Wednesday, August 30, 2006


Open Enrollment

Every so often, I indulge my libertarian side. This is one of those times.

Not a week goes by that I don't get a 'course substitution' request, in which a student asks to substitute one course for another as a graduation requirement, on the basis of claimed 'misadvisement.' Since we, as a college, take a relatively invasive role in student advisement, we inadvertently cultivate a sort of learned helplessness among the students when it comes to navigating requirements.

Placement exams are even worse. We're constantly having debates over the proper cut scores to get into various levels of English, math, or foreign languages, how much remediation to require, at what point a student can move from ESL to English, and the like. Students are always asking for exceptions, finding work-arounds, and generally trying to evade our various checkpoints. Some students manage to slip through. When they do, one of two things happens: either they fail and blame us for letting them slip through our systems, or they pass and tell their friends that our safeguards are meant to be broken. Either way, we're wrong.

This isn't unique to my current school; I saw it at my previous one, too. Curricular gatekeeping (in the sense of blocking access to courses) is labor intensive, hit-and-miss, and frustrating to all involved. This is especially true at the entry levels. (I've never seen a mad stampede to get into Differential Equations or Social Psychology. The issues are most frequent at the bridge from remedial English to composition 1, or remedial math to college algebra.)

So, my radical libertarian proposal: make academic advisement, placement exams, and tutoring optional for the student, and let students sign up for what they want (at least at the 100 level and below).* If a student overestimates his own ability, takes a too-difficult course, and crashes and burns, that's the student's problem. Ban the word 'misadvisement' from the college.

Savvy students will seek out the advisement they need anyway. (Really savvy students will figure most of the answers out by – gasp – reading the catalog. RTFM, as the computer geeks used to say.) But a great many students will make their own choices, and I say, that's fine. As a community college, we're supposed to be open-enrollment. I say, let's be open enrollment, and let the students sink or swim based on their own performance.

Before I'm written off as a burned-out quasi-social-Darwinist, I'll clarify that I'm not proposing abolishing remedial courses, academic advisement, or placement tests. The college should continue to offer all of these. I just don't think it should require them. Offer, yes; require, no. A student who seeks out academic advisement of her own volition should be able to find it relatively easily, and a student who seeks out tutoring help in writing or math should be able to find it. I just don't think that forcing the issue is worth it.

Will some students make stupid choices and fail a whole bunch of classes? Yup. But that's part of the learning process, too. A kid who will resist and resent required advisement under the current system might actively seek it out after getting his ass handed to him a few times in classes he couldn't begin to comprehend.

Would this disproportionately impact the least-advantaged students? Maybe, but that's not a given. If we give a placement test that gives a falsely-low impression of a student's abilities, and we mistakenly require that student to go into remediation she doesn't really need, that extra time and tuition come at a real cost to the student. In my experience, this happens more than most of us care to admit.

Would retention go down? Maybe, at first, but I don't see that as obvious, either. Students often walk away when they're told they need remediation. Maybe some of them know something we don't. I'm just not confident enough in our placement exams to say that they should be binding. Advisory, sure; if a kid took a little Spanish in high school and isn't sure which level to enroll in here, a quick barometer could do some good. A returning adult student who hasn't done math since graduating high school twenty years ago might need a reality check on her math skills, and a voluntary test can provide that.

Would the quality of classroom interaction drop, as the badly-unqualified slip in? To me, this is the only truly troubling objection. That said, enough students slip through now that I'm not sure how much more damage could actually be done.

What do you think?

*I can see space constraints justifying pre-reqs for certain upper-level courses that require specialized facilities, like organic chemistry. And there are good reasons to require, say, Anatomy and Physiology before a student enrolls in Nursing. I'm talking here about the ubiquitous, foundational disciplines.

As a student, I read the catalog. I figured out what I needed to graduate. I figured out what I needed for honors. In short, I RTFM. And now, as a new professor thrown into an advising role, I see how easy it is to misadvise students. We have to navigate a combination of model curricula, graduation requirements that change yearly, NCAA regulations, required minors, and various academic probation rules. In short, we are porrly equipped to do the job. In fact, like Dean Dad, I suspect we are less equipped to do the job than the student themself.

One thing we clearly do need, whether it is for the student's use, the advisor's use, or both, is a computer system that clearly shows what the student needs to graduate based on stated major (and minor) and college handbook they fall under, what they have taken, what they still need, and what courses they are enrolling in this semester will count for. We already have the transcript data. It shouldn't be that hard to automatically match it up to a set of graduation requirements. With online registration and online unofficial transcripts available at most colleges, is there any reason we can't show the data to students in this way?
I don't think any decisions that support a student's lack of need for accountability in their own schooling should be approved. I'm back in school myself and as much as I'd like to blame oblivious administration officials, pathetic professors and other miscellaneous factors in my overall university experience, ultimately it's my responsibility whether I take their advice or not. A degree doesn't give someone else more common sense and they sure as hell don't replace my gut instinct when I think Biology is a bad substitute for a requisite math course I should take to help my career. Nonetheless, I've had an adviser tell me that, and been wrong...
Sorry to post so often in the last couple of days, but your subjects are in areas that I've spent (and wasted) a lot of time on in the past several years.

Directed self-placement in both writing and the sciences is really picking up some steam - it's right along the lines of what you are describing above. I used it as a WPA in the nineties at a SLAC and am working to impliment it at the much bigger school I'm working at now. It seems to be very successful (writing anyway) at big, urban schools (Grand Valley State in Michigan has been tremendously successful).
re: directed self-placement

My concern as an instructor is that it places much more burden on the individual instructor to "weed out" students who really won't survive in the class. You might say, well, just let them fail, but to have a student who is radically underprepared or just behind everybody else in the class can really screw up an entire course - especially if that person likes to participate a lot. (I say this as a writing instructor of first year students at a school that until last year was open enrollment.) I think the stakes at regional comprehensives or CCs are much different when it comes to these things than the stakes at SLACs (for example) or larger schools with real admissions requirements.

The idea of self-placement also concerns me because students paying for their own educations are unlikely to choose remedial courses for which they do not get credit toward a degree, even though to take such a course might ensure greater success in for-credit courses. While those students might still survive if they enrolled in the for-credit course, they might not do as well, and this can have a negative effect further down the road.

As for just leaving students to read the catalog and figure it out for themselves, I'd argue that a student who needs remedial reading and/or writing might not do very well with that approach. _I_ can barely figure out our incomprehensible catalog and computer system. This doesn't mean that students aren't responsible for their program of study - they are - but they do need advising to supplement it. And good advising means saying "I don't know" if one doesn't know the answer to a student's question, not just saying, "do this and I'm sure it will work," as I know can happen.

At any rate, I know I'm hijacking the comments, but here's what I think might be a better option than eliminating required advising/placement tests/ etc.:

1) minimize pre-reqs, as you suggested in your post.
2) keep mandatory placement tests, but allow for a student to challenge those tests- but within a certain timespan - like one semester, say? - by providing documentation that shows the placement was incorrect. Documentation for writing, for example, could include two letters of recommendation, transcripts, and a writing sample. In other words, if students aren't particularly motivated, they won't take that option, but if they are, then they won't be placed inappropriately. The ball is in the student's court.
3) Make advising mandatory only for those on academic probation. Even then, clearly stipulate that students and not advisors are responsible for scheduling decisions.
4) There MUST be adequate advising training for career advisors AS WELL AS FOR FACULTY ADVISORS. Career advisors typically deal with incoming students at my institution, and that is where a lot of advising training is focused - on those people whose job it is to advise - rather on faculty members who advise the bulk of students from Sophomore through Senior years, when advising gets pretty complicated. At a CC the setup might be different, but this is an issue at my type of institution.

Enough! I'm sorry to go on for so long!
Would the underprepared students in a course hinder the education of the students who were ready for that level of coursework? If everyone who thought they were prepared for College Algebra took College Algebra, wouldn't that create a logistics nightmare for a teacher who wanted to utilize cooperative learning in their classroom? As a professor, aren't you allowed to assume a certain level of knowledge with which students enter? Do you just fail students if they don't have that level of knowledge?
The objection regarding group work is a good one. How have institutions that have adopted my suggestion handled that?
At my school (the University of Houston) they do have a computer program that matches up what you have taken with requirements, so coderprof's suggestion is possible. However, I think that the suggestion that students wouldn't take remedial courses even if they need them is right. This could especially be a problem because of the pressure not to fail many students, especially for professors without tenure. The unprepared students would be filling out professor evaluations too and never think that it is their fault they did not do well in a course.
"...The idea of self-placement also concerns me because students paying for their own educations are unlikely to choose remedial courses for which they do not get credit toward a degree, even though to take such a course might ensure greater success in for-credit courses."

The data seems to contradict this - most studies have shown that students are far more inclined to place themselves in remedial courses when the costs and benefits are explained to them than if the institution places them in these courses - as well, students tend to do better when they place themselves in these courses than when they are placed in them. (This data comes from an open enrollment school, btw, not the SLAC I used to work at - the data there showed that when we placed students in remedial courses, roughly 15% of the first year class was put in and when students placed themselves the number went up to 20%. The real difference was at the upper end - the quality of honors students changed pretty dramatically when we made that group self-selecting as well).
Point taken on the data, as I'm only posting what I've seen from experience at my institution and from what those who collect data at my institution about such things have passed along to faculty. It may be that this is not how it works everywhere, and I'm fully willing to concede that. However, if the data you're using is from just one institution, this may not be a one-size-fits-all model either. An open-enrollment university in a state that comes in the bottom ten for things like # of students with degrees beyond the high school diploma, # of students to graduate from high school, etc., is going to have a much different population than a state that has better K-12 education and more of an emphasis on post-secondary education.
I agree with your last point wholeheartedly - we're in a situation at my current school that while some are advocating for DSP, many faculty and upper-level admins are horrified by it, in large part because of the nature of our state K-12 ed system and our new scholarship program that is bring many more under-prepared students to campus.

Our Biology program is trying something along these lines this fall, with the addition of some pretty stiff pre-reqs, and I'll be interested to see what happens.
I have two thoughts on your proposal:

1) In some degree programs, the number of credits you take is what matters rather than where you end up. More concretely: at my undergrad college, a degree in a foreign language required xx number of credits in the department, not completion of a particular course at the end of the sequence. If that's the case, then there's an incentive for students to enroll too low, as they can get credits towards their degree without having to ever take e.g. more than one 400-level Spanish class. In these situations, it doesn't make sense to allow open enrollment. Whether the solution is to not allow open enrollment or change the degree requirements is a separate question, of course.

2) Might it make sense to let the students decide within a range on the test? I'd guess that you have statistics telling how likely it is that a student with xx score on the placement exam will do sufficiently well in a level yy course (or if not, I'd think you could acquire that data just by tracking one group of students over a year and get a ballpark sense). So, set two cutoff points for the exam: above X, you have to enroll in the higher class; below Y, you have to enroll in the lower class; and for the students between X and Y, you tell them where they placed, give them the correlation with how students at that level have done in the past, and leave it up to them. If you set the cutoffs at a decent point, you'll have effectively weeded out people that really shouldn't be in the higher/lower class, and the ones that fall in that middle range can take responsibility for their own decision about what to do.
I agree with Dr. Crazy --which isn't unusual.

My CC is one where they can register for a course with minimums without actually meeting them. We are told that it is our responsibility to check these (somehow -- and impossible because of FERPA).. The result is a drop rate higher than I'd like to see in my classes as students come in, figure out they can't make it and leave.

If they don't leave, there is trouble -- and it isn't pretty, as one person can bring down a whole class -- especially when their reaction to not understanding the material is to become angry.

We also have a problem in that those who need developmental courses and comply with the restrictions are left with very little to take at the college level while they are doing their remedial course work. We've been toying with the idea of a course in our department aimed at them -- but it hasn't been formalized yet.
Things have worked much better at our college of science since we started requiring students to take the chemistry placement exams. It shunts the overconfident into remedial courses in Chemistry and their future performance is better than students who are allowed to "overbid" their talents. 70% of the students who come to us require remediation and they often overestimate what they can handle - and continue to try to pass classes after failing as much as 5 times. We no longer allow students to repeat courses more than twice but students still experience a lot of parental pressure to stay in majors that will lead to professional degrees, even when it is clear that they will never succeed in those areas.
We seem to get a lot of the following problem: students that claim "placement" or advising errors are causing them not to graduate. They use this excuse on their parents. Then, parents call and complain that junior was misadvised. It is often the case that junior either failed a course he needed, or didn't sign up for what his advisor told him to take. Of course, legally and ethically, we can not share this with the parents. Of course, students are misadvised sometimes - I just see more of the other right now.

However, this seems to be a bigger problem at my SLAC than it was at my previous mid-sized regional state university. The SLAC really seems to get into over-involved parenting mode, which I'm not sure helps these students grow up. I would love to see something more like what you describe. I think it might make students more independent and accountable. On the other hand, I also think we should do more informative placement in our science courses. (We do none beyond advising.) That is, give the placement test, and then give the ino about how well they are likely to do statistically in x, y or z course - then, let them make an informed decision.
Well, well, well. Interesting discourse. Have lived it in Texas the last 30+ years. State capital got tired of sending that check to cover portion of student enrollment in College Algebra after five-six-more attempts, so mandatory state placement test & accompanying remediation became the law south of the Red River after 1989. Welcome to TASP (now THEA-TSI). Unhappy students. Frustrated faculty. Ulcered administrators.

Regarding “mis-advisement” - remember the no penalty -no limit major change of which all open admission community college students can partake. Yesterday little Bobby was placed solidly on the AAS road to a vocational business degree. Today I advised little Bobby as an elementary ed major bound for mid-size state college. Tomorrow he will appear for new guidance as a pre-med bound for preppy private university. At this third advisement session he will complain loudly about the courses we forced him to take that now do not fit neatly in his journey to win one of Mr. Nobel's medals. Circle within a circle. Moving target. Free will. I think that pretty well covers it.
- The Mighty Favog
Again, why the hell aren't all advisory appointments summarized by all advisors in a note kept in the student's (electronic) file?

Dec. 6th, 2011. Joe Fourpack came to discuss his Fibrous Studies major. Advised him that Underwater Basketweaving was a core course and unlikely to be offered in Fall of 2012, so he should be careful to sign up for a section this Spring. He declined the offer of a computer for an immediate signup.
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