Wednesday, April 30, 2008

My Continuing Quest to Get the Math Department to Enforce Prerequisites

I'm sure I've mentioned this before. The registration system does nothing to enforce prerequisites. Any matriculated student could sign up for any math class. A student who scored a zero on the placement exam could sign up for honors calculus, and the system wouldn't issue any warnings. On the bright side, it means that we don't worry much about the quality of the algebra and precalculus classes that are transferred in -- something is better than nothing.

So I'm back to pestering my superiors to give me more access to the registration system. With enough access to online class lists, online grade lists, and the math department's own placement database, I should be able to reasonably mimic the role that the registration system should be playing. I'm writing programs in Perl that cross-reference (by student number) students enrolled in calculus and trying to check to see if they've satisfied the prerequisites. There is a reasonable chance that I will have this in place by fall. In fact, tomorrow I'm going to email all the students enrolled in calculus for the fall and warn them that if they haven't passed precalc by the end of the summer that we're going to drop them.

Of course the other question I'm trying to work on is whether any of this matters. Anecdotally, since I've started on piecemeal efforts to enforce placement, the grades in the regular classes have been improving while the grades in the prereqs have been descending. It's hard to see much from grades, though, as those are the one factor of our annual evaluations that we have control over. Our teaching is primarily evaluated based on those bubble-sheets that the students fill out and our grade distributions.

So to try to sort out whether anyone is actually learning anything, I've been trying to get my hands on some data. Our precalc czar has all sorts of information about how the students did in the class and how they did on the departmental exam. What I'm waiting on is information about how well those students fared in calculus (or other math classes). I asked back in November for this data. Unfortunately, it hasn't been forthcoming.