Tuesday, October 31, 2006


Remediation and Vision

IHE has a fascinating little article this week about how students of different ages fare when assigned to remedial courses. Broadly speaking, older students who are placed 'remedial' have much higher success rates, both at the course level and in terms of graduation rates, than do traditional age (18-19) students who place remedial. Weirdly, the article then suggests that colleges should therefore change how we do remediation for older students.

Um, no. That's the part that's working. What it should suggest is that we change how we do remediation for the younger students.

In my faculty days, I always liked having a cluster of older students in any given class. (Every semester I volunteered to do a night class, specifically to get some adult students.) They might or might not get the best grades, but they always had the most focus. College can be a 'default' choice for an 18 year old; it's a conscious choice for a 28 year old. For those who just slogged their way through high school and are coming to college only grudgingly, all the old self-defeating behaviors are still there. Usually, if somebody in her thirties or forties comes back to school, she's on a mission. There may be some academic rustiness and some odd gaps in preparation, but the drive is there. As any teacher can tell you, drive means a lot.

To be fair, a need for remediation can suggest different things at different ages. An 18 year old who needs basic math somehow managed to dodge learning math in high school. (In my area, at least, the high schools are generally good enough that it's safe to assume the kid had a shot in the first place. I'll admit upfront that this is not universally true.) A 38 year old who needs basic math may well once have been able to pass it, but has lost the techniques to the sands of time. (I passed calculus in college, but have long since forgotten how to do a derivative.) There's a difference between 'reminding' and 'introducing.' When remediation involves revisiting past successes, rather than rubbing noses in past failures, it shouldn't be surprising that it works better.

(For purposes of this entry, I'm not defining 'ESL' as remediation. ESL is a different issue.)

How do you inspire 'drive' in 18 year olds who just escaped high school, for whom college is just a more appealing alternative to slinging burgers? Or do you?

I was reminded this week of just how overwhelming a 'total institution' can be. I spent about half a day in the hospital for tests that involve gazillions of wires and electrodes attached to me, monitors everywhere, etc. When they were finally detached, I couldn't get out of there fast enough. There was something terrifying about being observed that closely, monitored, judged, prodded. It was demeaning and dehumanizing and creepy. Even though I could tell myself that it was all for my own good, which was true, I still couldn't get out of there fast enough.

College doesn't usually involve that level of prodding, but it's easy to forget the feeling of being constantly judged. If your recent experience as a student in high school was usually of being judged stupid and/or lazy, and you're right back in a classroom at 18 in a course that 'doesn't count' because you aren't yet up to 'college level' work, I could see the emotional response of heading out the door at the first opportunity. (Several years ago I went back to my alma mater, Snooty Liberal Arts College, for a wedding. Just walking around campus, I felt that gut-level nervousness that I used to feel every single day for four years. Like pain, it's easy to forget, but that doesn't make it any less real.)

Although I could get drummed out of the dean's union for saying so, there are some kids, I think, for whom college is the right call at 25 but not at 18. Some kids need to get the fire in the belly, and a few years of crappy seven-bucks-an-hour jobs can light a fire in even the most determined slacker. Some will find routes to a satisfying life that don't involve college, and that's fine; others will determine that they need a degree to get where they want to go, but they have to figure that out for themselves.

I don't want to be tasked with figuring out, when they're 17, which kids are which. That's one reason I'm grateful for the open-admissions model – sometimes it's hard to tell the late bloomer from the dedicated slacker. And sometimes the shock of academic failure can serve as a needed wake-up call. Just because a kid failed a class doesn't necessarily mean that the college didn't accomplish something.
A kid who managed to get through high school on a diet of youtube and weed probably needs a wake-up call as much as, or even more than, he needs a course in basic algebra. If that wake-up call involves dealing with personal issues and bouncing around the seedier side of the economy for a few years, well, that's what a vision quest looks like these days.

How do you motivate the disaffected teenager?

Having been in a situation similar to one of those students, I don't know what anyone could have done, at that time, to encourage me to actually attend class and do the work. I went off to college early, after having taken 3 semesters of calculus and a semester of English at a local state university, and never cracked a book. When I got to actual university, I found I wasn't really that interested in being there for learning, but more interested in hanging out with friends, playing on the internet, and enjoying being away from my parents. Unsurprisingly, I didn't do that well. I'm amazed I managed to pass half the classes, having skipped more than half of the lectures.

For me, what it took was dropping out for 4 years, and working in a dead-end job, and realising that as long as I stayed out of school, there just...wasn't...anything...better, and I was always going to be stuck in a now-miserable job. Once I went back, I realised how much fun school could be when you actually attended -- but the first time? I don't think anyone could have said or done anything to prevent me from skipping classes and dropping out. And in the long run, I think it was the right move.
How do you motivate the disaffected teenager?

The million dollar question - reminds me of the joke about how many therapists it takes to change a light bulb. (Only one, but the light bulb has to want to change).

For me a s!*t job in the campus cafeteria and a D in O-chem got my butt moving. The job was a constant reminder of what I had to look forward to if I didn't finish my degree and the D finally convinced me that if I wanted to finish school, I needed to revise my approach to the whole thing - otherwise I would never be able to get past the weeder classes to the fun upper division stuff in my discipline. I pissed away the first two years and had to get virtually straight A's to get out with the B average I needed to go to grad school. Not the best strategy - but it worked. I honestly don't think I could have done it any other way.

As for motivating teenagers, I think working a truly horrific, mind-numbing job for a summer can do wonders for motivation. It certainly worked for me and my siblings. I'm not a big proponent of letting kids work a lot during school but summer jobs are a great way to learn what being in a job is really like.
I don't think at ALL you'd be drummed out of the Deans' union for thinking some people shouldn't enter college at 18. That's not at all a radical idea to most folks in academics. It's hard for some parents and teens to imagine, though. (And I do like imaginging a Deans' Union meeting... uh huh.)

I think it would do most students a world of good to take off a year or two, do something difficult and challenging for a year (heck, supporting oneself on minimum wage would count), and then entering college. I wonder what the effects on financial aid and parental tax stuff would be, if any?
I attended an all-boys Catholic high school with a pretty rigorous academic pathway. With the exception of the Algebra II and trig class, I never cracked a book and got straight A's.

Almost everyone in my graduating class was headed to college including me. When I landed in my first college algebra course, I foundered and sunk quickly. English comp was demanding and I struggled from the onset. Biology, my favorite subject in HS, was a disaster. After 3 quarters I had a 1.80 GPA and was academically suspended. Then I received an invitation to show up for my pre-induction physical. This was in 1965. After six years in the Navy including two tours in Vietnam on a river patrol boat, I desparately wanted to return to college and get a degree. I had to go to the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and beg to be re-admitted on probation. He said with my record that it would be extremely difficult to pull up my GPA and remain academically viable. But he said that in his experience, I had now "grown up" and knew what it took. He signed my readmission paper and I was on my way. Because of his faith in me, I was on the Dean's List every quarter from then on and graduated with honors.

Yes, you've got to have that fire in the belly and want to achieve success. High school gradautes who I now teach at a community college remind me so much of myself at 18. I also count myself lucky when I have several "non-traditional" students in my classes. They know the score and work hard, not expecting anything to be given them.
I don't think you can motivate a disaffected 18-year-old nor do I think that you should be expected to.

I took two years off between high school and university. It was a mini-scandal in my suburban high school that the class valedictorian wanted some time off before starting uni. To their credit, my parents weren't worried. They simply made it clear that at the end of two years, I would either be gearing up to head to university or I would be moving out and living on my own.

Those two years made a world of difference. Even though I was the same age as most of the other freshman, I was there because I had made a conscious decision to be there. Many of my classmates were there because university is what you do after high school. Some of them paid more attention after the first bad grade, but some of them didn't.
I can tell you what worked for me...

Working at McDondalds while in High School, then dropping out for a few years in the middle of my BA and trying to pay the bills. I could handle the work, and if it had really paid the bills I might have stayed out of school. As it was, I saw people trapped in jobs they hated and that I found boring. I couldn't imagine those jobs as my career.

I think that, if an 18 year-old in remediation wants to drop out, they ought to be allowed to. I also think that it would be a brilliant move for a college to accept them back after a minimum of two years off with a clean GPA slate on a one-time basis... all prior credits are coverted to Pass/Fail for GPA purposes and the student can start again trying to earn a good GPA.
To me, one of the things the IHE article suggests is forming study groups, when the demographics are right, that throw together older and younger students. Just a thought.
I was one of those students who would have just been taking up space at 18. Because I had no real desire, to study anything in particular, I didn't go. It was only 9 years later with a marriage, kids, and a dead end job that I realized I needed to go back. And yeah, I took remedial math and struggled in introductory chemistry - I swear stoichiometry hadn't been even invented when I was in high school! - but now I'm in a doctoral program, so in the long run, it was the right decision for me.
Now I have an 18 year old who is uncertain about school herself. And I'm not going to push her to go right away. Four months into a boring retail job, she's also getting the idea that school might be hard work, but worth it. Some of us just aren't ready, and I don't think there's anything you as an administrator can do other than allow us to fail and/or drop out before we make the decision for ourselves that we want to succeed.
I'm posting this after chewing out an 18 year old in a remediation class who is currently failing my course. She was using her sidekick in class...again...and was upset that I requested that she turn over her sidekick to me until the end of class. In fact, she was so upset that she did not turn over said sidekick meaning that I had to explain to her after class that when an instructor asks her to do something (such as stopping a clear violation of a course policy!)it's not acceptable for her to argue with me. She needs to do what I say--it's simply not a point for debate.
With students such as these, I say let em fail. She needs a few years of actual real world experience before she can even begin to understand 1) respect for authority figures such as teachers and 2) why it is inappropriate to text message during class in a clear violation of course policies!
The article suggests that remediation should be changed for the older students, but you say there's no problem with older students and remediation. Um, well, no problem except that they're placed in a class with a bunch of young slackers for a semester, when maybe all they need is two weeks of a quick brush-up on something they once knew.

It makes sense to offer a different, shorter remediation course for older students who once knew the material they've now forgotten, so that those students can quickly move on to more challenging work and stop wasting time with the slackers.
Due to jumping a class (and having brains and a knack for exam passing), I started Uni at 17 going to the top university in the state. Was bored, restless, and dropped out. Into a good job :)

I decided I needed a degree to get further in my field (which wasn't true as I never quite finished it and the lack's been no handicap), so I started part time as a mature age student, in an Institute of Technology with a fairly large part time student population. The fulltimers and the part timers mostly focused on getting the bit of paper, so doing what was needed. In some areas the part timers were right on top of the game, one lecturer was heard to say that the problem with teaching there was it didn't matter what the subject was, someone in the room was doing it for a living and would jump on you the minute you said something even slightly dodgy about current practice. But I think we all of us were there because we needed the bit of paper, not because we wanted an education. Which was why the fulltimers were there too... It's just the mature age students had more practice with getting unpleasant chores done.

And maybe being part time meant that when you were at uni you were focused. I know when I was fulltime that I was hanging about the place for a fair while but not doing things. IT was just where I was. Whereas when I went to tech part time if I was there I was there to do work and when that was done I could go home and do something interesting....

As a bored restless teenager, nothing would have motivated me unless I was really into the course (I wasn't, chose the wrong thing.) Too close to school, no obvious point, I really needed a break. I had no real idea why I was there except it was expected of me, and having one parent as a rather well known research high flyer at that same uni didn't help!

As a mature student with a goal in mind I did what was needed to pass. I enjoyed some of it and endured some of it. But I enjoyed way more than I had the first time around. PArtly through choosing a field I actually liked, and partly because I was older and more able to think and relate.

The only real solution is to stop taking kids from high school unless they are serious geniuses in a field that flowers young, like maths. If they are just normal bods then they'll do better at 25 than 17/18.
doc said...
"To me, one of the things the IHE article suggests is forming study groups, when the demographics are right, that throw together older and younger students. Just a thought."

Ick. Been there, done that. If the older and younger are both part timers or both fulltimers it might work, but having dealt with the more usual situation of fulltime vs parttime it doesn't work.

In a scheduled tutorial the youngsters say nothing and goof off if they think the older ones will do the work. And the older ones do because they want to get this done already, not sit about waiting for the youngsters to get it together. I've found it almost painful to wait for the younger students to organise themselves. The groups I did with other part timers were quick, focused, efficient.

(And I expect the younger students found the older ones brusque and unsociable and dismissive.....)

If the group is out of scheduled hours then the fulltimers always want to meet in the middle of the day and will never do it in the evening or travel to someone's home but always want to do it at school. Whereas the part timers are husbanding time already and want to meet in the evening and usually rotating through people's houses or maybe being at a house central to most rather than at the campus which is usually in the city or otherwise painful to get to of an evening after work.

It's a totally different set of requirements about time, and different trained habits.
I don't see the harm in mixing returning students with the 18 y.o. product of a failed school. Does it really hurt them to see their former slacker selves failing for "obvious" reasons? Probably reinforces their new approach to school.

It would be really hard to find a placement exam mechanism that would identify the quick relearner. Better to have good placement and associated advising, to tell those students that there is no harm in getting a 99.9% A in this class, because of the foundation it builds for the next one. I had a student who did just that, starting in our "5th grade arithmetic" prep class and leaving for engineering school after A's in physics and calculus through differential equations.
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