Developmental Education: Making a
Greater Impact

by Daniel Fusch, Academic Impressions

The White House's 2020 college completion goal and funding opportunities such as the Walmart Initiative and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's focus on college completion have placed fresh pressure and attention on both college preparation and "remedial" education. According to a new analysis by a national education advocacy group using data from 2007-08, remedial education for college students costs the United States $5.6 billion a year, including $3.6 billion in tuition. One in three students require a remedial course.

While much of the attention is given to teacher preparation and reform for the K-12 system, it's also critical for colleges and universities to examine what they can do to improve the developmental education programs that are needed at the post-secondary level. To trim costs and prepare students for academic success, colleges need to continue improving success rates in developmental courses and need to be able to move students through developmental courses faster.

In November 2010, on the heels of an earlier, more regionally-focused report that demonstrated that the state of Georgia spends $22 million annually to provide developmental education at colleges and universities, we turned to Nick Bekas, professor of English and project director for the Developmental Education Initiative and the Walmart Initiative at Valencia Community College, to offer some best practices in these areas. Bekas offered these words of advice.

Look at More than Pass/Fail Rates and Persistence Data

While it is common to evaluate the effectiveness of developmental education by focusing on success rates by student demographic, Bekas notes that this alone is not enough data to drive clear decisions about where to invest limited resources in improving developmental education. "We need to know what is actually happening in the classroom," Bekas advises. "What are our instructors doing? What are our students doing? What do our students need us to be doing?"

Bekas recommends two approaches to gathering qualitative data on the needs of developmental students:

  • Hold professionally-facilitated focus groups to identify what is and isn't working, and what study skills, critical thinking skills, and other college success skills students need to learn
  • Collect learning artifacts that allow you to identify how the way the course is taught is having an impact on what students are learning

For example, examine samples of lesson plans alongside the work students produced in response to the lesson. Look at multiple sets of lesson plans and student work. What is missing in the student work? What is missing from the lesson plans that may have helped students better prepare for the work? Often, students may be able to demonstrate that they understand a concept yet have difficulty applying it in order to problem-solve.The content might be well-covered in the course, but what the students need is to be briefed on particular study processes or thinking skills.

EXAMPLE: TIME MANAGEMENT

In a mandatory student success skills seminar, the instructor found that requiring students to keep track of their time throughout the week helped the students develop clarity on the concept of time management but did not help them learn how to apply time management to their academic life. Students were not able to transfer the knowledge into a practical skill such as managing their time when studying for an exam. The students will need a demonstration not just of how to track their time but how to prioritize, project, and plan the upcoming week.

EXAMPLE: SOLVING MATH PROBLEMS

Some students are struggling with work problems in a developmental math course. The instructor found that though the students understood many of the math concepts, they did not know how to approach solving a math problem. The instructor introduced into the course demonstrations of how to use a math textbook and how to analyze a work problem, showing the students how to rewrite the work problem in their own words and how to identify what information they have been given and what information they will need to identify in order to solve the problem. The key was to walk them through the process and the analytical thinking required.

At Valencia Community College, Bekas has found that the key to improving student success rates for developmental courses (and their grades when the students begin taking degree-credit courses) is to integrate the teaching of college success skills into the key content-area courses (writing, math, etc.). This requires:

  • Integrating instruction on college success skills into lesson plans
  • Training faculty to teach success skills, not just content-area knowledge
  • Developing a learning community and peer mentoring for developmental students

Start the Right Faculty Dialogue

Bekas stresses the importance of faculty training and development to success in developmental education courses:

  • Provide structured opportunities for faculty who teach developmental education courses to share practices and learn from their peers
  • Train faculty to focus on the positive and address (directly) the stigma of "remedial" education; to be effective in meeting the learning needs of developmental students and to encourage those students to move forward, faculty need to shift their focus from the knowledge students lack and the challenges the instructors face to the knowledge the students do have and the skills the faculty can help them develop
  • Invite an ongoing discussion focused on what it takes to be successful in college, and an ongoing examination of how many of the items from that discussion are integrated fully into the developmental education curriculum and course design

For example, Bekas warns against making the assumption that if you teach work problems in math, you are teaching students critical thinking by doing so. "You're not just teaching the content area," he warns, "you are teaching specific skills and the procedural knowledge needed to use those skills. Students will only learn effectively and retain that learning if we teach them how to learn."

Train Peer Mentors

As with faculty, Bekas recommends taking an intentional approach to developing peer mentors for students. Offer periodic rather than one-time training, and prepare peer leaders to focus not on solving assignments for the students or even on aiding them in solving those assignments, but on walking them through the skills they will need to solve the assignments.
Bekas also recommends:

  • Set clear criteria for how you will appoint peer mentors (e.g., by faculty recommendation)
  • If at all possible, make the peer mentorship a paid position -- this will make it easier to set a clear job description and goals and to establish structure and accountability for the position
  • As with the faculty, provide structured opportunities for your cadre of peer mentors to share practices and learn from each other

Find Ways to Accelerate Students

Moving students into degree-credit courses swiftly is critical. Bekas recommends piloting ways to speed students through the sequence of developmental courses but do so based on your data. For example, if you have a two-course sequence for supplemental instruction in college writing, and the data shows a high pass rate for the Level 1 course, this can tell you that speeding that sequence for certain students might be a win-win situation. (A low pass rate would tell you to focus attention instead on improving the Level 1 course.)

In that scenario, here are two experiments you could try:

  • Looking at your placement test, invite the students who scored in the top 25% of those students designated to the Level 1 course to enroll in the Level 2 course
  • If you are seeing that high pass rate at Level 1, integrate the Level 2 content into the Level 1 course and offer students the option of testing out of Level 2 at the end of the Level 1 course; if they complete the Level 1 requirements but are unable to pass at Level 2, they will simply move on to the next course in the sequence, but those able to pass at Level 2 after a single course will move on to register for degree-credit courses