Monday, December 20, 2010

 

If at First You Don’t Succeed...

This story about course repeaters in California struck a chord with me. We’re facing a similar question at my own campus.

Apparently, California is considering amending its policies on allowing students to repeat courses as many times as they want. It’s looking at a cap. The idea is that seats in classes are not infinite, and once someone has whiffed several times, someone else should have a shot.

Okay, but to me, that leaves out the most interesting and compelling reason. On my own campus, as well as nationally, we’ve found that the pass rates on second attempts are well below the pass rates on first attempts. The pass rates on third attempts are lower still. There comes a point at which there’s a compelling argument to be made that by allowing students to register for a course yet again, we’re just taking their (and the taxpayers’) money.

Pass rates are largely counterintuitive. The ‘easier’ the course content, the lower the pass rate. Basic arithmetic has a much lower pass rate than does calculus, even though calculus is ‘harder.’ Similarly, third-time course takers have much lower pass rates than first-time course takers, even though the third-timers should have the advantage of previous exposure to the material.

Of course, that observation may be flawed in that most people taking developmental math for the first time aren’t really first-timers. They’ve had it before, in high school, and it didn’t ‘take.’ Part of the great tragedy of remediation is that we’re taking students who have (generally) had thirteen years of exposure to the K-12 system, where standard methods didn’t work for them, and we’re giving them a fourteenth year of standard methods. The fact that it often fails really shouldn’t be so surprising.

But that strikes me as an argument for trying different teaching methods in developmental math, rather than giving up on it altogether. To give up would be to write off anybody who went to a crappy high school. Second chances are worth something, and enough students actually do something positive with the second chance that throwing it away would feel like a crime.

Of course, there are second chances, and then there are fifth chances. There comes a point...

Community college faculty and administrators, as a group, tend to believe in open access. So even when there’s a good argument for restrictions, it cuts against the cultural grain.

Wise and worldly readers, has your campus found an elegant way to deal with the balance between access and, well, futility?

Comments:
To give up would be to write off anybody who went to a crappy high school.
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Can you honestly say they went to a crappy high school? Or does the high school look crappy because the students it has are one's who are going to be the hardest to teach?

Reality is if we are going to truly address education for all in this country, we are going to have to deal with the realities of poverty. Malnutrition early in life has a developmental impact on students. Exposure to lead and other such factors limits development. Poor health care is another factor as is post-tramautic stress & depression that is common in such populations. The best teachers in the world can't overcome those challenges.

To borrow from the past: "Its the economy stupid."
 
I agree with PonderingFool. Is the quality of instruction really the only (or even the primary) difference between a crappy high school and a good one? I doubt it. In which case can innovative approaches to remediation really fix it? I doubt it.
 
Rudbeckia Hirta had a great line on her blog, about students requesting permission to fail a class for the fourth time.

Our our campus, students have to pay the out-of-state rate after 2 attempts and have to appeal for a chance to fail it a fourth time. (They can, of course, take the class at a different CC, and some will do that to avoid those rules.) The appeal form asks them to explain what behavioral changes they will make to pass it on their last chance. (I have no idea how that works for developmental English.)

"But that strikes me as an argument for trying different teaching methods in developmental math, rather than giving up on it altogether."

Agreed, and we are trying some interesting ones on our campus. I have not seen the statistics, but rumors are that they don't help as much as hoped with FTIC students. The fact that these teaching methods work well with older returning students, coupled with my advising experiences, leads to the following theory:

Our state's HS exit exam leads students to believe they are ready for "college math" when they graduate from college. They have no way of knowing that there is little HS math on that test, having been lied to for years in the hopes that self esteem can solve math problems.

The result is that they blame US when they fail the math placement test and don't take the developmental classes seriously. "But I'm good at math! I'm currently earning an A in my HS pre-calc class" says the student who cannot solve a simple problem involving symbols in a fraction. I tell them to prove it by going to class every day and scoring a 98 for the course that covers 2 years of middle school math in 15 weeks, but I doubt if they really get that message.

The fact that students do well in those classes if they "know" they have forgotten what little math they knew (because they have been out of school for more than a few years) leads me to believe it is a "grade 13" effect. I'd like to see that dealt at orientation, but I'm not the one to do it.
 
Correction:

Our state's HS exit exam leads students to believe they are ready for "college math" when they graduate from HIGH SCHOOL."
 
Sigh. In a culture where you don't even hire for remedial math, even though that's one of your major categories, I'm not sure how this conversation works.

Yes, CCs should cut bait after three or so tries, for the student's good. No, they shouldn't try to do anything else, until they actually start hiring faculty who are capable.

If someone blows remedial math, the proper response is an eval for undiagnosed learning disabilities and/or depression. Having them take it again to blow it again is just compounding the original problem.
 
'The most-repeated courses were in physical education, but gateway courses in English and mathematics were not far behind.'

Can someone add some information why physical education is hard to pass at Cali CCs? Are there fitness standards, or is it more of an attendance issue?
 
"Can someone add some information why physical education is hard to pass at Cali CCs? Are there fitness standards, or is it more of an attendance issue?"

I can't speak for CC's in California, but at my CC, phys Ed classes are a do it on your own time thing. The gym has hours, and you have a minimum number of hours to spend in there on your own to pass.
 
We have two remedial classes whose credits don't count towards graduation. They are taught by people with expertise in remedial math (not the people with PhD's in mathematics). These classes help teach the difference between college and high school, including expectations, personal study habits, etc.

These classes lead into our gen ed math classes. If a student fails the gen ed math class twice, they have to go back and take the remedial class.
 
Students need to be encouraged so that they do their best.
 
save the state about $1.5 million each year and free up roughly 740 student seats

*Yawn* That works out to 6 seats and about $12,000 per campus. Seriously - who cares!!! There must be other real problems out there that these people could devote their time to solving.

Limiting repeaters in PE would be a shame – people repeat that course for credit as many times as they want – some people use it as a filler when they need just a few units to be full time. Others just like to workout and that gives them access to the gym on campus or lets them learn a new skill. The colleges love these courses because they require little in the way of personnel and are typically high enrollment. I’m sure no small number of athletics directors will be sad if this chunk gets taken out of their budget. So much for fighting obesity!

As for repeat repeaters - at my school, years ago, we stopped people from taking our intro Bio courses more than three times. We had people who had taken each of the three intro courses three times before passing (this took them 4 years - just to get through the first year sequence) and they were a disaster in upper division. We had a faculty member who, for a small stipend, would spend a month each summer and winter meeting for one hour with each of the students that had failed one of the intro courses twice and have a serious talk with them - about their grades, their access to disability services, their circumstances. She would explain to them that this was their last shot and they needed to make it count. She would look over their transcript, talk to them about time management and try to help them come up with a plan to succeed the next semester. Now, we have increased the prereqs for the intro courses so that they have to complete the first semester of English and Chem before they can take Bio. It shifts the filter back to other departments. This was in part driven by the cost of offering lab classes to people who couldn’t write, were failing Chem (and thus were not going to be able to progress in bio) or just generally did not have it together. The line in the sand helped motivate some people to turn things around.

We had a lot of students pushed into science by parents – and the students were uninterested in putting in the required work or incapable of doing it – to the point that they were unable to pass. Barring those students from continuing caused them some short term pain (angry parents - they showed up in the office to complain - it was ugly) but also gave students an iron clad argument to use with their parents as to why they needed to switch their major to something outside science. We gave them a gift. That said, I was amazed by the ability of students to persevere despite struggling each step along the way. I felt like hanging a sign in the classroom that said, “It’s OK if this is not the thing for you – do something else!”
 
save the state about $1.5 million each year and free up roughly 740 student seats

*Yawn* That works out to 6 seats and about $12,000 per campus. Seriously - who cares!!! There must be other real problems out there that these people could devote their time to solving.

Limiting repeaters in PE would be a shame – people repeat that course for credit as many times as they want – some people use it as a filler when they need just a few units to be full time. Others just like to workout and that gives them access to the gym on campus or lets them learn a new skill. The colleges love these courses because they require little in the way of personnel and are typically high enrollment. I’m sure no small number of athletics directors will be sad if this chunk gets taken out of their budget. So much for fighting obesity!

As for repeat repeaters - at my school, years ago, we stopped people from taking our intro Bio courses more than three times. We had people who had taken each of the three intro courses three times before passing (this took them 4 years - just to get through the first year sequence) and they were a disaster in upper division. We had a faculty member who, for a small stipend, would spend a month each summer and winter meeting for one hour with each of the students that had failed one of the intro courses twice and have a serious talk with them - about their grades, their access to disability services, their circumstances. She would explain to them that this was their last shot and they needed to make it count. She would look over their transcript, talk to them about time management and try to help them come up with a plan to succeed the next semester. Now, we have increased the prereqs for the intro courses so that they have to complete the first semester of English and Chem before they can take Bio. It shifts the filter back to other departments. This was in part driven by the cost of offering lab classes to people who couldn’t write, were failing Chem (and thus were not going to be able to progress in bio) or just generally did not have it together. The line in the sand helped motivate some people to turn things around.

We had a lot of students pushed into science by parents – and the students were uninterested in putting in the required work or incapable of doing it – to the point that they were unable to pass. Barring those students from continuing caused them some short term pain (angry parents - they showed up in the office to complain - it was ugly) but also gave students an iron clad argument to use with their parents as to why they needed to switch their major to something outside science. We gave them a gift. That said, I was amazed by the ability of students to persevere despite struggling each step along the way. I felt like hanging a sign in the classroom that said, “It’s OK if this is not the thing for you – do something else!”
 
At a college that fancies itself elite, I get students dropping my class and then repeating it because they are worried about getting a B that would hurt their A average. This strikes me as a waste of everyone's time.
 
Give new students a pre-entrance test which places them in developmental classes. At my cc, in English there is Writing I which teaches basic grammar and how to write sentences; Writing II which teaches how to write paragraphs and reinforces grammar; and if they score high enough, they can enroll in Freshman English. The students take an entrance exam for placement in their English class. There are no exceptions even if someone has an A in high school English.

The first day of class the students in Writing I and II write a paragraph in class. If the paragraph is well written (there is a check sheet for elements of a well written paragraph), the student can go on to Freshman English. If the paragraph shows the student barely knows how to write a sentence, the student goes to Writing I.

Of course, this change requires the professor to talk with each student who needs to be changed and fill out a form to make the change, but it is worth the time. That way as a Writing II instructor, I won't have someone falling behind with all the accompanying behavior which goes with a student floundering in a class.

I don't know how it could be done in Math or Science.
 
Our school has a 3-tries policy. If you fail a course 3 times, you have to get special permission to take it again. We also have a policy that you cannot replace a class failed at our school with a class taken at another school. (Logical consequence is that a lot of students fail their gen ed math classes a couple of times at the local community college FIRST, rather than failing it with us. Sometimes this means these kids take the courses 2-3 times at the local CC and another 2-3 times with us.)

I teach at a nearly open enrollment regional uni, and I teach a lot of gen ed classes where failure rates tend to be higher than in the upper division classes. Really, only a small handful of students are truly unable to do the academic work required to pass. By far, the majority of students who fail do so because something else is wrong in their lives. In some cases, they don't have the desire or discipline to be self-motivated students and/or they engage in too many distracting behaviors, and so they flunk out.

In a lot of cases, they have chaotic personal lives and are trying to keep it all together, but then some little thing goes wrong and it all cascades on them. These are often people who DO want to succeed, and probably would, if they had less upheaval to deal with.

I am not sure, but I expect that CCs, like my school, see a lot of students like that - students who are at our schools because we are schools of convenience and because we are aspirational. These same students probably would not have applied (or been admitted) to more selective schools.

So to bring down the fail rate, yes have strong remediation programs in place, but also figure out what kind of student support options your campus can and should legitimately provide, and how you will fund it, too. Because unless you provide support for more than just the academic angle, I think you are going to continue to have this problem.
 
Pondering Fool asks "Can you honestly say they went to a crappy high school?"

Yes. I see a clear correlation between schools the state ranks as "poor" and the odds of placing into remedial math. True, many of those schools get stuck with novice teachers, but I only expect that to get worse if teacher pay gets tied to the success of their students.

Punditus Maximus observes "In a culture where you don't even hire for remedial math...." and "If someone blows remedial math, the proper response is an eval for undiagnosed learning disabilities and/or depression."

We have full time tenured faculty teaching remedial math. They teach close to half of the sections except when we have unusually high enrollment in those classes. And, even more than the rest of us, I'm sure they can tell the difference between a learning disability and simply not attending class.
 
I'm not sure I see a strong connection between who is teaching your remedial math classes and where students place in math.

Frankly, remedial math classes teach material that ought to have been learned in middle school. Why someone needs a PhD to do that, I'm really not sure. In fact I'd wager that many folks with PhDs in math would probably find it hard to relate to a kid who simply can't understand decimals, or long division, or what-have-you. It is like expecting Shakespearean lit professors to teach remedial reading.

Many of our best remedial math folks are non-tenure track. Some have PhDs. Most are math ed folks though, and they have a heck of a lot more training in HOW to teach math, than most of the pure math people do. They also seem to have unending supplies of patience with people who are seriously math phobic and math deficient.
 
Yes. I see a clear correlation between schools the state ranks as "poor" and the odds of placing into remedial math. True, many of those schools get stuck with novice teachers, but I only expect that to get worse if teacher pay gets tied to the success of their students.
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But does that make it a crappy school or do they have a large demographic that you would expect to do poorly? Correlation does not equal causation. Too many other factors come into play to blame the previous school. Students who do poorly because of multiple factors outside of school are not going to do any better when they get to community college. Which is what the numbers are telling you. My point is stop blaming the schools. They can't fix everything. Simple neurochemistry, psychology, sociology, biology, etc. are all pointing to this reality. We refuse as a society to see that and deal with the consequence accordingly.

Poor health, poor diet, exposure to heavy metals, violence, depression, etc. put students from those backgrounds at a disadvantage when they enter school and only keeps holding them back. Want to improve education deal with those issues. Give every child and equal chance to succeed in school. We don't do that as a society and then cry foul when we don't get the "results" we want.
 
@CCPhysicist: DD mentioned earlier in his blog that while remedial math is a big part of what his department does, they don't hire based on the skillsets necessary to teach it. I asked because I've learned to teach remedial math on the fly while teaching econ, and I'm pretty good at it, and I was considering a career shift.

I definitely agree that professors wouldn't be able to tell the difference between a learning disability and any number of other concerns. This is why I believe testing is appropriate.
 
Good point, Punditus. I take exception to the many cases where arguments based on the behavior of R1 administrators gets conflated with the CC world, and the generalization of DD's CC to all other CCs falls in that same category.

We take our remediation programs very seriously, and I have immense respect for the faculty (full time and part time) teaching them. They would be a lot more successful if the students took the class as seriously as the teachers do.
 
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