Four ways to redesign remedial courses and set students up for success

Revamping developmental classes improves student outcomes

Colleges and universities are experimenting with new models of developmental education to bolster retention rates and improve academic outcomes, Matt Zalaznick writes for University Business

Institutions are increasingly moving away from requiring students to complete remedial work before they earn credit and toward models that allow students to start taking credit-bearing college-level courses as soon as possible.

"Greater emphasis is now being placed on whether students enroll and complete credit-bearing courses," says Mary Fulton, a senior project manager and policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States. "This step forward is only going to continue, and probably will result in much more positive results."

Here are some of the ways that colleges and universities are revamping developmental education:

Co-requisite and modular courses

Students in co-requisite courses succeed in credit-bearing introductory courses more than 60% of the time, compared with a 22% pass rate for students in remedial courses, according to a report from Complete College America.

Students at Hillsborough Community College who fall short of college readiness on placement exams can take five-week modules to master basic skills, instead of undergoing an entire semester of remediation. Students work through the modules on a classroom computer while faculty monitor progress and help students when needed. 

Since co-requisite courses were introduced in West Virginia about a year ago, 62% of remedial math students passed college-level math in the first semester, according to Sarah Tucker, chancellor of the West Virginia Council for Community and Technical College Education. Previously, only 12% of remedial math students passed college-level courses.

Correct placement

Colleges are helping students better understand the importance of doing well on placement exams, with some allowing students to take exams multiple times to improve their scores.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign uses adaptive software to analyze students' test results and assigns additional work on problems students got incorrect. Students may take the test again before classes start, and can then be placed in math courses that best align with their skill level.

"Nonsuccess in the first math course tends to be the reason why students drop out of STEM majors and don't graduate," says Alison Ahlgren Reddy, director of the university's math placement program. "Appropriate placement into the first course results in success in the second course."

Alternatives to placement tests

Early-college high school programs

Other institutions find that preparing students for college-level work while they are still in high school gives them a leg up come the first semester of college.

At two of Atlanta's lowest-performing high schools, juniors and seniors take college-level classes alongside full-time students at Georgia State University. The courses provide students college credit that they can also apply to their high school diplomas. Since the program launched in 2005, the high school graduation rate for participating students has increased from about 50% to 90%.

How high school partnerships can become college enrollments

"It's counterintuitive that students would do better in college-level work than they would in high school classes, but they are doing much, much better in that setting than they were doing in the old high school model where they were surrounded by other students who haven't figured out how to succeed in school," says Vice Provost Timothy Renick.

Summer bridge programs

Taking immersive remedial courses during the summer before their first semester allows students to begin the fall in credit-bearing courses, and may also help them save money.  Remedial students at California State University, San Bernardino attend free mandatory courses called "Coyote First Step."

Students in the program live in residence halls at no cost. Dean of Students Alysson Satterlund says the experience helps students bond over a shared goal. 

Since its launch in 2015, more than 1,500 students have taken part in the program, with about 950 attaining college-readiness in math. Dean of Undergraduate Studies William Vanderburgh says students saved nearly $3 million on remedial courses they did not have to take.

The University of Texas at El Paso uses assessment tests to determine how much instruction a student needs over the summer to catch up during the school year. Though the university's UTEP PREP courses, students can take a condensed four-week course in a hybrid format (Zalaznick, University Business, accessed March 21). 

Don't rely on demographics alone. Find the students who actually need more support


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