Can Bite-Sized Courses Help More Students Complete Remedial Math?

Can Bite-Sized Courses Help More Students Complete Remedial Math?


Students in North Carolina and Virginia community colleges who started their fall semester have already knocked out credits for math and English and are moving onto their next classes. Both state systems have implemented a new approach to remedial education, breaking credits into bite-sized modules instead of semester-long courses.

Remedial classes that teach students what they should have learned in high school are often a barrier to graduation, especially at 2-year colleges. A minority of the students placed in these courses make it to college-level math—a requirement to graduate. By overhauling their developmental classes, North Carolina and Virginia community colleges hope to make it easier for students to make it all the way to the podium.

“We realized we were bringing lots of students in through front door with the best intentions in the world. But then very few of them were progressing and continuing through developmental ed and continuing through college-level programs,” says Sharon Morrissey, vice chancellor for academic research at Virginia’s Community Colleges.

The modularized programs in both states have received mixed feedback: Some students appreciate the shorter time to enroll in college courses, while others miss connections between topics across modules.

Rethinking remedial

Half a million high school graduates—or about one in four—show up on campus each fall unprepared for college-level math or English. In Virginia, only 33 percent of students make it to college-level courses. That means they don’t graduate—a problem that costs the nation anywhere from $1.5 to $7 billion annually, by various estimates.

In 2012 and 2013, North Carolina and Virginia independently rolled out redesigns of their remedial math and English programs. They broke semester-long courses—typically three to five credits—into four-week modules that count for one credit apiece. “Fractions and decimals” and “Rational expressions and equations” are each one module, for instance. North Carolina offers eight modules and Virginia has nine.

The goal for both states has been to accelerate student progress through developmental math requirements—ideally, allowing students to complete all credits in one year or less. It’s up to colleges to determine how they want to deliver course instruction.

Both states offer standalone courses (one credit each), or “shell courses” where students can take any of three modules. Many of the developmental math programs rely on software-mediated courses, specifically Pearson’s MyMathLab, Hawkes Learning, McGraw-Hill’s ALEKS and Carnegie’s Cognitive Tutor. The software allows students to complete work at their own pace—some students might have the same instructor overseeing their progress, but be working on different modules.

Many ways to the finish line

The Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Columbia University has been studying the outcomes of students in these modularized programs. Sue Bickerstaff, senior research associate at CCRC, says her team became interested in the work in North Carolina and Virginia because these states were among the first to completely overhaul their developmental programs at a state-wide level. “They were redesigning curriculum and course structures on a very large scale, rather than one college at a time, and that was interesting for us,” she says.

So far, CCRC has analyzed a dataset of more than 20,000 first-time college students who began in one of Virginia’s 23 community colleges in fall 2012. They’ve also interviewed hundreds of students and faculty in both states. In spring 2016, they released an early analysis of how the modularized program is working for students. While the researchers are still analyzing student outcomes, their qualitative analysis shows that modularized programs work better for some students than others.

In one student’s words, “The way it was done before, there was a possibility that I would have had to sit through a whole semester, and the first half of it was stuff that I [already knew], and would have had to go through that to get to the part that I needed.”

The modularization model works better for some students than others. “Modules work best for students who need a brush-up, but they don’t work well when you have to start at the beginning,” Morrissey says. In Virginia, 57 percent students who placed into higher-level modules (6-9) attempted college-level math by the next year. Of those who placed into lower levels (1-3), only 18 enrolled in college-level courses.

Bickerstaff and her colleagues are still analyzing student outcomes before and after the developmental math reforms in Virginia and North Carolina, and should release more findings later this year. “Developmental redesign has now become a national comm college priority,” she says, adding that many other states are testing additional ways to improve remedial education.

“I see our research in conversation with research on a variety of other ways of delivering developmental mathematics,” she says. For instance, the City University of New York (CUNY) enrolls underprepared students in college-level statistics with extra support—rather than placing them in developmental classes. Texas community colleges are rolling out “math pathways” that align to specific fields of study.

This fall nine Virginia community colleges will test out a co-requisite model, in which students enroll in remedial and college-level courses at the same time, according to Morrissey. She says in the future she thinks colleges will get better at placing students into courses, by using additional measures like high school GPA on top of assessment test scores.

“Students don’t come to college because they want to take remedial courses,” Morrissey says. “They want to get a job.”

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