Chronicle writes more about remedial classes


ICYMI, this is from the daily Chronicle Briefing (July 17):

Remedial educators debate reforms.
Since most students who start out in remedial classes drop out before graduation, should nearly all underprepared students be placed directly in college-level classes instead? Lawmakers in a growing number of states are requiring a shift in that direction because they see remedial classes — rather than shaky academic backgrounds — as the main barrier between students and graduation. That approach shortchanges a lot of students, according to many educators gathered this month at Appalachian State University, in North Carolina, where the latest flurry of reforms is being debated.

Educators attending the Kellogg Institute, an annual professional-development program in their field, point out that their students are more likely to be poor, first-generation, or a decade or more from the classroom. While many see promise in corequisite remediation — one of the hottest trends to hit their profession — some question whether struggling students could make it in a college-level class. While everyone wants a silver bullet, they suggest, a college that prides itself on open access might have to be open to a variety of approaches.



Thanks, Karen. The growing discussion on remediation (or as I prefer to call it, developmental education) is very welcome. Indeed, there’s pretty good data so far that placing students directly in college-level math - so long as they have appropriate supports (“co-requisite remediation”) - is better for most students than placing them in long developmental pathways. Even just shortening the developmental sequence to a single course is helpful, as long as it’s well aligned with the college-level course for which it’s a prerequisite. Several resources on this topic of accelerated remediation can be found here:



I agree that many students place in “remedial” or “developmental” classes have statistically poor prospects for finishing college. However, the suggestion of dropping these learners into for-credit courses smacks of magical thinking.

As a former dean for a degree-granting unit for returning adult students, a former Undergraduate Director in Math, and a professor who has taught many entry level courses, I have several comments to make that I hope are relevant.

  1. The remedial population is not homogeneous. The students returning to formal education after a gap of 5 years or more are quite different in life-experience, work-experience, and motivation from many 18-19 year olds. They may be intimidated by younger brasher fellow students, but they are more serious about learning if the courses respect their background and teach for understanding rather than rote skills. The younger students may resent the non-credit placement and attend to social life more than to studying - especially if they are taught by retired or moonlighting HS teachers who teach in the same ways that were not effective when those students were in HS.

  2. The instructional staff for remedial students needs lots of professional development to be willing to use more active-learning and less lecturing with drill and practice homework. This is especially true older students and students working part-time. They want to see the mathematics in engaging, accessible, and relevant contexts. They need coaching during class time - especially if they are unable or unlikely to attend office hours (assuming that the instructional staff even have offices and hold office hours in them). The Part-time-instructor teaching 2 courses at each of 2 or more institutions is not likely to have time, energy, or patience to be effective. The full-time instructional staff (off or on tenure track) is more available for professional development and for working toward the success of their students.

  3. Many students with non-academic indicators of academic risk ( central city or rural background, members of minority ethnic groups, offspring of parents who did not finish HS or college, individuals from households that do not speak English at home) need help and support learning what it means to study and to learn. The advice “study more” or “study harder” does not help without detail. And surely repeated references to the statistics showing failure and drop-out don’t help at all. Tossing this people into courses that don’t support their confidence or their competence may provide higher grades via the “soft bigotry of low expectations” – but that is not ethical in an educational institution.
    The mixture of direct instruction, active-learning, and effective coaching is necessary even if it is not cheap.

  4. I have just a tiny bit of experience with “co-requisite remediation”. I can work. BUT, it requires careful weekly coordination between the instructor(s) of the “remedial” course(s) and the instructor(s) of the for-credit courses. Otherwise the remediation in not just-in-time and begins to seem irrelevant to the learners and impossible to the teachers who start saying “I can teach anything to people who don’t know their arithmetic facts”. Very few jobs pay for the recitation of the times-tables! People learn best for understanding and for application what they need to use right away and repeatedly.



Especially in response to the last comment (by ACC), please know that I am not advocating for the views expressed in those articles, just thought I’d share. I DO NOT have much experience teaching developmental courses and what experience I have is very old. That said, I share your view that it might be “magical thinking” and very much agree with your point that there cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution for students who are not ready for college-credit bearing courses. Fixing the curriculum alone is also not going to work, as you are pointing out in #2 and #3.

Thanks for the good comments!



Certainly the benefits to acceleration are obvious. Institutions across the country often see a loss of 10%-20% of students initially identified as needing 2-3 remedial courses. They simply never enroll in a remedial course. Among those students who do enroll and succeed in a course, around 10% fail to enroll in the next course in the sequence. In the most recent 6 year cohort (students who started in 2009) of state level data on community colleges in California, over 60% of students who were initially placed two levels below college-level math failed to complete their transfer-level math because they failed to enroll at some point - not because they failed a course. Interviews with students suggest a variety of causes. Many community colleges students face other life challenges that make getting to school hard. Anything that stretches out the process makes the successful completion more difficult.

We also know that placement tests (particularly in settings that don’t sufficiently communicate the stakes associated with the assessment and don’t encourage student to study and practice beforehand) tend to place many students in courses lower than their actual ability. Several studies suggest that this under placement is particularly likely with students of color. Such placement policies exacerbate gaps in completion given the problems described above.

The work done in Tennessee and data made available from their statewide implementation suggests that corequisites (specifically when students are placed in the appropriate college-level math pathway course and given additional supports in keeping with their needs) can work for many students to produce a successful grade in the course. What this data also makes clear is that there are a substantial number of students for whom such a solution does not work. If colleges are able to accurately identify students unlikely to succeed in a corequisite setting, longer cohort models or other more intensive designs might have more success.

What we still do not know is how well students prepared through corequisite math courses perform in other general education or in upper division courses that require quantitative reasoning. As noted in the first paragraph, acceleration is likely to deliver a substantial improvement in success rates even if it delivers nothing in terms of improved math understanding. There are corequisite approaches that combine a traditional math course with a support course. There are other approaches that provide students with a substantially redesigned course designed to improve the math conceptual knowledge for at-risk students. Both will yield higher success rates than traditional remediation sequences. The former reflects business as usual, the latter requires substantial changes in material, classroom management, and pedagogy. There is no ready research that tells us if those differences matter.



Karen, For the many college students who are poorly prepared in math, I prefer to engage them in quantitative problem-solving by first using online tools that essentially do the math for them. For example, for mortgages (a very advanced topic for them), I let them use The trick is to gradually expose them to problems that they cannot do unless they have some conceptual understanding. So this involves some just-in-time learning or remediation. But the students are always motivated and grounded. It is like inquiry-based learning in that students are challenged to problem-solve on their own, except, unlike IBL, it is legal to use “cheating” tools like online mortgage calculators. In the end, the students learn more math going through this route, because they are engaged. Developmental math courses traditionally fail because it is hard to motivate the students when they don’t see the applications. And throwing the lowest students in college-level classes fails because the students aren’t ready and they aren’t sufficiently motivated to get up to code. Both of the latter approaches cause students to hate math even more and that is not good for our profession.



I was very much interested in the ideas and implementations of the co-requisite remediation plan. Unfortunately for many departments, those fortunately for Pearson, the materials actually used are proprietary and unavailable for free examination. Full disclosure - at least that is what I was told. Pearson’s performance on electronic high stakes testing seem not to have been altogether satisfactory - last I heard only 3 state still used them through the PARCC consortium.