Replicating Success

March 30, 2010

BALTIMORE -- You have three sealed boxes of fruit: one of apples, one of oranges and one a mix of the two. You have labeled the boxes. But someone switches the labels so that they are all incorrect. How can you relabel the boxes correctly by opening just one box and pulling out just one piece of fruit?

Katrina Nichols, a mathematics instructor at Delta College, in Michigan, used that problem to turn the audience here, at the annual meeting of the League for Innovation in the Community College, into a classroom. First she had attendees think about the problem as individuals. Then she had them talk in small groups. Then, when someone guessed the answer, she had three people stand holding signs representing the (incorrect) labels and followed the sequence of the audience suggestion (start with a piece of fruit from the box incorrectly labeled mixed), with the three people ending up holding their incorrect labels and their correct ones.

The idea was not to inject a mind-teaser into the meeting of community college educators, but to demonstrate a teaching technique. Nichols is among 26 community college faculty members who have been identified as having had uncommon success in helping remedial students become ready for college-level work. The Global Skills for College Completion project, financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is bringing these faculty members together -- largely virtually, but sometimes in person, to see why they succeed with students whom others are not reaching.

Nichols places an emphasis on constantly changing the mode of learning, but avoiding lecturing. For that one exercise, she mixed individual and group work, used in-person visual cues, and encouraged competition in the class. And she added to that by having students write a short essay that night about how they figured out the answer (or why they didn't). Further, because she eavesdrops on the groups or asks them to demonstrate their thinking on the chalkboard (she spared the audience here), she gets to see how students' minds are grappling with the problem.

That's working for her. The idea behind this program is that, maybe, her techniques need to be adopted by others. "We want to create a community of knowledge," said Marisa A. Klages, an associate professor of English at LaGuardia Community College of the City University of New York and the project director. (Gail Mellow, LaGuardia's president, is one of the principal investigators for the project.)

Klages explained that many colleges know that one professor or another has a much higher success rate than others with remedial students. Given that the overall rates of success are terribly low, many efforts at improving remedial education are focused on developing entirely new approaches. This project assumes that there are some great ideas in classrooms today, but they need to be studied -- and then replicated.

Rosemary Arca, an English instructor at Foothill College, demonstrated the way she teaches students to use context to figure out the meanings of words without looking them up. While of course students need to use dictionaries, she talked about the importance of their being able to decode language themselves while reading. Her technique involves giving students sentences with nonsense words substituting for real ones and asking them to define the made-up word using the context provided by surrounding words. Her example: "Rob got into his fifle and gunned the motor." She talks with students about how they figure out what "fifle" is, and this allows them to use the same techniques with more difficult vocabulary.

The Global Skills project is more than just trading success stories. Klages said that the instructors are sharing their lesson plans, being videotaped in class, and asking one another questions about why they do things the way they do -- and they are being encouraged to experiment. Where successful techniques are documented, the instructors then figure out whether there are particular qualities about anything to do with the course that would be necessary for the success to be replicated. For example, Nichols said that many of her ideas require a room full of chalkboards or whiteboards. These issues need to be documented too, so that at some point in the future, there is a map for those who want to try these techniques.

The process started with Mellow, the LaGuardia president, and officials of the League for Innovation selecting community colleges with some success in remedial education. Then presidents nominated instructors, who had to be in the top 10 percent of all instructors in the success rates for students at their institutions. To participate in the effort, college presidents also had to pledge the help of their institutional research divisions, which have agreed to conduct research on the various instructors.

Those selected come from a range of institutions, urban and rural, large and small, with diverse student bodies. Those selected in mathematics generally are getting about half of their students ready for college-level work, while those in English are getting 60-70 percent ready. Those numbers may seem low, but they represent astronomical levels of success compared to most remedial programs, many of which may have only single-digit success rates.

The goal of the program is to achieve pass rates of 80 percent. So even as these instructors are held up as models, the idea is that they too can improve, by refining their strategies and learning from one another.

And while the overall goal of the project is to document strategies that work, and "bring them to scale," Klages said, there is also an important goal on a personal level for those who teach remedial students. She said that too many colleges don't involve these faculty members in the kind of professional development other professors value -- and that the kind of collaboration this project encourages is broadly needed.

"Basic skills practitioners feel woefully isolated," she said. "They are ghettoized in the English or math departments or they are in a basic skills department that everyone ignores. We need to bring them together and listen."

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