National trend: Universities begin dumping remedial courses

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Photo by Jason Reblando

Registration at Truman College

Students who must take remedial courses in college are less likely to earn a degree than their peers, national data show. But efforts to improve the way colleges teach these courses are “spotty” at best, says Matt Gandal, executive vice president of Achieve, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group founded by governors and business leaders to raise high school standards and better prepare students for post-secondary education.

Some 4-year institutions have stopped offering remedial classes, and some states have mandated that remedial coursework be offered only through community colleges. “The 4-years don’t want to teach it, and it’s cheaper for everybody to send them to the 2-years,” says Gandal.

Illinois is not jumping on the trend, however. There is no current discussion about removing remedial courses from 4-year state schools, “although the community colleges already do the bulk of remediation,” says Carol Lanning, senior director of program planning and accountability at the Illinois Community College Board.

UIC designs an alternative

At many colleges and universities, remedial courses are set up as large lecture-style classes designed to move rapidly through a sizeable amount of material in one semester. Students get limited opportunity to work in small groups with instructors to master the material.

In 1998, the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago began to consider how to improve the teaching of remedial math, a major stumbling block for students who had declared themselves pre-education majors. In particular, the college wanted to retain more minority students, to help alleviate the shortage of minority teachers.

UIC researchers Daniel Miltner and Joshua Radinsky found that nearly half of a group of 53 pre-education majors had placed into remedial math. Minority students and CPS graduates were even more likely to place in pre-college math. Miltner also studied pass rates in UIC’s two pre-college math classes over the course of three semesters and found that overall, around 40 percent of students failed the classes. (The researchers’ findings were outlined in a 2003 paper presented to the American Educational Research Association.)

Many students have “math anxiety” and a history of trouble with the subject, observes Miltner.

So he and Radinsky worked with Erick Smith, a professor in both the education and math departments, to develop an alternative course that would address the weaknesses in students’ math skills and increase their engagement in the material. Rather than the traditional lecture-style course, the alternative course uses a curriculum designed to help college students think through how they would teach their own elementary students to do math. Classes are project-oriented.

“The key factors, I think, are smaller class sizes, the ability to work closely with the students and to put mathematics into a context they’ll be dealing with later in their careers, instead of just a course they need to get through,” says Miltner.

Learning by teaching

That context made a big difference for Elena Ramirez, who graduated from Bogan High in 2002 and is now a junior majoring in elementary education at UIC. “I found I enjoyed math a lot more,” she says. “It was the material we studied and also learning how kids learn math. I just found it really interesting.”

Though Ramirez was among the first to take International Baccalaureate courses at Bogan and scored a 24 on the ACT, she took a less rigorous IB math class. That decision came back to haunt her when she took the UIC math placement test, she says. “I kind of scared myself,” she recalls. “When I went to take the test, they advised us, if you’re kind of iffy on doing some stuff, don’t do it. So when I got to the trigonometry, I didn’t even try a whole section. I think that brought [my score] down.”

Ramirez says the hands-on projects helped increase her interest and understanding. In one project, for instance, students went outside to calculate the height of a building by measuring its shadow. Having to think through how to teach children was another benefit. “The instructor would assign us a problem and we would have to present to the class how [we] would teach it,” she says.

Miltner and Radinsky found that, from 1999 through 2002, 91 percent of students who took the alternative course passed. The pass rate for those students in the subsequent higher-level math course required for their major was 78 percent.

Getting students to learn both college-level math skills as well as strategies for teaching grade-school math can be challenging, Miltner says. But the high rates of success in subsequent math courses have silenced concerns from math professors that the course might be too easy.

“It’s one of those big debates. I want to stretch them and have them do some things above and beyond what they will eventually teach,” he says. “But I also want them to do the math they’ll be using with the students. That’s what has the biggest effect on them.”

Shorter courses, consistent standards

Meanwhile, efforts to improve remedial math at UIC are just beginning to extend beyond the College of Education. This past summer, the math department piloted a shorter basic course during the summer term, so incoming students could save themselves a semester of remediation. “It’s a much better course, and it moved kids through much faster,” says Lon Kaufman, vice provost for undergraduate affairs.

City Colleges faculty say an effort now getting underway to streamline the remedial sequence in math would help students get into college-level courses faster. The initiative would combine the basic math class and an intermediate algebra class into one course that meets for a greater number of hours per week.

“If you shorten the remedial sequence and get them through it more rapidly, their chances of success are pretty good,” says Michael Schoop, vice president of academic affairs and student services.

But Schoop and others say the quality of teaching in remedial courses is uneven, since many classes are taught by part-time, adjunct faculty. “Our success depends on personnel. We have to do some professional development to change what happens there,” says Schoop. During the last few years, he adds, Truman instructors have built a bank of course objectives, basic assignments and sample tests to help adjunct instructors plan courses and maintain consistent standards.

Improving remedial education is an important key to retaining students and making sure they earn a degree, Schoop and others point out. Truman has begun to collect data on student attrition, and new software being installed throughout City Colleges should make the task easier.

“If you’re going to have attrition, [remedial courses] are where it’s going to happen,” Schoop says.

Truman College President Marguerite Boyd says remedial education is an essential part of the school’s mission. As for how to do it most effectively, she adds, “We don’t have all the answers yet.”