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Navigating course prerequisites

Helping undergrad students understand which prerequisite courses they need to complete.


A universally frustrating experience for undergraduates is the struggle to determine the prerequisites they need to graduate in their chosen fields. But help is close at hand.

Robert Tennent, chair of undergraduate studies at Queen’s University’s school of computing, has developed software tools for preparing easy-to use prerequisite charts that allow students to see, at a glance, what courses they should take if they want to specialize, say, in biomedical computing at Queen’s, or cognitive science or software design.

The technology has not yet been widely adopted – even at Queen’s – says Dr. Tennent, who hopes to persuade other departments at his university, and elsewhere, that “you don’t have to be a computer scientist” to set it up.

“Faculty and staff members, being already familiar with their courses and programs, often do not appreciate how inconvenient it is for students to access all the information they need to make course choices. For example, program requirements are typically specified as lists of course codes for required and optional courses; one must look elsewhere to find the titles of the courses, the relations between them, their prerequisites and timetabling information,” Dr. Tennent writes in the introduction to his primer on how to produce high-quality prerequisite charts by adapting open-source applications freely available on the Internet.

“The students love it,” Dr. Tennent said in an interview. “And we certainly use these prerequisite charts as a recruiting tool. High school students love to see exactly what they’re in for.”

For Andrew Wald, a Queen’s student who is completing a dual degree in electrical engineering and computer science, the prerequisite charts have been invaluable.

“I have been averaging eight courses a semester, and I have very little wiggle room,” Mr. Wald said in an interview. “If I do not do things in the correct order, if I do not do a prerequisite in the year I am supposed to, then I can potentially be thrown off a lot of things, which would be devastating in my case.”

See the
complete charts

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  1. Paul Harding / February 7, 2011 at 16:07

    The charts just look like variants on standard PERT charts, also called Network Diagrams, that can be produced in MS Project. Are you manually laying out the charts or are you taking data feeds from your student administration system and having the diagrams produced automatically?

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