faculty about the path of course I should follow, and they had no strong recommendations for my sequence of courses.

In fact, the only prerequisite guidelines were for statistics classes; I was instructed to take Stat 1, Stat 2, and Stat 3 in that order. Of course, that seems like a no brainer. But the required sequence for those courses sends a powerful message: The content of those courses is interrelated, and the courses build upon each other to foster success throughout the curriculum.


If you think about it, course sequencing is a foundation of curricula throughout science, math, and technology-related programs. Yet, the two HRD programs that I have been most closely associated with have lacked a defined path created by course prerequisites. I am curious about whether this is the case for the majority of HRD programs around the globe.

It seems to me that the lack of a defined learning path means that with each batch of students, instructors must gauge which competencies the students have already developed and which ones still need growth. Most likely, this constant re-assessment means that the outcomes of the course will vary because the entry knowledge of students will be inconsistent.

For instance, at my current university, a student may choose to take the Evaluating Learning Outcomes course before they take the Needs Analysis course. While the student could certainly grasp the content of either course, there is an undeniable benefit to understanding how performance gaps are assessed before they learn how to evaluate whether a specific performance solution has effectively addressed an organizational need.

A Call to Action

While I recognize the dangers that too many prerequisites may present, I think prerequisites are one way faculty can demonstrate the systematic alignment between the courses and reinforce the importance of methodically facilitating learning and development in organizations.


To this end, a colleague and I have recently mapped out the ideal (in our opinion) path through our undergraduate program. Because our courses are generally aligned with the ADDIE model, we suggest that students approach the courses in a similar sequence. This recommendation has been communicated to the academic advisors that will likely help the students to choose their courses each semester.

In addition, in future semesters, we will be adjusting course numbers to further encourage students to take certain courses sequentially or concurrently with specified courses. Although these actions do not offer the same restrictions as actual prerequisites, I am excited to be taking these steps. Ultimately, I think the recommended sequence of courses is going to create a richer learning experience and, more importantly, more in-depth HRD competency development.

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