Adult learners at open-enrollment institutions often arrive lacking basic college readiness. They may have been out of school for many years, so their academic skills may be rusty, or they may simply have failed to acquire a sufficient degree of knowledge in core subjects during previous schooling. As a result, they are not ready to enroll in college-level courses.
This is the case for the majority of students who attend Cerritos College in California. The institution assesses about 7,000 incoming students each year in the areas of math, reading and English, and the majority fall below college levels. However, students tend to be most deficient in the area of math. In fact, many students lacked even basic arithmetic skills, placing three to four levels below basic college-level math.
As a result, many students had to take numerous remedial math courses before they could enroll in college-level math classes. And because of the high number of students needing math remediation, there were often insufficient sections of those courses to meet the demand. After struggling to get into those courses and spending semesters doing work that didn’t count toward their programs of study, many got discouraged and dropped out.
Graciela Vasquez, the director of adult education and diversity programs; and Norberto Nuñez and Scott Mackay, two instructors in the division, spoke at this year’s American Association of Community Colleges conference, explaining how they tackled the problem. If you offer developmental courses, their strategy could help you boost success rates in those classes, helping students progress into for-credit classes faster.
Traditionally, the college offered students needing math remediation semester-long lecture courses through the math department based on how they did in a placement exam.
Although they were developmental courses, they still counted toward students’ financial aid caps, slowing their progress on college-level courses in other subject areas. Students were also required to enroll in a concurrent study skills course. A close tie between those courses and the Success Center and participation in learning communities helped students along, but not at the rate or with the level of success administrators wanted.
“Many students were still not reaching the college level,” Vasquez said.
Today, remedial math courses look a lot different. For one, they were moved out of the math department and into the noncredit side of the house. That made sense because the classes now don’t count toward students’ financial aid caps. Plus, students pay only a lab fee of $40 per course. And no record of the courses goes on their official transcripts.
To address the cost of materials, an open-source textbook was created by a Cerritos instructor and is made available in electronic format.
The courses are also no longer just lecture-based. Rather, they are hybrid courses that still contain a traditional lecture component, but also include lab work. The study skills support is integrated, so there’s no need for the concurrent class that students previously had to take. And the labs are conducted with direct support from the Success Center, so students now become familiarized with the center and its services by mere virtue of being in a remedial course.
Classes run for six-, nine- and 12-week sessions, so students can progress through them faster and choose whatever option fits their needs best. Plus, that leaves plenty of time before the end of the semester for students to register for the next remedial course they need, avoiding a mad grab for available spots in the limited number of course sections.
The lab portion of the course is unique in that each student is assigned modules that are individually tailored to address their specific skill gaps identified in their placement test. The modules can be completed at students’ individual pace. That’s critical because for students placing in the lowest level of remedial math, there’s no bottom, so students come with a wide range of skills and gaps.
“Some of these are students who graduated high school but are, at best, only able to do middle school math,” Nuñez said.
Students work on the modules during lab times so they can get immediate help from instructors when they run into problems. But they can also use the Success Center to work on the material independently and access tutoring help as needed. The center is open for 12 hours a day, five days a week. Additionally, students may access the online content 24/7 from any computer, so they can work through modules and practice their math skills from home whenever they want.
The modules, which are part of Pearson’s MyFoundationsLab®, provide students with an easy way to contact instructors for help without exiting the program. It also provides positive reinforcement as students move through the material. Yellow stars signify completed sections, while pencil icons next to modules in a list signify that those modules still need to be completed.
An orientation is offered at the beginning of the courses to get students acquainted with the program, but Nuñez noted that it’s very easy to maneuver, and students usually figure it out very quickly.
Students are graded on a pass/no-pass system. Instead of a final exam at the end of the course, they retake the math placement test. That easily shows their increase in knowledge from their first attempts at the placement exam and determines what their following course should be.
The online lab offers students a skills check, so students can see exactly what areas they could use some additional practice in. That’s key to preparing them to retake the placement test. Post-tests also let students prepare to master the placement exam.
The new model was piloted in the fall of 2012. Surprisingly, many students began placing two to three levels higher.
“Not all students need the entire term to build up their skills to the next level, so instructors could assign modules covering material from the next class up,” Mackay explained.
In fact, among the 318 students enrolled in the lowest developmental courses in the fall of 2013, 100 percent demonstrated significant improvement; 73 percent moved up one or more levels; and of those that moved up one or more levels, nearly half moved up two levels after retaking the placement test.
What’s more, 90 percent of students found the online lab easy to use; 82 percent reported satisfaction with their level of progress; and 88 percent said they would recommend the course to others.
“Students become more self-confident and motivated,” Vasquez said. “As they see their improvement in the placement test, they begin saying, ‘I can do this.’”
Revamping remedial courses required collaboration across institution
Moving developmental math courses from the math department to the noncredit division seemed at first counterintuitive to some faculty and administrators at Cerritos College. But the move has drastically increased student success and motivation, by helping students avoid premature caps on their financial aid awards, allowing them various accelerated term options, and keeping developmental courses from showing up on transcripts.
If you’re looking for ways to more closely marry your institution’s noncredit unit to your credit-bearing, adult-oriented programs, this could be a model worth emulating.
“It’s a very collaboration-dependent program,” Vasquez said.
For one, the math department had to be persuaded to give up control of the courses to the noncredit division. Today, some of the instructors still come from the math department, while others come from the noncredit division, but the courses are offered through the noncredit unit.
A test run in the fall of 2012 helped allay fears of moving the program to the noncredit side of the house, because student success in the placement tests soared after participating in the redesigned courses. The key, according to the presenters, is showing how making developmental courses true noncredit offerings helps students in need of remediation move to credit-bearing courses faster and more successfully.
The collaborations don’t end there. For example, the Adult Education and Diversity Programs division is responsible for dealing with scheduling and registration, providing instructors, conducting student outreach, and maintaining the online lab.
Meanwhile, the college’s Success Center provides staff support for labs, including tutors; provides faculty training; and tracks students’ lab hours. And the assessment office conducts outreach and referrals and administers placement tests for students retaking the exams after finishing the remedial courses.
For more information, you may contact Graciela Vasquez at firstname.lastname@example.org, Norberto Nuñez at email@example.com, and Scott Mackay at firstname.lastname@example.org.