Use a Prerequisite Exam to Help Get your Course Off to a Good Start (RF & RB)

When you teach a course that builds heavily on previously-taught material, you have a dilemma. Should you assume that all of the enrolled students start out with a solid grasp of the prerequisites? You’d better not! Some students may have taken the prerequisite courses years ago and have long since forgotten what they learned, or some of the prerequisite content may be really hard or was rushed through so few students really understood it. On the other hand, you don’t want to spend the first three weeks of the course re-teaching material the students are supposed to know. The question is, how can you help your students quickly pick up whatever they’re missing without spending a lot of valuable class time on it?

An effective way to achieve that goal is to give an early exam on the prerequisites. Here’s the process.

  • Before the first day of class, write out a set of learning objectives that specify what the students should be able to do—define, explain, calculate, derive, critique, design,…—if they have the prerequisite knowledge and skills you plan to build on in your course. That last phrase (“you plan to build on in your course”) is critical: if you announce that the students need to know everything covered in the prerequisite courses, you’ll just overwhelm them and the exam won’t serve its intended function. Put the objectives in the form of a study guide for an exam (“To do well on this exam, you should be able to.…”). Except for facts and definitions the students should be prepared to reproduce from memory, the items on the study guide should be generic, not specific questions that might appear verbatim on the exam.
  • On the first day of class, announce that the first midterm exam will be given on ___ (about a week from that day) and will cover only prerequisite material. Hand out the study guide and briefly review it, assuring the students that every question and problem on the exam will be based on items in the study guide.
  • Hold a review session before the test date at which students can ask questions about anything in the study guide. Alternatively, tell the students that they are free to raise questions in class or during your office hours.
  • Give and grade the exam. Count the grade toward the final course grade. (We’ll say more about this later.)
  • (Optional) Give the students a take-home retest to regain up to, say, half the points they lost the first time.

When you adopt this strategy, most students will do whatever it takes to get the specified material into their heads by the exam, and you won’t have to spend more than one class session reviewing prerequisites. Students who do poorly on the exam will be on notice that unless they do something dramatic to relearn material they missed, such as getting some tutoring, they are likely to struggle throughout much of your course and are at risk for failing. If many students have problems with a particular topic on the exam, then consider additional review of that topic.

The idea of testing on course prerequisites at the beginning of a course is not new, but instructors who do it commonly make one or both of two mistakes: (1) they make the test purely diagnostic and give it on the first day of the course, and (2) they don’t count the test grades toward the course grade. What’s wrong with those practices? If the test is given on the first day, the students have no time to remedy deficiencies in their knowledge of the prerequisites and not much incentive to do so after the test. Even if the test is given after the first day, if the grades don’t count many students will spend little or no time studying for it. Either way the grades are likely to be low, indicating that extensive review is required, and the instructor has little basis for knowing what to review and what to leave for the students to relearn on their own. If you use the procedure suggested here you avoid both mistakes; your students will have time to learn or relearn prerequisite material on their own and will have a strong incentive to do so; the study guide will enable them to concentrate their studying on the material you will be building on; and you’ll easily find the sweet spot between insufficient and excessive review at the beginning of your course.

Drawn from R.M. Felder and R. Brent, Teaching and Learning STEM: A Practical Guide, pp. 60–61. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass (2016).

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2 thoughts on “Use a Prerequisite Exam to Help Get your Course Off to a Good Start (RF & RB)

  1. Robert Koffler

    Our college requires that in the evaluation grid no exam or project should count less than 20% towards the Final Mark.
    How can I integrate a pre-requisite test into the Final Mark? The weight of 20% is too high since I assume that about 50% of the class might fail the prerequisie (on first trial)

    1. Richard Felder Post author

      If you were to give the prerequisite exam as a diagnostic test on the first day, as many instructors do, your speculation that 50% of the students would fail it is probably accurate. That’s not the way to do it, though. The suggestion is to first write learning objectives that specify what kind of questions and problems might appear on the exam, share the objectives with the students on Day 1 of the course in the form of an exam study guide, give the exam a week later, and during the intervening week hold a review session in which students can ask you about anything on the study guide. Most of the students will work hard to get the material on the study guide back into their heads, and you can anticipate that the failure rate will be on the order of 10% or less.

      Now the university says the prerequisite exam can’t count for less than 20% toward the final course grade, while you reasonably want it to count for less than that. (I personally recommend 5-10%.) That prescribed 20% lower limit is a really strange rule—I’ve never heard of one like it at any university I’ve visited. I also can’t think of any logical rationale for it while I can think of several negatives. One is that it puts an arbitrary limit on the number of exams you can give in your course, even though extensive research shows that more frequent feedback leads to greater learning. But the rule obviously exists at your college, so let’s think about how you might deal with it.

      My suggestion is to not call the prerequisite exam an exam but rather make it your first assignment in the course, and count it for whatever percentage you want to (again, I’d recommend 5-10%). What’s important is that it count for something, enough so that the students can’t afford to not study for it. If you do that and follow the recommended procedure involving the study guide and review session, the exam—excuse me, the assignment—will achieve its goal of enabling you to get quickly into your course content without having to spend a lot of time reteaching material the students are supposed to know when they enter the course.



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