Placing Students in Gateway Courses: A More Informed Approach

One of the most insidious, documented effects of the traditional pipeline of developmental courses on an incoming student is the fatigue of taking multiple non-credit courses (or, in some cases, being required to retake a non-credit course repeatedly). Tristan Denley, provost at Austin Peay State University, calls this course sequence the "slow death."

Your goal should be to move developmental students as quickly as possible into credit-bearing courses that count toward their academic degree or certificate. This shortens the time to graduation; it also builds a student's confidence and their sense of momentum toward their academic goals, increasing the likelihood that they will persist and succeed.

As you reconsider the sequence and design of your developmental education programming, also reconsider your approach to placement. Does the standard policy of placing students, on the basis of their high school transcripts, in specific levels of developmental coursework serve the student and your institution well—or are there more nuanced, effective approaches to placement?

Fast-Track Placement

Valencia College has revisited their placement criteria as a key part of their strategy to accelerate the progress of academically underprepared students. Reviewing standardized test scores for incoming students, Valencia identifies the top 25% of those students who would place in developmental education -- and moves those students instead into credit-bearing, first-year courses. VC identifies the top 25% of those students who would place in developmental education—and moves moves those students instead into credit-bearing, first-year courses. VC then provides supplemental workshops and peer mentors to assist these students in bridging the gap, and coaches faculty to teach study skills as part of the curriculum.

The Role of Non-Cognitive Assessments

What if you could predict, with greater accuracy, which academically underprepared students would be most likely to persist and thrive? And what if this factored into decisions on placement—rather than allowing placement to be a rote response to standardized test scores and high school GPA in certain key subjects?

After all, a student's ability to persist and succeed is not driven solely by their level of academic preparation. A student interested in a STEM major who performed well in high school but did not have the opportunity to take the necessary math courses may actually be prepared to catch up quickly, if you can identify that student, place the student more appropriately, and provide the necessary support.

Citing a 2004 meta-analysis, Paul Gore, the student success special projects coordinator at the University of Utah and the past director of the Career Transitions Research Department at ACT, notes six non-cognitive variables that appear to have the greatest impact on an institution's ability to identify those students who are likely to succeed and maintain momentum toward their degree. These are not the only non-cognitive variables that impact student success (for example, communication skills are also important), but these are the six variables that, when assessed together with other traditional, cognitive variables, offered an incremental increase in predictive accuracy.

These included:

  • Indicators of academic performance, such as academic engagement (the student’s diligence in their studies) and academic efficacy (the student’s confidence in their ability to complete academic milestones)
  • Indicators of academic persistence, such as educational commitment (the student’s motivation for achieving a degree) and educational engagement in extra-curricular activities
  • Indicators of emotional development and maturity, such as resilience in response to stress and comfort level in social settings

Gore recommends employing a non-cognitive assessment (of which there are many currently on the market) during the admissions process, to help predict which students possess the non-cognitive skills that drive student success.

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A Shift in Mindset: What Actually Needs to Be Remediated?

Besides reconsidering criteria for various levels of placement, it may be time to take a fresh look at which cases actually require developmental placement at all. Austin Peay State University has done some remarkable work in aligning the degree of developmental support required with the academic and career goals of the student.

"In the past, colleges and universities have looked at students entering with a deficiency and have focused on identifying what the student did not learn or perhaps forgot. Then they look backward and remediate that. What if we instead looked forward, and asked instead, "What does this student need in order to be successful?""
Martin Golson, Austin Peay State University

Golson believes this is a crucial difference. "Let's say we have a nursing student who has some deficiencies in intermediate algebra," Golson suggests. "Perhaps this student has real difficulties with imaginary numbers. But nurses never deal with imaginary numbers, either in their academic nursing program or in the field. So there is no need to remediate this. Why would we place that student in developmental math, when they could succeed as an excellent nurse, never having to work with imaginary numbers?"

Golson cautions that this isn't about defining higher education as job training. It's about identifying specific academic and career goals with incoming students, and then focusing on providing the education needed to help them achieve those goals. It's about reconsidering decades-old placement polices and defining clearly when remediation or developmental support is actually needed—and when it isn't, and for what reasons.