Supporting Students in Developmental Courses

by Maggie P. Fay

Nationwide, about 68% of incoming community college students are referred to developmental courses in math as a result of having been deemed not college ready based on placement test scores. Historically, at The City University of New York (CUNY), the number of entering freshman who start in developmental math is even higher: 74%. Students who begin college in developmental math have substantially worse odds of transferring to four-year colleges—or of earning a degree of any kind—than students who begin in college-level math courses. With no college credential, these students face a future of weak earning potential.

As a result of the growing awareness that developmental mathematics impedes student academic progress, CUNY, like many college systems around the country, is working to improve the entire developmental education ecosystem. It is making changes to how students are placed into developmental courses so that more can avoid the developmental quagmire altogether, and is reforming the courses themselves. This is in an effort to provide students with better experiences where they are able to learn more and become college ready efficiently, rather than getting stuck in these pre-college requirements.

With the support of Graduate NYC (GNYC), I conducted research at three CUNY community colleges during the fall semester of 2016 in order to better understand how colleges were making changes to developmental math courses and how these changes affected both students and faculty.

As a part of data collection, I interviewed 38 students enrolled in developmental math courses to learn about their experiences and identify factors that helped or hindered them in completing developmental mathematics. One striking point of interest that surfaced as a result of this work was the incredible grit and perseverance of developmental math students. Statistics regarding the large number of students who enter developmental education—and the few who emerge college-ready on the other side—are often underscored to attract public attention to failures of the educational system. However, what these statistics fail to show is that many developmental students continue to pursue their academic goals despite frustration with developmental courses and the challenging circumstances that they often experience outside of school. These students would appear to have every reason to abandon their college ambitions, yet they continue to strive toward them, fueled by the belief that a postsecondary credential can advance their standing in life. The resilience and perseverance of developmental students is a resource, which, if properly supported and encouraged, should help many more students complete developmental requirements and thus attain degrees.

In addition to the myriad efforts underway at CUNY to improve student outcomes in developmental education, I believe there are two additional things colleges can do to support developmental students:

1.  Help students identify developmental math courses that are the best “fit” for them.

As a result of ongoing reforms to developmental math courses, many CUNY community colleges now have extensive developmental course offerings for students to choose from, including co-requisite, quantitative reasoning, and immersion courses. A discouraging feature of past traditional systems of developmental education is that students lacked choices: a single type of developmental course was offered and mandated. This era of reforms has created opportunities for students to choose courses most suitable for their schedules, abilities, and learning styles if they have enough information to make informed decisions.

a.  It is important that students receive guidance from advisors and faculty about the key or reformed features of the courses that may impact their likelihood of success. For example, it would be important for students to understand:

  • The expectation for independent work outside of class time
  • The extent to which course grades are determined by tests and quizzes, as opposed to homework and participation in class
  • Whether there is a significant technological component to a course
  • Whether students are required to purchase costly access to software or texts;
  • Whether the course employs non-traditional teaching and learning methods
  • Course pass rates.

b.  It would be beneficial for developmental students to receive targeted intake advising during which advisors help them to:

  • Reflect on their math abilities
  • Consider factors that have helped or hindered them in past math classes
  • Take stock of academic and non-academic supports available to them
  • Evaluate their schedules and competing responsibilities to determine how much time they can reasonably devote to a developmental math course

2.  Avoid (repeated) failure.

Many of the students I met with had failed and repeated developmental math courses, and a few of them had repeated the same course three or more times. While these students display impressive perseverance, they require additional support in order to turn it into success. Research indicates that students who fail developmental math courses have lower odds of passing subsequent developmental math courses, and are at higher risk of dropping out of developmental sequences altogether. Preventing failure before it occurs would be ideal. However, for students who do fail and re-enroll, the developmental course options present an opportunity to guide repeaters into reformed course structures where they may be more successful. Support for repeaters would be most effective if it included advising that helped students to:

  • Reflect on their experiences
  • Identify the factors that they feel contributed to course failure
  • Make a plan of action for the next developmental math course