Prerequisites are embedded in most STEM curricula. However, the assumption that the content presented in these courses will improve learning in later courses has not been verified. Because a direct comparison of performance between students with and without required prerequisites is logistically difficult to arrange in a randomized fashion, we developed a novel familiarity scale, and used this to determine whether concepts introduced in a prerequisite course improved student learning in a later course (in two biology disciplines). Exam questions in the latter courses were classified into three categories, based on the degree to which the tested concept had been taught in the prerequisite course. If content familiarity mattered, it would be expected that exam scores on topics covered in the prerequisite would be higher than scores on novel topics. We found this to be partially true for "Very Familiar" questions (concepts covered in depth in the prerequisite). However, scores for concepts only briefly discussed in the prerequisite ("Familiar") were indistinguishable from performance on topics that were "Not Familiar" (concepts only taught in the later course). These results imply that merely "covering" topics in a prerequisite course does not result in improved future performance, and that some topics may be able to removed from a course thereby freeing up class time. Our results may therefore support the implementation of student-centered teaching methods such as active learning, as the time-intensive nature of active learning has been cited as a barrier to its adoption. In addition, we propose that our familiarity system could be broadly utilized to aid in the assessment of the effectiveness of prerequisites
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