California community colleges’ experiment with accelerated remediation: Maybe there’s more learning going on

February 10, 2014 at 1:54 am 5 comments

Remedial courses in higher-education are important to get right, for lots of reasons.  Certainly, that’s one of the big stumbling blocks in MOOCs — many people who start a MOOC aren’t prepared for that level material (or maybe, the MOOCs presume too much knowledge to start).  The CAITE alliance was able to improve diversity in Massachusetts’ universities, by improving the transfer from community college, but that path sometimes requires remedial courses.  If we could get remediation right, we might improve diversity, make distance learning more successful, and (as suggested below) improve graduation rates.

The story below is unusual: Make remediation better, by making it shorter.  A simple time-on-task model would suggest that there’s less being learned.  I hypothesize that it might be working (i.e., resulting in more learning), by looking at it from a different model.

At the Future Computer Science Research Summit in Orlando in early January, Nobel laureate Carl Wieman gave a talk where he referenced the famous Richard Hake 6000 subject study.  One of the results of that study is that traditional lecture only results in students learning about 30-40 percent of what was being taught, but with student engagement pedagogies, 60-80 percent is learned.

Note the word: engagement.  We can engage by using techniques like peer instruction.  I wonder if we can also engage by saying, “This required course will be made shorter.  You still need it to move on to something you want, but now, it’s less painful.”  Could that result in more learning?  Maybe that 30-40% becomes 50-60%?  So a reduction of a few weeks in time may actually result in equal or more learning?

Remedial courses are widely seen as one of the biggest stumbling blocks to improving college graduation rates, as few students who place into remediation ever earn a degree.

The problem is particularly severe for black and Hispanic students, who account for almost half of the California community college system’s total enrollment of 2.4 million.

More than 50 percent of black and Hispanic community college students place three or more levels below college mathematics, said Myra Snell, a math professor at Los Medanos College. And only 6 percent of those remedial students will complete a credit-bearing math course within three years of starting the first remedial course.

A key reason for abysmal pass rates is the length of remedial sequences, argue Snell and Katie Hern, an English instructor at Chabot College, which, like Los Medanos, is a two-year institution located in California.

“The lower down you start, the fewer students complete,” Hern said.

The two instructors decided to do something about the problem. In 2010 they founded the California Acceleration Project. Armed with research from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advanced of Teaching and the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, they encouraged their peers to offer shorter remedial sequences in math and English.

via California community colleges’ cautious experiment with accelerated remediation | Inside Higher Ed.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mike  |  February 10, 2014 at 2:23 am

    It seems like the Richard Hake study you mentioned showed that you can increase learning by having the students do something different on a minute-by-minute basis (more or less-active learning vs. lecturing). Doing the same thing (lecturing) but telling the students they’re going to shave off a couple of weeks doesn’t seem like it would make a big difference in cultivating long-term retention of knowledge / skill development.

    Reading through the article you’re referencing, it sounds like the “Path2Stats” succeeds by “preloading” the students with exactly what they need and only what they need for stats (and only stats). It sounds like shortens the time not by increasing their learning, but by reducing the amount of material they’re being asked to learn (the minimum necessary for stats).

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  February 10, 2014 at 9:30 am

      I’m drawing on Expectancy Value Motivational Theory which suggests that students do a cost-benefit analysis. Is the cost to me worth the benefit? Cost includes “Can I succeed at this?” and “Do I want to do this?”? Changing course length can influence student answers to those questions.

      • 3. Mike  |  February 10, 2014 at 1:51 pm

        Thanks for the link – it’s very helpful!

        I can see that decreasing the course length would reduce the cost, and thus increase overall motivation.
        I also wonder: if the teachers focused the algebra class on only those things the students will need during the stats class, does the perceived value go up (i.e., “I’m getting exactly what I need to be successful in the next class, so I better pay attention”), thus also increasing motivation?

        It would be fascinating to see someone try to tease out the relative importance of these various factors. I think it’s possible to design experiments that do this, although I’ve no idea how, personally.

        • 4. Mike  |  February 10, 2014 at 1:54 pm

          I suppose that if only having to learn the exact set of topics they need for stats was an important factor then that could bring up a discussion about the value of a Just-In-Time “training” model of education vs. Just-In-Case “breadth/liberal arts” model of education.

  • 5. Mike  |  February 10, 2014 at 2:24 am

    Also – my impression is that a lot of statistics classes tend to be driven by memorizing formulas (particularly for ‘stats for the masses’ classes). If their class is like that then I wonder if the 1 semester “preloader” class is enhancing results by improving study skills (perhaps unintentionally / as a side-effect) and then sending students to a memorization-heavy class.


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