A required course is worse than an elective.

February 19, 2009 | By | 9 Replies More

I wrote the initial draft of this post using my Ipod’s WordPress application, tip-tapping away as I sat in the very class that inspired it.

A required class is worse than an elective class. A simple and inevitable process ensures this. Making any college course a requirement for graduation ensures that more students will enroll in the course. This enrollment will necessarily include disinterested students- kids who would never take the class if they didn’t have to. These students will only meet the minimum standards to achieve graduation.

A mass of disinterested students sucks the life out of a classroom. Responses must be pulled like so many teeth, and more people sleep and scribble on their desks than take notes. Out of boredom, a few play games on their laptops or write blog entries on their iPods. No one makes the effort to go over the required readings. No one shows up to class if they have a choice.  Usually, attendance is made into a requirement itself.

A course with many enrolled students also tends to have more specific, rigid standards in terms of assignments and grading. Instructors have less freedom to shape the course as they see fit. This, along with the larger enrollment, creates a heavy load of paperwork. More essays need grading, more syllabi need copying, attendance points need tabulating,  more students need tutoring during office hours.

Because a required course demands so many man-hours, the department in question may decide to pass responsibilities on to a TA. TAs have less experience teaching and usually already find themselves already swamped in the demands of graduate student life. And since a required course typically has very broad content, the poor TA may not have appropriate expertise in all facets of the class. Often they arrive to class as miserable as the students; both parties forced into a drudgery they do not want.

When a university gives a course its special “required” status, it creates the perfect conditions for truly underwhelming educational experience. It creates a large, unmotivated classroom of just-about-to-graduate students, bored to tears with the assigned busy work, watched over by a stressed, under appreciated TA who lacks the support, respect and freedom to whip his wards into intellectual vigor.

In my experience, “required” courses have always presented the worst educational experience, with the lowest expectations (by necessity) and the dullest content. Your mileage may vary– my complaints could just represent the symptoms of going to a very large (very very large) school. Here, at least, the problem is very striking. So, if you perchance run a department or college at The Ohio State University, and you want your students to learn something meaningful, don’t require it.

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Category: American Culture, Communication, Education, History, Science, Uncategorized, Whimsy

About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Erika: Your post reminds me of a class I took back in undergrad. My school (the University of Missouri – St. Louis) required a course in Asian language or philosophy. Many of the students piled into the Asian philosophy course. The course filled a huge lecture hall — about 300 students, as I recall. Based on the material taught, it should have been a tiny seminar, but the atmosphere was almost like a carnival, especially in the back rows. Most of the students didn't want to be there. Though the professor was well prepared and working hard at conveying compelling ideas, most of the class wasn't listening, because it was a REQUIRED course.

    Your post reminded me of the frustration I often felt being in a huge class where only a minority of the students cared about learning anything.

    I suppose you could extend your point. There are vast numbers of young adults who are attending college simply because their parents are making them or because they are avoiding needing to get a job. The presence of those students also interferes with high level learning because, for them, ALL of the courses they take are effectively, required courses.

    At law school, many of the students were seeing the courses as a means to an end (a license and a presumably well-paying job). That made many law school courses seem like "required" courses, but that was counter-balanced by the treacherous grading system and the highly competitive atmosphere. A lot of learning went on, but it was externally motivated for many of the students. That's how it seemed to me, though I suspect some of my classmates saw it quite differently.

    Over the past ten years I have had the wonderful opportunity of auditing about 30 hours of cognitive science courses (the PNP program) at Washington University in St. Louis. Much of the work is intense and it takes the form of small seminars. I can't fully express the joy I felt being able to take part in a learning environment where virtually every student in every classroom was there because he or she wanted to be there and was fascinated with the material being taught.

  2. Erika Price says:

    Erich: you've anticipated the extension of my post perfectly. I have an equal amount of contempt for students who go to college simply because their parents "make" them. I think these kids represent the majority at most schools, public and private. The only time such students raise their hands in class is to ask, "Will this be on the midterm?"

    I had one professor who wanted to make his class a little more free-form, so he gave very vague guidelines for a required presentation. The goal was that each student would make a unique presentation unbound by specific requirements (this was a psych of creativity course). All but two or three students blanched completely at this opportunity. They wanted to know the exact way to ensure they would get an A; they wanted to be told a time limit, a structure, a series of hoops through which to jump.

    The few students who did take to the presentation well were mostly graduate students and non-traditional students. I have a lot of appreciation for non-trads, who are usually very self-motivated and inquisitive. They actually want to be in the class room, and try to get the most out of their experience. One of the non-trads in that Psych of Creativity course bought and read the assigned textbook as soon as it was printed- six months before the course itself began.

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    Ah yes. The "weeder courses" from my first couple of years at Wash Ewe. Premeds and engineering students packed in vast auditoria taking dictation. This was before cell phones and laptops.

    I am an random/intuitive learner. Rather than working hard to learn, I try to absorb a gestalt and let the details fill in as necessary.

    I had tested out of Chem 114 by cramming for and acing the final. But credit was contingent on taking and passing the next semester. I sat in the back rows of Chem 115, up on the balcony. Yes, premed weenies were stacked deep and high.

    But my laissez faire attitude was not appreciated by the hard working frosh around me. They cornered me after class in the second week and told me that, if I didn't need to be there, maybe I shouldn't show up. So I never attended another class. I just read the book, and did half of the required assignments, and aced the tests to end up with a B.

    Apparently, I had little respect even for prerequisite required courses.

  4. Erika Price says:

    Dan, I have had a similar experience in at least 2 or 3 classes. Sometimes it is much more satisfying to just stay home and do the readings rather than attend the lectures. I also was able to enjoy this trade-off by taking one required course entirely online. I don't think online courses can ever entirely replace the experience of a lively class discussion, but it works well for cutting through the rigmarole.

  5. Dan Klarmann says:

    I believe this topic is more about distribution requirements than prerequisites. As a student, I hated having to take those required breadth courses. But in retrospect, I understand that education is different from training. If one only studies in a narrow field, one is stuck in a mental rut.

    After a while, I reveled in seeking out the way different fields presented essentially the same ideas using different terminologies and paradigms. I also noticed how "new discoveries" in a field are often made by someone from another field, just restating an earlier discovery from his former domain.

    But the way the APA treated math still makes my brain barf. It's part of why psychological science is scoffed as soft.

  6. Erika Price says:

    I'm not sure it's about breadth. I've taken some great classes outside of my "field", classes that I never would have taken if a broad array of courses wasn't necessary. I think it has more to do with class size and streamlining of material. The best classes have always been either a) smaller or b) individualized. Having non-majors in a course doesn't necessarily make the course bad- the students just have to be interested.

    Also Dan: As a sword-and-shield-wielding defender of psychology as a true "science", I must bite. Please do elaborate on how the APA treated math.

    • Dan Klarmann says:

      Back in the 1980's, the APA had some odd ideas about statistics and number theory. I got my first B.A. in Psychology, but I had learned statistics in math and physics and engineering courses before I took the required psych stats.

      One example was the official and mandatory APA method of rounding numbers. if you hit a point 5, round to the odd number. I.E: 2.5 = 3; 3.5 = 3. So if you round results that are evenly distributed by tenths from 0 to 3, you have a peak at 1. and a trough at 2.

      Every other field in which I studied rounded a point five consistently up. Ask a math major why. By now the APA may have changed their rule, bowing to the way results come up on calculators and computers. Or not even teaching it, if all results get crunched by machines anyway.

  7. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I had to take a required chemistry course in college, in my freshman year. I slept through most of the lectures because it was all material I had covered in high school, it was an early morning class and the professor had a hypnotically boring monotone voice.

    I was informed by some of my classmates that my snoring seemed to irritate the professor.

    Fortunately for me, the class was about 400 students, and the the professor didn't know most of the students by name. So my grade was based on the tests and labs. I passed with a "B".

  8. Ben says:

    Those required courses reminded me of high school more than college. However, one of my professors, Bill Nickels (umd, economics) made the best of the situation. Rather than spend valuable class time lecturing about minutiae, he instead told us humorous stories about his life, and taught us how to "be happy".

    For my first few years of college, I didn't have a major, so most of my classes were "core"/required. (My parents paid for everything). I enjoyed being exposed to many different subjects (and I learned a lot), but I was basically just there for credits.

    Couple years later, I still couldn't decide what I wanted to do, and I had a bad semester so I decided to withdraw. After working for a while, I returned to school part-time and put a bit more emphasis on excelling in the few classes that I would take each semester. I would buy my books a month before school started and read them, I would get the class notes, the old exams, go online to see the syllabus and for the low-down on the professors. After a rocky start, I ended up graduating 3.0 (geography/cartography) after 9 (nine) years for my undergrad degree.

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