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The last two semesters I've had classes where I've met all prerequisites. Yet upon the second week or so (when its too late to drop) I realize the entire class is based off another class which was not a prereq. I think I'm a good student but I'm struggling so much with things the other students do with ease because they've already learned the material. I can't keep doing this every semester, its very discouraging and draining. How do I avoid this or what should I do? I could take the said "hidden prereq.", but this wouldn't help me this semester or the next. In fact, it would only help me in my last semester of undergrad; assuming it'd be helpful at all at that point. Is this common in grad school?

EDIT: I am following my schools recommended academic plan to a T. We have a laid out course plan to take course A in semester 5, course B in semester 7, etc. I'm 2nd semester Junior, 6/8 overall. You can deviate but I have NOT done that (at least for the courses I'm complaining about). I have not changed majors, institutions, nothing weird. I'm honestly surprised this is not a common thing. To be specific, I'm taking Computational Astrophysics which requires an intro astro course and vector calc + differential equations. I've taken a recommended course in the past labeled as Math for scientists and engineers (also labeled as a continuation of vector calc + diff eq) yet it relied almost exclusively on linear algebra and we never once did a real world problem. I have not taken linear algebra, the only matrix related math I ever took was a brief intro in highschool. NOTE that this computational astro class is specifically for astrophysics majors (me) and the astrophysics curriculum excludes linear algebra and any classes which require it. In general, this course requires way more programming skills than I have learned from my courses, the teacher even said so, although I might manage as I have gained some experience with coding through research I've been doing. Classmates of mine who have taken the same classes are either cheating or dropping out of the class because of how ridiculous it is (they havent gained coding experience in research). I refuse to cheat though because I want to learn and it will help me in my research (also ethical reasons obviously). I state the last bit to show the severity and how I am actually one of the lucky ones (hopefully I dont eat my words and fail).

Thank you for the suggestions to narrow the question, I know its broad.

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    This seems very strange. Do I understand correctly that you are an undergrad taking undergrad classes? In this case, there is usually a pretty standard sequence of courses that most students follow -- you should probably talk to your advisor (or a trusted professor in your department) about what this sequence looks like. – cag51 Jan 26 at 6:10
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    I agree with @cag51 that this is very strange, and I suspect there is quite a bit of relevant background context missing. Rather than go through some examples I'm familiar with from math, physics, chemistry, economics, engineering, biology, geology, etc. that might be totally unrelated to your specific situation, perhaps you could describe one or two specific examples of a course in a specific field that have prerequisites A, B, C, etc. but in reality also require knowledge of X, Y, Z, etc. – Dave L Renfro Jan 26 at 7:19
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    I guess you should try to get the scoop a little better. Don't just look at official requirements. Get the inside dope. On everything. In life. [All that said, I agree with Renfro. You are not giving us the scoop on you, what subject, etc.] – guest Jan 26 at 9:12
  • What year are you in school, and does your university have an informative course numbering system? For example, my undergrad institution had 1000 level classes that were pretty basic, for freshmen and introductory courses in other majors. 2000 level classes typically built on 1000 level classes, and you took them either as a 2nd year or in your field as a 1st year, etc. If you were a 1st year student enrolling in a 3000 or 4000 class it might be possible but there also might be some assumptions about prereqs that weren't made explicit. – Bryan Krause Jan 26 at 20:47
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    "the astrophysics curriculum excludes linear algebra ". It what? I hope you mean until (slightly) later? – Tobias Kildetoft Jan 27 at 6:35
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It's common that the listed prerequisites do not necessarily encompass all the knowledge that is needed, or useful, to succeed in the class. Sometimes this is sloppy design or laziness about updating the formal prereqs. Sometimes it's because Course B needs only a small amount of material from Course A, so rather than make Course A prerequisite (which reduces students' scheduling flexibility), they assume that if necessary, the student can study this material on their own. There are other possible reasons.

The professor will usually know what courses a "typical student" would have taken before this one, so they might assume that students know the material from those courses, even if they are not prereqs. If you are following an unusual schedule, or changed majors, or transferred from another institution, this can lead to trouble.

So if you are in any of those situations, or otherwise suspect that this might be an issue, the best approach is to talk to the professor before you enroll in the course. Tell them what courses you've taken, and ask if they think you have sufficient preparation for the course. They might recommend that you wait and take some other specific courses first. Or, they might suggest that you study certain topics on your own before the course starts.

However, it is also an important skill to be able to fill in gaps in your knowledge on the fly. Comparing yourself to the other students is probably not useful. But if you feel there are a lot of necessary things you don't know, make a plan for how you are going to learn them quickly. The professor can usually help you with this. Accept that you may feel you are behind for a while, but after a few iterations, you'll have confidence that you can catch up.

This is likely to continue to happen in grad school, perhaps more so. In a graduate program, the students have usually come from a wide variety of different undergraduate programs. Grad courses may assume knowledge that is often learned in undergrad programs, but any given student is almost sure to have some gaps. Again, part of success in grad school will be learning to fill in those gaps for yourself.

  • Thanks, I can certainly fill the gaps but I'm just frustrated. Your comment gives me some more motivation and helps me see how I'll actually benefit from this inconvenience. – J. Shakrin Jan 27 at 5:50
  • @J. Shakrin, if your teacher looks sane, consider sharing your observations. I teach a certain class for several years, and when I started I tried to write down reasonable prerequisites. However, it is very possible that during these years teachers of those courses modified actual content so it isn't relevant anymore. Nobody is perfect. – rg_software Jan 27 at 6:38

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