Tuesday, July 8

Just Ramblin, No 8: Teaching and tutoring

Between munching on a handfuls of blueberries (one of the many reasons I love summer) and doing assorted paperwork, I decided to catch up on a bit of reading. I picked up the July 4 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education and noted a lead in the sidebar (though if it's at the bottom of the page and in the middle of the page, is it really a "sidebar"?) reading thus: "Extra Help Is No Help. Three studies say remedial college courses may have little effect." Um, duh.

The article by Peter Schmidt (available online only if you have a subscription) notes that "well over one-fourth of entering college students end up in remedial classes" (p. A18), which seems to indicate there has been something of a decrease over the years. Schmidt notes that each study examines remedial programs in different states. The Florida study compiled data on 100,000 community college students who were assigned to remedial classes because of their placement test scores. The Texas-based study considered data of 255,000 students who attended two-year public colleges and over 197,000 students who attende four-year public institutions while the third study "tracked the long-term progress of 28,000 students at two- and four-year public colleges in Ohio" (p. A18).

The results are mixed in that the studies seem to indicate, as noted, that there is no long-term benefit for students who take remedial courses. They accrue more credit hours, but remedial hours do not count towards graduation so they aren't getting too much for their tuition dollars if there isn't any measurable difference. Schmidt states that students who took a remedial reading class "were actually less likely to pass college-level English composition classes down the road" (p. A18). Yes, well, that's no surprise.

I got to teach Basic Math, the remedial math class my then institution offered. And I do mean "got" to teach because I learned so much from that experience! As a recovering mathphobic myself, I appreciated the students' consternation when confronted with fractions and mathematical operations. We found all sorts of ways to help students understand the intricacies of multiplying mixed fractions. And we found all sorts of ways to help students understand the complexities of working with decimals and percentages. I say "we" because I didn't do all of the work. Long before I knew of the TIMSS study or about constructivism or about lesson study concepts, by default I figured it made sense to give students some fundamental building blocks and then let them build their own processes. I was hanging around to suggest possibilities, to help them backtrack when they got stuck, and to provide some levity to the whole serious process. I should note that I had left my corporate job a year or so before I had to teach Basic Math and was just sort of figuring out how to do the teaching thing for my computer science classes, too.

Later in my teaching career I had to teach the remedial writing course. This was not as fun, which is odd because I love, love, LOVE teaching freshman writing. But I had trouble relating to these kids because reading and writing had never been hard for me. And I also had trouble finding any kind of building blocks because the difference between those students' reading and writing abilities and what I knew they had to be able to do for freshman writing let alone any other general education or majors course seemed a chasm impossible to bridge. And that was before I started working with ELL/ESL students who were having to take remedial courses.

What also doesn't make any sense to me is the nature of the restrictions for the remediated student while being remediated, at least in my experience at four-year public and private institutions. The students weren't allowed to take any more than 13 hours (12 is full-time), so they might have 6 hours of remediation courses and then another 6 hours of actual general education courses. So some ELL/ESL student who is taking reading and study skills as well as developmental writing might also be in, say, History of Civilization I. . . which has a LOT of reading. That kid is being set up to fail, which means that kid is going to have repeat that history course which means now there is added pressure to catch up, never mind graduate.

I appreciate the tasks of the admissions counselors who want to make sure the entering freshman class boasts a nice FTE, preferably greater than the preceding year's. But if students have to drop out because they are failing or are dropped because they are failing, then the attrition numbers are high for very unnecessary reasons. (I've often said to folks who may or may not be listening that though the freshman class size has a nice boast potential, what's far more important and indicative is the freshman-sophomore retention rate.)

It seems to me that it makes more sense to change the policy for students who require remediation, though that probably means making changes to financial aid regulations. So much for this idea, but here it is anyway.
  1. Be upfront with the students and their parent(s). Let the students know their scores are low and they will not be able to register full-time for their freshman year, perhaps only for the first semester of their freshman year. But the purpose is to make sure they can be successful in the following terms. If the student has a low score in math, the students takes the developmental or remedial math course and takes no more than 6 more hours of courses from a selected list of courses. Limit their exposure to the possibility of outright failure.
  2. Require a tutor or some sort of study hall for their remedial course(s).
  3. Make sure the tutor is well-trained and will work with the students to help them master the content with which they have difficulty.
  4. If they seem to have trouble passing the remedial course successfully, find an alternative path for them to demonstrate knowledge in that content area. Perhaps they know the material but just can't demonstrate what they know through the chosen assessment mechanism.
  5. If it is clear they cannot be successful in the remediated area and it is clear they will fail credited courses which means they won't be able to graduate, stop taking the student's money under false pretenses and counsel them to other options.
  6. Be honest about the limits of remediation, especially in writing.
  7. Make sure that quality tutoring is available to these (and all) students for the balance of their college experience.

I had plenty of students in my freshman writing classes who struggled to get to the minimum C- to pass the class. I had several who had to take the course over again. I heard from plenty of other faculty who wondered why I was incapable of teaching students to write specifically for their content area or their course and do so in 15 weeks, but that's a different topic.

I'm not surprised that remedial courses seem to have no long-term effect. I think it's likely they have little short-term effect. Depending on the structure of an institution's freshman year, especially for remediated students, what is supposed to help them be more successful is more likely to help them fail. And that's just wrong.

No comments: