Can you study physics (biochemistry) if you have not taken a calculus (chemistry) course?
Should you be allowed to?
At UQ we actually have some solid data that allows a more meaningful discussion about the issue. The following text is taken from a recent review of the Bachelor of Science at UQ (page 125).
As some, but by no means all, students are aware, for about 15 years the university has not enforced completion of prerequisites. That is, students are free to enrol in any courses they choose, irrespective of whether or not they have previously enrolled in, or passed, any prerequisites. Students generally are not actively advised that prerequisites are effectively optional. However, any student who explicitly asks is usually advised to complete prerequisites, and that they take a significant risk if they attempt a course without the necessary background knowledge. The lack of enforcement of prerequisites means that a significant number of students ignore the advice to complete prerequisites and proceed with advanced courses without having done the prerequisite(s).
This results in difficulties for academics teaching the advanced courses and for the students attempting to catch up on the knowledge and/or skills they lack. There is also some concern about a duty of care to students: should they be allowed to enter a course without having completed a prerequisite when data suggest that a significant number will fail? This issue may become even more prominent in a deregulated market, with higher fees. A counter argument to this is that students can and should take responsibility for their own decisions. Provided the advice they receive is accurate, timely and clear, they can decide for themselves whether or not to follow the advice.
To help answer the question of whether or not prerequisites should be enforced, an analysis of a number of second and third year courses was undertaken. Figure 114 shows student failure rates in such courses, broken down by whether or not students had completed the recommended prerequisite courses(s).This puts a somewhat positive spin on the problem. I think the fact that in many of the courses 30-40% of the students without the pre-requisite failed is a concern. A lot of time (both student and teacher) is being wasted. In particular, I know faculty who are frustrated by the demands, complaints, and questions of students who have not taken pre-requisites.
The data show that the proportion of students attempting these courses without having completed the prerequisites ranges from 14% to 34%, with the average around 25%. There is a clear advantage to having completed the prerequisite, with lower failure rates amongst such students in all courses. Despite this, on average, 75% of the students who have not completed a prerequisite passed the follow-on course. In all cases, more than 50% of such students passed the course. In one case, almost 90% of such students passed the course.
I don't have a strong view on this. I think skipping a pre-requisite is o.k. for gifted and motivated students who fully understand they will have to do significant work. However, for most students, particularly mediocre ones, I think it is a bad idea. Thus, I think pre-requisites should only be waived on a case-by-case basis. Unfortunately, that is labour intensive.
What about other institutions?
Based on a brief literature search I only found one paper that had looked at the issue.
Minimal Impact of Organic Chemistry Prerequisite on Student Performance in Introductory Biochemistry.
What do you think? Should pre-requisites be enforced?