Rethinking Remediation

Effective developmental education should be based on meeting students where they are and building on their strengths, writes Elaine P. Maimon.

January 24, 2018

A significant number of students who begin college with two to four semesters of required, noncredit remedial courses never make it to the first for-credit gateway course, according to Complete College America, but instead drop out. The situation is particularly discouraging for students who test on the cusp of moving into introductory for-credit courses. Many colleges are studying better ways to serve these students.

At Governors State University, we are focusing on corequisite remediation, infusing additional support into the first-year experience, rather than requiring that students take noncredit classes before enrolling in real courses. Much of what we do in developmental education is based on common sense and experience. Faculty members are committed to meeting students where they are.

That sounds like a simple mantra, but it is actually highly complex. How do we gain knowledge of where students are so that we can meet them there? The first step depends on educating our own imaginations. In his novel Hard Times, Charles Dickens warned 19th-century educators not to view students as empty vessels, waiting to be filled with facts. Yet professors, especially those in developmental courses, may unconsciously adhere to that false metaphor. Or, even worse, they imagine that the students’ heads are filled with all the wrong things -- junk that must be expurgated.

We use a strength-based model of instruction at our institution. During the first week of this year’s Smart Start summer developmental program in writing and math, I was deeply gratified when I visited a writing class and asked students how things were going. Several hands went up (in itself a happy surprise). The student I called on said (with a degree of enthusiasm not frequently exhibited by students required to end their summer early for two intensive weeks of developmental work), “This class is great because my professor is showing me that I know things.” And that’s the essence of meeting students where they are and of the strength-based model.

Common-Sense Principles

At our university, one of the common-sense principles that we apply to both developmental and gateway courses is that students should learn to write by writing. From our Smart Start program through first-year writing and beyond, students are actually writing, revising, rewriting, editing and, most important, reading and rereading what they have written. Critical reading of one’s own early drafts is one of the skills that are truly basic to learning to write. Our instructors are intentional about teaching this fundamental practice.

In writing instruction, student and teacher often engage in a tacit contest over responsibility for the text. Students want to get the assignment, for good or ill (usually ill), on the instructor’s desk as soon as possible, leading to the submission of unread prose. The instructor, dedicated to student development in writing, too often accepts responsibility as the student’s proofreader, editor or even co-author.

Yet the essence of successful writing instruction is to perfect the role of teacher -- one who instills in students responsibility for their own work. Doing so is a challenging task. It’s human nature to want to be done with a difficult project. I recall my own experience in writing a chapter for publication in a book edited by a superb editor. He kept sending the chapter back to me, always with excellent suggestions for revision. Finally, I said to him outright that I no longer wanted the chapter to be better -- I simply wanted it to be done. If an experienced and confident writer can react in that childish way, how much more must we have patience with novice writers who simply want to be done?

We also provide incentives at our institution for our students’ first writing assignment, a literacy autobiography. Students are asked to write profiles of themselves as writers and readers. This assignment is an excellent way for instructors to know where students are so that they can meet them there. The assignment also encourages reflection on the initial narration. Students revise the assignment throughout the academic year and, in the second semester, can submit final versions for monetary awards.

My husband and I personally fund those awards, because we believe so much in the process. From a presidential perspective, I also regard this support as my microphone to communicate the importance of first-year writing. The heavily revised literacy autobiography gives form to the concept of meeting students where they are and challenging them to move forward.

To encourage sympathy for the novice, I also have a general recommendation for all instructors: periodically, try to learn something that you have no natural aptitude for. For me that something was always easy to find because I have no propensity for anything athletic. My eighth-grade gym instructor required what looked to me to be contortions on the rings, ropes and stall bars. I tried and tried, even arriving at school to practice in the early morning hours before my regular class schedule, but to no avail. The gym instructor gave me a D, keeping me off the distinguished honor roll -- something that still stings decades later.

But even that did not deter me from trying to participate in sports. As an adult teaching college composition, I tried to learn to ski. My friends skied frequently in Killington, Vt., and I wanted to be in the party. I opted for private lessons with Sven the expert Killington ski instructor. I realized that I had to tell him up front that he would have to show me how to do things that he never thought he would have to explain to a functioning adult. He was not a good teacher. But his sneering attitude taught me an important lesson about my own teaching of composition: don’t judge students who have to struggle to learn what comes easily to you. Frequent lessons in humility and empathy would improve not only ski instruction but also remedial/developmental education.

Another common-sense element in successful remediation is to avoid making students feel stupid -- and that doesn’t involve coddling them. Instructors are proud of their own fluency and may be tempted to model their expertise to impress students. I recall the classic story about the 19th-century woman who met with the two great British prime ministers Gladstone and Disraeli. She commented that her meeting with Gladstone led her to believe that she had just met the smartest person on earth. Her meeting with Disraeli, however, made her think that she herself was an intelligent and interesting person. Students learn more from Disraeli-like instructors than they do from the Gladstone type.

Redesigning Math Pathways

When it comes to remediation in math, figuring out the appropriate requirement for students is crucial. Gearing math requirements to students’ general career directions, called metamajors by Complete College America, would remove significant barriers to student success, while providing rigorous preparation in mathematical thinking that was actually relevant to students’ future achievements.

For example, research conducted at the City University of New York demonstrates significantly higher success rates for “remedial” students following a statistics pathway rather than those assigned to the traditional route to calculus through intermediate algebra. It’s interesting to note that a number of scientific fields do not require calculus.

Reform in math pathways should begin in high school. Across the country, 11th graders who don’t do well in intermediate algebra are told that they are not college material. Many high-stakes math tests focus on concepts in intermediate algebra, creating insurmountable barriers for students who might be on track for success in the majority of leadership careers that require statistics rather than algebra.

Many states that endorse core courses for transfer to any college or university already build in a choice between the calculus pathway and the statistics pathway. At Governors State, students in two of our three freshman learning communities take statistics, and those in the third take precalculus. We advise students accordingly and send them on, in the words of Uri Treisman, a professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at Austin, the “stat-way to heaven” -- or at least on the road to a leadership career.

Teaching to Strengths

Instructors in developmental courses must also exercise a high level of analysis to identify and motivate students to build on their strengths. That’s easier said than done: it’s far more difficult to identify and articulate what someone is doing right than to point out what is going wrong.

Yet research by Shaun Harper, executive director of the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center, as well as the Gallup organization, bears out the importance of this approach. Harper studied programs in operation from 1997 to 2012 designed specifically to improve the college performance of African-American men and found vast differences between “intended” and “actual” effects. In Men of Color in Higher Education, he argues that the “near exclusive focus on problems … inadvertently reinforced a hopeless, deficit-oriented narrative.” He calls for detailed studies of the one-third of black men who did complete college rather than dwelling on the two-thirds who did not.

Harper calls for meaningfully engaging black undergraduate men “as collaborators and … experts in designing, implementing and assessing campus initiatives.” The most important point in his research is that “fixing the student” does not work. Instead we must look at transforming universities so that students will have a better chance of succeeding.

In fact, extensive research by Gallup demonstrates that the strength model is effective at institutions of all types for all students, from those in developmental courses to those in honors sections. The 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index Report, “Great Jobs, Great Lives,” studied more than 30,000 college graduates across America. One indicator of success is college completion, so studying graduates is a starting point in discovering the strengths that led them to succeed.

It’s important to note that Gallup and Purdue avoided simplistic and misleading measures of success -- for example, salaries for first jobs. Instead, they “created an index that examines long-term success of graduates as they pursue a good job and a better life.” Great Jobs, Great Lives elaborates: “For example, if graduates had a professor who cared about them as a person, made them excited about learning, and encouraged them to pursue their dreams, their odds of being engaged at work more than doubled, as did their odds of thriving in their well-being.”

Gallup invites “a national dialogue on improving the college experience,” with professors making assignments that build on students’ strengths and encourage real-life applications of classroom learning.

All this is why, from the beginning of their college experience at Governors State, students become part of a community focused on what is right with them rather than what is wrong. In addition to courses in writing and/or in math, the Smart Start program requires students to take a one-credit course, Mastering College, which guides each one through the Clifton StrengthsFinder and uses StrengthsQuest as a program guide.

All freshmen also benefit from teams of advisers and counselors. Peer mentors, cohort advisers, career specialists, writing consultants, library liaisons, digital learning experts, psychological counselors and faculty members from the Center for the Junior Year are assigned to each freshman/sophomore cohort. The idea is to integrate support into every student’s experience rather than sending “deficient” students to special treatment centers to cure their difficulties. The clear message is that asking for help is not a display of weakness, exposing students’ deficits, but instead a mature approach to learning and growing. Active engagement with the support teams builds on students’ strengths.

Our ACHIEVE Program is open to all freshmen but mandatory for students requiring special support. This corequisite remediation offers tutoring sessions for English and math. Faculty members track student progress through monitoring attendance, attitude and participation. Midterm grades provide an early-warning system.

These academic measures are complemented by a full-scale, intentional commitment in student life to the strengths-based model. Talking circles and leadership seminars are available to the student body in general and also to segmented groups, respecting the idea that in some instances women, men, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community may find it easier to discover and capitalize on their strengths in confidential, protected conversations.

Focusing on students’ strengths does not involve spoon-feeding, condescension or false praise for trivial accomplishments. It’s difficult. It’s revolutionary. But it is necessary.

Finally, while we are willing at Governors State to do everything possible to accelerate preparation for college success, we realize that some students may need more time and attention than we can provide. We must admit that we have not come up with approaches for students with deeper developmental needs. Instead, we recommend that they go elsewhere -- and they unfortunately may wind up going nowhere.

Thus, looking ahead, more research, especially cross-disciplinary research, is necessary. For example, how might we apply the findings of neuroscience to learning in general and to remediation in particular? Also, we know that we are teaching students who have experienced homelessness, violence and other traumas. How do we tailor remediation under these circumstances to help traumatized students address academic challenges? We offer small grants to faculty members willing to research such issues, and the educational world needs large-scale investment in cross-disciplinary scholarship and research teams. But the first steps are to have the vision and courage to rethink remediation.

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Elaine P. Maimon is president of Governors State University. This essay was adapted from her new book, Leading Academic Change: Vision, Strategy, Transformation (Stylus Publishing, 2018).


Elaine P. Maimon

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