Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Remedial Sequences

A hat-tip to Sherman Dorn for pointing out this story in IHE that I had missed.

According to a report from the Community College Research Center, looking at remedial courses as a sequence, rather than discrete courses, leads to some disturbing conclusions. As reported by IHE, fewer than 4 out of every 10 students who start a remedial sequence actually finish it, with most of the attrition occurring during, or even before, the first course. The report recommends that colleges pay special attention to advisement and counseling between courses, to keep students from falling between the cracks.

This is a HUGE deal for community colleges, and it's terribly complicated. At my cc, which certainly isn't among the really struggling ones, a majority of entering students place developmental (we prefer that term to 'remedial') in at least one course, usually math. The developmental math sequence starts all the way back with arithmetic, and builds through basic and intermediate algebra before the students can take credit-bearing courses. Developmental English includes both reading and writing, and there's an ongoing debate as to whether ESL should be considered developmental.

The paradox of developmental courses is that the more basic the material, the lower the pass rate. We have a higher pass rate in calculus than in arithmetic, just as we have a higher pass rate in World Literature than in basic reading. Of course, the only students who take calculus are those who sailed through the lower-level math courses – usually in high school – so they're presumably capable. The paradox becomes clearer when you consider self-selection.

The issues around developmental ed are legion.

Politically, it's radioactive. A fair number of taxpayers blanch at the idea of paying a community college to teach material that they've already paid the K-12 system to cover. (Some of them persist in the outdated notion that 'trades' are easily distinguishable from 'degree programs,' and suggest that you don't need basic reading or math skills in the trades. For those keeping score at home, the largest providers of 'vocational' education in America are community colleges, and the feedback we get from employers – consistently and without fail – is that they need employees who can communicate, and who don't freeze up when doing simple math.) Among supporters of developmental ed, conversations about obstacles faced by students have an elaborate etiquette, since they can very easily shade into student-blaming. (And honesty compels me to admit that some students are actually their own worst enemies.) It's also easy to veer into unhelpful quasi-socialist tirades, as if corporations made a profit from non-profit public sector colleges teaching basic algebra. They don't.

Philanthropists generally like to support successful outcomes, usually defined as graduation and job placement. That's understandable, but it usually means that the developmental stuff has to come entirely from our dwindling operating budget.

Developmental courses are resource-intensive. They have to be kept small, since these students need personal attention. Most of the tutoring in our academic support center – free of charge to the students, but hugely expensive to the college – is in the developmental sequences. The attrition rate in these courses is significantly higher than in the credit-bearing courses, so between small starting sizes and high attrition, we wind up with relatively little tuition revenue to pay for them. (Yes, we use far too many adjuncts in developmental courses to try to make up some of the difference, but there are limits to that, too.) And with apologies to Tolstoy, 'good' students are mostly the same, but every struggling student struggles in his own way.

To make matters worse, students often recoil when told that they need to take (and pay for) courses that “don't count” towards graduation. These courses stretch out the time and money to complete the degree, and some students see them as conspiracies to separate them from their money. Combine shaky preparation with a suspicious attitude, and the odds of success aren't high.

I've seen different philosophies of remediation. One school says that you need to break everything down into the tiniest possible units, and proceed “step-by-step.” Another says that remediation should be compressed into the shortest time possible. One says that it should be taught 'contextually,' with examples drawn from intended majors; another says that it should all be 'self-paced,' with computers and tutors; another says that it's all about back-to-basics. (For the record, my position can be boiled down to that great line from the movie Wargames, with Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy: “Hell, I'd piss on a sparkplug if I thought it'd help!”)

And then there's the school that denies that developmental education should exist at all. If you haven't learned it by 18, this school says, that's your problem.

I'm not a fan of that last one.

In a more perfect world, we'd have the resources to run a whole bunch of experiments locally and see what happens. What happens if we compress three semesters of developmental math into one? What happens if we just throw everybody into freshman comp? (That was the de facto policy at Proprietary U when I was there. It resulted in very low grading standards for freshman comp.) What happens if we go all self-paced, all the time?

We're not there. At best, we can try to glean successes from other schools, as well as our own, and fix what we can, on the fly. We're trying that, and we're participating in a national program that would be entirely too revealing to name, but so far the improvements have been small at best. It's a major issue, and with our K-12 and immigration systems being what they are, it will continue to be a major issue for the foreseeable future.

I'm glad to see that some people with the resources to do comparative work are looking seriously at this. We need all the help we can get.

When I get to work today, I'll look up our developmental programs, but I know my CC offers several different ways of offering the pre-college math courses, both self-guided and with different types of instruction. I'm in the music program and our developmental music theory class is taught face-to-face. We got around the time crunch problem of remediation by compressing the music theory sequence into 3 4-cr. classes instead of 4 3-cr. classes, so even if a student needs to take the developmental class, she/he can still get done with the theory sequence in 4 semesters.
developmental (we prefer that term to 'remedial')

Obviously you aren't up on the latest terminology. The politically correct term now is "college prep."

I could go on for hours about this subject.

I was having a discussion with a former remedial math instructor the other day. His take on the issue was students should be allowed one year to get up to speed; after that maybe college isn't the best route for you.

I can see where he's coming from and I can get on board with this plan with one cavaet: After a year (two long semesters plus a summer, four quarters, however you want to define a "year") students pay out-of-pocket for those classes. No more Pell, "scholarships," or tuition waivers for remedial classes. Show me that you're serious about your education when you have to Pay to Play or finish before it comes to that.
I changed careers this summer and am no longer an English adjunct. I have bills to pay and hope for a ft position in the future does not pay bills now.

I taught English developmental courses for three years of three daytime classes and 10 years of one night class a semester, so I have experience. I found that my night students knew why they were in college-to get an education so they could get degrees which led them to a better financial future. I could give them supplemental material and they devoured it. They expected me to teach them. They knew why they were in class and took advantage of it. They held my feet to the fire. Their education was important to them.

Most of my day-students seemed to think that the developmental class was just a place where they had to spend a semester, do the minimum required work, and then they could take the "real" classes. Or they dropped in the first nine weeks for reasons only they knew. I could tell who wouldn't last 16 weeks by the second assignment (writing a descriptive paragraph). Those who actually tried to write the paragraph (their choice of topics) and turn it in on time usually finished class successfully. The others usually dropped or stopped attending and defaulted with a F.

As educators, we can bend our curriculum out of shape adjusting for some way to help students be successful, but if they do not value the class, our efforts will be in vain.

My solution is 1. the teacher should work to be an outstanding teacher (outstanding to be defined by the cc and teacher) 2. really care about each student and convey an attitude that this class is IMPORTANT academically, and 3. hope or pray (the word to be used is dependent on the teacher's religious beliefs) that I, as a teacher have done the very best I can and someday in the future something I have said, taught, or imparted will help them. Then let it go.

Personally unmotivated students are an integral part of cc classes because there are no academic entrance standards. Accept that and keep working to teach well and with love. But don't feel like a failure if you lose 50% of the class by week 10. So keep on plugging with new ideas for classes and schedules. Some of them might work with some students. But the students must value the class for any pedagogy to succeed.

I loved teaching developmental classes. It felt like a religious mission to me. But I did not take vows of poverty when I got that PhD and I and my family can't live on spiritual or emotional feelings, so I left teaching.

How to motivate them to want to learn is the question for which I don't have an answer.
I think the financial aid might be the reason some students are in cc. I agree. One year, then they pay unless the grades are B or above
It was teaching Fundamental (remedial) Math that lead to me adopting "You can lead a student to knowledge, but you can't make them learn" as a sanity-saving mantra. The students who attended and tried to understand the material all pulled through, but that was never the whole class. As far as approaches, I was all for whatever seemed to work, but I didn't have much beyond my gut guiding what was working.
Remedial (developmental) courses are a big deal, and not just at community colleges. Let me comment/expand on one of your comments:

"To make matters worse, students often recoil when told that they need to take (and pay for) courses that “don't count” towards graduation."

Think about why. In my experience at my current institution, many students get admitted with Bs and even As in high school algebra (sometimes two years of it) and geometry. I have advised students who took calculus in HS. When your HS record includes what you have to think of as success, and then you fail our math placement exam, you will of course be pissed off. You will think someone has cheated you (your HS) or is trying to cheat you (your college). If the latter, you are likely to blow off the course, believing that you really do know the material. But then you can't get into the courses (like intro econ, which I teach) for which math at the level of HS algebra is a prerequisite.

I've advised students who have had three semesters of developmental math, two semesters of developmental writing, and one or reading, to complete. While there are some--a very few--courses they can take that do count, they frequently face 2 - 3 semesters of nothing but developmental work. None of which counts forwad graduation, all of which has real costs. It's no wonder we lose them--even if they are doing OK in the developmental courses.

What can be done? First, clearly, pressure on the high schools to do their job has to be increased (it's already there, of course). Second, I think some (many? colleges/universities have to bite the bullet and say "If you're not prepared, this is not the place for you." That's harsh, but it is at least honest. Third, we have to develop ways for people to get the preparation that they need outside the "regular" institutional arrangements. And those places must be (highly) subsidized. And innovative.

Easy for me to say, hard for us all to do.
If one is entering a college without arithmetic, the problem isn't academic. Either the student is suffering from a learning disability or the student is totally unmotivated, for reasons good or bad. I have no idea what a good approach would be at that point, but I'm sure it's not a traditional college course, which relies on motivated, healthy students.
This was a really interesting post.

I graduated from a private high school with selective admissions. I was 4th in my class. I took math every year, ending with precalc. All As and Bs.

But I still did not pass the math placement exam at the 4 year college that gave me a near-full scholarship.

Obviously, my problem was not as severe as for those students who can't do simple arithmetic. But, it still did take me several tries to finally pass college-level math. And I needed to do so in order to graduate. This horrible state of affairs persisted for some time, even though all of my other grades were excellent.

Ultimately, what did it was shacking up with an engineer who loved me enough to sit by and hold my hand as I did my homework. Because it seemed like no matter how hard I worked in class, I could not remember the material at home. My own notes looked like gibberish to me 5 hours later. But this stuff was all blindingly obvious to my boyfriend, of course.

Short of asking every remedial math student to strike up relationships with engineers (and remedial composition students to date English majors?), I've got nothing. Even a tutor is not going to be able to pour over EVERY assignment with a student. There's no money for that.

But it has to be as one-on-one as possible, I think. Several of the remedial math courses I attempted were of the "self-directed" variety, and I got precisely nowhere with them. In my case, it wasn't that I didn't know how to be a good student, or that I wasn't motivated. I really just couldn't keep up on my own.

Once I got to courses where I needed the math prereq. (like econ), I was fine. Putting it in context made it "click" in a way that a straight math class never did. So I guess I support that approach, though you do need SOME kind of foundation for that to work; I had several years of math by then, between high school and college. Most cc students won't.
I teach English at a community college, and Laura Hope, of Chaffey College, recently spoke at our cc about Chaffey's Student Success Initiative. She focused on the same topic you address in this post, and she was very good. Chaffey has had some real success in this area, it seems.
Anonymous 7:17AM -
Your "day" students have been lied to for 12 years about what math they were "learning" and led to believe that warming a seat earned a C. That is because warming a seat did earn a C. And, worse, something between 5th and 7th grade math sufficed for passing the HS exit exam.

We have to put the blame where it belongs. We have El-ed teachers who hate math, some using a preposterous curriculum that amounts to look-say arithmetic by repeated guessing, and a system that passes these kids along to us in the CC world. There is a reason a kid (actually lots of kids) comes to us unable to add fractions, and it isn't a developmental disabilty.

It is a miracle when we manage to get a kid through 6 or 8 years of math in just one year. Usually that happens with well-motivated adults who know they have forgotten everything, whether they learned it or not. It is quite a challenge when the person is fresh out of high school with the expectation that the next class will be a "college" class.
"My solution is 1. the teacher should work to be an outstanding teacher (outstanding to be defined by the cc and teacher) 2. really care about each student and convey an attitude that this class is IMPORTANT academically, and 3. hope or pray (the word to be used is dependent on the teacher's religious beliefs) that I, as a teacher have done the very best I can and someday in the future something I have said, taught, or imparted will help them."

If you are an adjunct and do 1, 2, and 3, you are either doing it for a hobby (because you love it and don't need the money) or are the biggest moron in the world.

And I see you didn't last very long following your idiotic philosophy. Good advice for full-time profs, perhaps, but for an adjunct? The road to misery.

To those students who show up and do the work, give an A. To those students who don't show up and don't do the work, give a B. Unless you work at a smart community college where they insist on an exit exam. . .or give the grades of "pass" or "repeat."
Yeah, the gap between what high school is purportedly teaching and what it actually teaches is pretty immense. Do the folks who come up with the content standards have any familiarity with high school students and teachers -- and the challenges both face?

Don't answer that.
I can offer a slightly different take on the idea of 'remedial' and 'it's the fault of the K-12 system'...

Here's a fun plan, find some of your previous students, say from 6 months ago. Pick the most successful if you like, then give them your final exam again. Heck, give them the very first test again. I'll bet 90% of them would fail.

I taught HS for 4 years in between stints at tertiary institutions. I can assure you that my students had mastered appropriate content for their courses (no matter the institution) before earning a passing grade. I've even saved evidence of this, I have tests and projects...

But, 5 months later when I'd see these same students again they would have zero recall of anything we did. In fact, they claimed that they'd never even seen the topic before. One year we gave every single kid in the HS a 'linear equations' quiz on day 1 of the school year. Less than 1/4 were able to demonstrate anything useful. 2 weeks of instruction, harder quiz, 90% class averages. When they came back from winter break we gave the EXACT SAME quiz, average was back to 25%.


Not in the 'head-count' sense that DD sometimes writes about, but in the 'do you have any idea what we talked about last week? sense.'

Retention is the big bear in the room.

How about, just for a second, that you assume good-faith effort on the part of the K-12 school system? You assume that they teach appropriate content and that students who pass have actually demonstrated that they know the content?

I'm not pretending that every single K-12 teacher, class or school system does this, but, I'd bet that most of them do...

If you take that as your starting position, well, then... Then you'd have something to work on, and maybe you could have productive conversations with the K-12 system because I'll bet they're trying to figure out how to get students to retain skills and concepts. It's a lot better of a conversation than, "ya'll aren't doing your jobs."
This is a really good point -- I have a devil of a time getting my students past "study all night and pull it out for the test" and into "actually part of my intellectual toolkit and can at least be dusted off quickly."
mthgeek - I do that experiment, and it can be depressing, but IMO it (retention of learned material) is the only thing that matters in the classes I teach. I get my former students to help make it a point of emphasis, and that is what seems to help.

However, since my class is not a math class, whatever they didn't retain is suddenly much more their problem than mine - because I can't take time away from teaching physics to teach math.

But the problem I write about is not a retention of knowledge issue. It is more fundamental. I have looked at the HS math exit exam in my state and others. There is very little HS math on it! And when you figure in how little of it you need to get right to get a passing score, I knew lots of kids who could have passed it in 6th or 7th grade, maybe earlier. That is the problem I see. YMMV.
We need to ease up on the high schools here. The problem isn't that K-12 teachers aren't doing their job, nor that they don't care, don't like math, etc. Most K-12 teachers work hard in a situation much more dismal than CC teaching or even adjuncting. I taught elementary school for several years-- college teaching is a vacation in comparison.

The problem is that K-12 schools have too many students, too few instructional materials, too little prep time, too much of a need to take on a parental role without the resources to do it; that the students don't read or write for fun; that families are facing poverty issues, etc.

Our CC has the same problems with students dropping out of the developmental programs. Doesn't surprise me at all-- when I moved here I had the most impossible time finding bookshelves. Apparently there is no demand.

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