• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Fast Failure or Slow Success?

An unexpected benefit.


October 7, 2014

Last year we started a self-paced version of developmental math, in hopes of allowing students who can move faster than the standard developmental class to progress as quickly as their talent and drive will take them. The self-paced option is proving fairly popular, though it’s far too early to render any judgment on its relative success at this point.

In a conversation with one of the professors teaching it, though, I realized that the self-paced model may inadvertently bring up a truth that runs counter to its original intention.

The major goal of moving to a self-paced model is to allow some students to get out of the developmental sequence, and into classes that count towards graduation, more quickly. And it seems to work that way for the top echelon of students in the class. Others are moving along at pretty much the rate they otherwise would have, which is to be expected.

The real surprise hasn’t been the ones who’ve floored the accelerator. It’s the ones who ordinarily would have given up and walked away, who are slowly plugging along. Instead of “failing fast,” as silicon valley would have it, they’re succeeding slowly.

Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on your perspective.

From the perspective of a three-year graduation rate, it’s a bad thing. A student who takes “too long” to graduate shows up in our grad rate calculation as a dropout, even if she graduates the very next term.  If you’re trying to speed up completion, a bunch of students moving more slowly than a semester sequence would have looks awful.

But if you assume that most of those students would otherwise have flunked out or dropped out, and are now instead plugging along towards completion, then it looks like a roaring success. 

It’s far too early to know if that will actually happen, of course. But there’s reason for optimism.  In a self-paced class -- as opposed to a traditional one -- a student has to master each module on its own terms.  In a “standard” Basic Arithmetic class, a student could do well enough on integers and decimals to carry a weak performance in fractions.  Then that student’s weakness in fractions comes back to haunt her farther on in the sequence.  Since a self-paced course requires passing every subset of the course, she has to actually pass fractions to pass the class.  If all goes well, then, the usual pain points later in the sequence shouldn’t be as painful.

This perspective suggests some limits to the widely-held view that “time is the enemy.”  It’s clearly true that all else being equal, students who attend full-time graduate at higher rates than students who attend part-time.  It’s also true, unsurprisingly, that students who don’t need remediation graduate at higher rates than those who do.  The empirical support for clearing away unnecessary obstacles from students’ pathways is clear.

But if the choice is between fast failure and slow success, suddenly the issue changes.  Filling in the gaps from spotty and/or long-ago high school preparation isn’t necessarily the work of a few weeks.  Some students can blast through after a brief brush-up, and they absolutely should have that option.  But some need more time than that.  In a regular semester, they run out of time and walk away with nothing but a failing grade.  In this format, they can come back next time and pick up where they left off.  While the administrator in me sees how that can be problematic, the educator in me can’t help but like the idea of institutional patience with students who get off to a slow start.

Fail fast or succeed slowly?  I’m thinking “yes.”


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