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Gates: Unnecessary course prerequisites undermine student choice

Matt Gates, Columnist

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Every Northwestern student knows choosing courses can be a stressful process. That psychology class you really wanted to take fills up in ten minutes, your science lab conflicts with five of your desired classes and of course, CAESAR is almost always a pain. From choosing courses to picking a major, planning out one’s academic path may be very stressful. But the presence of nonessential course prerequisites can make this process even more difficult than it needs to be.

Prerequisite courses are often necessary for a student to be prepared for a subsequent course. In other cases, prerequisite courses are beneficial to a student trying to master the material in a certain course but are not entirely essential. Requiring prerequisite courses that are not essential to understanding course material creates unnecessary difficulties for student’s academic planning.

Students may be delayed in determining their major because they have to take prerequisite courses before they can take courses in their required major department. For example, NU freshmen who want to pursue a biology major cannot take a biology course until spring quarter due to prerequisite chemistry courses. Chemistry 102 (and by effect 101) is a requirement for Genetics and Molecular Biology. However, this biology course involves relatively little chemistry. Rather than waiting until the end of freshman year to start taking true biology courses, students could take biology fall of freshman year and begin to determine if it is their desired academic major early on. This would give students more time to determine what they would like to study and hopefully lead to a better choice.

Likewise, the requirement of a quarter of calculus to take General Chemistry 103 is an unnecessary burden on students in the sciences. Yes, strong math skills are necessary to succeed in chemistry and many other science courses. However, one does not necessarily need to understand calculus to do the math required in those courses. Giving students pursuing a biology major greater flexibility as to when they take Calculus 220 would enable them to try different courses early on or pursue studies that are only available to freshmen, such as the Kaplan Humanities Scholars Program. Weinberg students pursuing biology majors under the current requirements have most, if not all, of their schedules for their first quarter at NU prescribed for them: calculus, chemistry, a freshman seminar and likely a foreign language.

But prerequisites are not limited to the hard sciences. For instance, the political science department has prerequisites for some 300 level courses. It is understandable that there is some knowledge imparted in earlier courses that is important for higher-level courses. However, outside of math, science and foreign language courses, material is far less sequential. In order to understand calculus, a student must first understand algebra. One must understand the basics of American government and politics in order to take later courses on public opinion, the presidency or the legislature. Having taken introductory American Government and Politics will impart one with this knowledge, but it is not the only means to do so. Much of this knowledge could also have been learned from other courses taken at NU, in high school or at another institution.

Other courses in the political science department have no prerequisites but state that “some knowledge of political theory is desirable.” A recommended prerequisite may serve the student body better than a requirement. Students who take a class without the suggested prerequisites may undermine their own success but should be allowed to make this decision themselves. Especially as incoming freshmen, students have a large amount of expert guidance in selecting courses.

Course prerequisites make sense when students stand little chance of having the background to understand material without them. Single variable calculus is necessary to learn multivariable calculus. General Chemistry makes sense as a prerequisite for Organic Chemistry. And students should not be allowed to read and write about Don Quixote when they know no Spanish. However, prerequisites should only be reserved for instances when they are absolutely necessary. Removing nonessential course prerequisites would enable students interested in certain majors to determine their true interests early on, give freshmen more freedom to explore during their first year and allow the entire student body to have more academic freedom.

Matt Gates is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be reached at If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to