Spotlight on Innovation: A New Take on Developmental Education at Gateway Community and Technical College

students laughing while using computers


The US Department of Education has awarded multi-million dollar “First in the World” grants to 24 colleges and universities that are innovating to solve critical challenges with access, recruitment, retention, and student success. At AI, we have interviewed each of the recipients to learn more about the projects these institutions are pursuing, how their approaches are unique, and what other colleges and universities can learn from these new efforts.

There has been no shortage of research documenting the extent to which developmental education courses under-serve academically under-prepared students; traditional dev-ed curriculums typically award no college credit yet cost students time and money, while showing dismal persistence rates. In the past couple of years, we have seen a number of colleges and universities undertake innovative and impactful reforms of their developmental education.

Gateway Community and Technical College in Florence, KY, is currently engaging in such a reform through its Flexible Learning and Exploration space (FLEXspace) project, which is funded by a $3.4 million First in the World grant.

We reached out to Kristen Smitherman, project director; Kerri McKenna, division chair of developmental education and orientation and assistant professor of developmental writing; and Doug Penix, director of learning environments, to learn more about Gateway’s new plan for improving retention and completion rates among populations with at least one developmental need.

Gateway’s FLEXspace is a three-pronged revision of developmental support:

  1. Redesign of developmental education programs
  2. Establishing active learning environments
  3. Establishing an Information Commons as a one-stop shop for both academic and non-academic support services

1. Redesigning Developmental Education

Gateway had already begun working on developmental education redesign before receiving the grant, and their early results show some success. This fall, the community college paired a developmental course with a credit course to allow students to acquire college credit and save a semester’s worth of tuition and time, McKenna explains. Students who used to test into a developmental writing class, for example, now go directly to English 101 but are also required to take a two-hour support course that functions as a writing lab.

Gateway is using a similar approach with its developmental reading and math courses:

  • Developmental reading is now paired with a general education survey course (such as Introduction to Psychology), and everything is contextualized to the paired gen-ed course.
  • Students who previously tested into Gateway’s lowest developmental math course of the three Gateway offered now take the intermediate developmental course with a two-hour support class, shortening their time in remediation from three semesters to two.
  • Students who test into higher levels of math accelerate in a similar fashion, based on the degree they are seeking. Associate of Arts students who test into the middle developmental math course go directly into a contextualized math course with a two-hour support class. Associate of Science students who test into the middle level take the contextualized math course with support for credit and then take college algebra their next semester. Students who test into the highest developmental math level go directly into the credit course with a two-hour supplemental course.

The results
Preliminary data suggests the approach is working. The previous passing rate for the developmental reading course had been 72 percent, but this fall Gateway saw that rate jump to nearly 76 percent. In addition, 98 percent of the students who passed the redesigned reading course also passed the paired gen-ed class, and the vast majority passed the classes with the same grade or a one-letter grade difference, McKenna notes. Math also saw a slight increase in passing rates.
Want to see more approaches to developmental education redesign?
In 2013, Academic Impressions released a report interviewing academic leaders at two-year and four-year institutions that offer effective alternative approaches to traditional developmental education. These institutions have seen significant gains in retention and completion rates. Learn more from their example in our free report.

2. Active Learning Environments

The second component of FLEXspace involves establishing active learning spaces, Smitherman explains. This requires focusing on both the physical spaces and the tools, professional development and coaching that faculty need to support active learning pedagogy.

Active learning spaces
Gateway has partnered with Steelcase Education Solutions to equip classrooms with equipment and furniture that encourage student interaction. “We don’t necessarily want to have a cookie-cutter approach to every room, but we also want to keep in mind that we want things to be familiar for the faculty as well as the students,” explains Penix.

Together, Gateway and Steelcase have designed three types of active learning rooms:

  • The LearnLab features four large tables in an X configuration. Each student is issued a tablet and everything connects to displays at each table.
  • The Verb Classroom, in which each student uses a personal whiteboard and tables and chairs are all on wheels so the classroom can be easily reconfigured at any time to promote interaction.
  • The Node Classroom uses individual desks on wheels that also can be easily reconfigured at any time during the class session.

Both the Verb and Node classrooms will also be equipped with a touch-sensitive projector and large whiteboards throughout the room.

Active learning pedagogies
To prepare for the new learning environments, faculty who teach in these rooms will participate in 24 one-hour sessions in the Gateway Active Learning Institute’s series of active learning workshops. McKenna explains: “The first semester is about opening up their way of thinking in terms of teaching and their role in a classroom. The second semester is about how to design a class using an active learning approach to create an active learning classroom.”

Six cross-disciplinary faculty members will be trained as coaches each year during the grant’s duration, and these coaches will then be assigned to provide personalized feedback to faculty working in the new learning spaces.

3. Gateway’s One-Stop Shop: The Information Commons

Gateway also intends to support students through an Information Commons, which will be Gateway’s one-stop shop for support services. “Our hope is that the Information Commons will combine both non-academic, barrier-related services as well as the academic,” Smitherman notes. The intent is to include the library, technical/information literacy, tutoring, and a centralized directory service of student-centered information. Ideally, the Information Commons would also provide spaces for individual study, small group work and a place for large teams to meet.

Keys to the Success of this Effort

Successfully navigating change management will be critical for success, Smitherman advises. “It’s a very large project that we’re doing. and it’s going to impact pretty much everyone,” she explains. FLEXspace has the president’s full support, which will help.

Making their vision of the Information Commons a reality will also be essential to the project’s success. Penix notes that the space needs to be both physical and virtual — because a number of Gateway’s classes take classes online. That, as well as the scope of services to be integrated, will be a challenge. “We have not found any significant models,” Penix remarks, “that actually include both the non-academic and academic support into a one-stop shop approach. It’s challenging as well as exciting because we really can pull this off.”

Why You Should Watch this Project

Gateway faculty are already excited about the classrooms and changes made possible by the grant. “Just seeing the excitement on the campus already about what’s to come is encouraging,” Smitherman notes. The project’s focus on active learning through both classroom space and faculty development could eventually change the way that many classes are taught at Gateway. The institution’s preliminary results are encouraging, and we will be excited to watch FLEXspace develop.