A Fresh Look at the Developmental Ed Curriculum

Institutions that have made real strides in improving retention and academic success rates for academically underprepared students have focused not only on revisiting their policies around academic placement but also on revamping their developmental education curriculum.

Let's take a close look at two successful—though quite different—models:

  • The assisted learning approach: replacing prerequisite courses with corequisite coursework
  • The fast track approach: accelerating the prerequisite or developmental track

The Assisted Learning Approach

Dispensing with the traditional developmental sequence altogether, Austin Peay State University places its academically underprepared students immediately into the regular first-year courses—but adds two corequisite, non-credit hours of Structured Learning Assistance (SLA) funded by a $75 lab fee.

"When a student arrives with ACT scores indicating they are not college-ready, a low math ACT or a low reading/writing score, we enroll them in a credit-bearing course the moment they walk on campus. We don't hold them back and lock them into the slow death of a pipeline of non-credit developmental courses. Instead, we move them into their first year and assist them in those courses."
Tristan Denley, Austin Peay State University

Austin Peay's "Structured Learning Assistance" (SLA) workshops have been so successful that the National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT) included Austin Peay's linked workshop model as one of their six recommended models for redesigning developmental courses. SLA workshops are provided to assist students in math, writing, and reading, and offer students the assistance of undergraduate peer mentors, graduate student mentors, and (for those with a reading deficiency) reading coaches.

The faculty teaching the first-year course write the pre- and post-tests for the supplemental workshop and work closely with the SLA leader heading the workshop to ensure the quality of the structured learning assistance offered. SLA leaders receive a two-day training prior to leading their first workshop, and are assessed through classroom observation once each term.

Martin Golson, Austin Peay's director of academic support, adds this perspective on the SLA approach: "A student who completes college-level work for an area is deemed to have removed deficiency in that area. They take a college-level math course with structured assistance and they pass it; that removes their math deficiency, without having to do remedial education."

Unlike Austin Peay State University, Valencia College has not taken the step of eliminating non-credit developmental courses entirely, but they have helped their academically underprepared students build momentum toward their degree by:

  • Taking the top 25% of students placing in developmental education and registering them directly into the regular credit-bearing courses
  • Subsuming the content of the second course in a two-course developmental track into the regular credit-bearing courses or into supplemental, corequisite workshops
  • Training faculty who are teaching first-year courses to include study skills in their curriculum
  • Fostering a learning community and peer mentoring for academically underprepared students

A growing number of institutions have invested in summer bridge programs to help high school seniors or transfer students enter their first term more academically prepared. Yet recent studies of developmental summer bridge programs -- such as this one in Texas -- have found that most such programs achieve only minimal boosts in student retention.

Yet a handful of highly effective summer bridge programs have shown increases of 10% or more. Truly "leveling the playing field" for academically under-prepared students requires more than just getting them up to speed in academic knowledge or even awareness of academic support services. The key:

  • A focus on building a peer community/cohort
  • Programming that is designed to build academic confidence and "grit"

The Fast Track Approach

Chaffey College took a different path. Rather than replace prerequisite developmental courses with corequisite workshops, Chaffey College transitioned their developmental courses from non-credit to credit and looked aggressively for responsible, rigorous, and effective ways to accelerate the developmental curriculum.

In the nineties, Chaffey College had a developmental track of five reading courses and three pre-collegiate English courses. In revising this slow developmental sequence, here's what Laura Hope, Chaffey's dean of instructional support, and her colleagues did:

  • Condensed that developmental curriculum into 2 developmental English courses, and made them credit-bearing (2 credits each)
  • Split the semester term into two sections of eight weeks each, offering "Fast Track" or accelerated sections of those developmental courses

Now, a student who is academically underprepared at the time of enrollment isn't told to take multiple semesters of non-credit developmental coursework. Instead, that student is directed to take one semester of for-credit, intensive coursework.

"What we have seen," Hope explains, "is exponential success in students who are in that compressed curriculum, especially in males."

In fact, focus groups with students revealed that the accelerated pace kept them engaged in their studies; they felt compelled to work more closely with their classmates and to interact regularly with their instructors. Feedback from the faculty indicated that the instructors also benefited from the compressed pace, in that the Fast Track forced them to think through their pedagogy very intentionally.

"This approach takes the stigma out of developmental education. Students see that they have momentum toward reaching their goals. They believe they are on the fast track to success."
Laura Hope, Chaffey College

Chaffey College has made this program particularly effective by also:

  • Offering some sections of the regular first-year courses in Fast Track mode. A student who places in the second course of a two-course developmental sequence can feasibly complete that dev-ed course in the first eight weeks of the term and then go on to complete the first course toward their degree in the second half of the same term, losing no time in their progress toward the degree.
  • Revisiting add/drop dates. Chaffey College realized that students who added a course at the end of the third week in the term (the historical last day to add) were the least likely to succeed in the course. So Chaffey truncated the amount of time a student has to add a course to the first six days of the term, and then used Fast Track to offer a second registration point, allowing students to register for a course for the second eight weeks of the term.
  • Integrating Fast Track with true developmental advising. It's not just about moving students through courses faster; it's about helping students move smarter, by holding in-depth conversations with students about their goals, and coaching advisors to engage in collaborative problem-solving to help students chart their course toward those goals.


In our April 2012 article on developmental advising, Susan Ohrablo, a doctoral enrollment counselor with the Abraham S. Fischler School of Education at Nova Southeastern University, offers practical suggestions for coaching and training your advisors.