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?