Enhancing Rigor in Developmental Education
September 2013, Volume 16, Number 9
By Melissa Barragan and Maria Scott Cormier
High rates of remediation, low completion rates, and increasing demands for a skilled workforce have made developmental education reform a focus of many community college improvement efforts. The Community College Research Center, through our Scaling Innovation project, studied a range of colleges implementing innovative reforms. Data collected in the course of this research suggest that colleges must do more than revamp course content or course structures to improve student preparation and progression: Colleges must also increase the academic rigor of developmental coursework in order to cultivate in students the knowledge, skills, and habits necessary to sustain academic success.
Most developmental education coursework reteaches primary or secondary curricula, with a focus on developing discrete sub-skills. Instructors generally teach sentence, paragraph, and essay construction separately in writing courses and vocabulary, comprehension, and inference separately in reading courses. In math courses, students practice the steps for solving problems but rarely engage with the underlying mathematical concepts. Although widespread, these approaches do not appear to be generating strong and sustained learning outcomes. More rigorous approaches are needed to fully prepare developmental students for college-level courses.
Enhancing rigor in developmental education requires practitioners to rethink course content and instructional strategies in ways that promote high expectations, depth of understanding, and transfer of knowledge to new settings. These elements are reflected in challenging course content and tasks that require students to raise questions, reason, solve problems, communicate, and reflect upon their learning. Yet the developmental education context presents a distinct challenge for educators seeking to increase rigor: How can developmental instructors significantly raise standards when many of their students have substantial gaps in the knowledge and skills necessary for academic success?
This article focuses on three strategies that instructors are using in reformed developmental classrooms to implement and help students tackle a more challenging curriculum: aligning content with college-level course expectations; providing consistent opportunities for students to construct knowledge; and making productive struggle part of the learning process. These strategies work in tandem to increase rigor.
Aligning Content With College-Level Course Expectations
A primary strategy faculty members use to prepare students for the intellectual demands of college coursework is to better align developmental course content with college-level requirements. Faculty members at the Scaling Innovation partner colleges improved alignment by identifying the prerequisite knowledge and skills for subsequent courses; defining new learning outcomes for the developmental courses; and creating performance tasks designed to help students achieve these learning goals.
One college created a two-level sequence that integrates developmental reading and writing and engages students in activities and assignments that mirror college-level work. In the new sequence, students write full-length expository essays that summarize and critically respond to nonfiction texts. Instructors guide and assess students with the same grading rubric that is used in the college-level composition course, with the understanding that performance between the developmental and college levels will vary.
Faculty at this and other Scaling Innovation partner colleges report that students who took remedial courses aligned with the college-level expectations were equipped to undertake the reading and writing assignments in college-level courses. Though some faculty members expressed concern that students would be discouraged by more demanding requirements, we found that most students described increased motivation and engagement when assigned more challenging instructional activities.
Provide Consistent Opportunities for Students to Construct Knowledge
Another common approach to increasing rigor was to provide opportunities for students to construct knowledge in the classroom. Activities that encourage knowledge construction require students to actively build conceptual connections between texts, ideas, and experiences. In a number of the reformed classrooms we visited, students participated in interactive tasks that required them to reason, make predictions, consider implications, and develop new content-related questions.
For example, in one pre-statistics course, students were asked to respond to a series of questions about constructing an experiment. Students worked in small groups to identify confounding variables that might cloud the results of the experiment, and to explain how randomly assigning the subjects to experimental groups might control the impact of these variables. To interpret new concepts, such as randomization, students had to draw connections between information provided in a handout and knowledge from a previous lesson on confounding variables. The instructor facilitated this process by asking students pointed questions such as: "Did I randomly assign you to groups for the activity today? I asked you to count off from 1 to 7." Thus, instead of lecturing students about the meaning of randomization, the instructor allowed students to hypothesize and debate to achieve understanding of the concept.
As this activity demonstrates, knowledge construction requires that students use intuition and prior knowledge to understand concepts. Yet assignment prompts alone will not elicit these types of higher order skills; instructors must also utilize thoughtful scaffolding strategies to guide students through their thought processes and through the struggles they encounter.
Make Struggle a Part of the Learning Process
Faculty and students enter developmental education with entrenched expectations based on prior experiences. The more rigorous approaches we have described often depart significantly from these expectations, and therefore present challenges for both instructors and students. We found that many faculty members reverted to their customary (i.e., pre-reform, lecture-based) practices when they encountered challenges. Likewise, it took students time to adjust to expectations and assignments that required more active participation in their own learning.
At times, faculty found it was difficult to implement certain instructional strategies—such as allowing students to take the lead in class. However, faculty reported that they were better able to meet the day-to-day challenges of implementing pedagogical reforms when they could share their successes, failures, and lesson plans with colleagues who were similarly engaged. Targeted support and encouragement from reform leaders also helped mitigate faculty concerns.
Students were similarly unaccustomed to the greater demands being place on them in class. They acknowledged they had little experience actively participating in class, solving problems, or explaining their reasoning. Given their prior academic experiences, many also interpreted their struggles as a sign of academic weakness rather than a productive behavior demonstrating perseverance. To prepare students for more rigorous expectations, some faculty emphasized the idea that intelligence is not static but can grow through effort and hard work. Faculty also provided low-stakes assignments that gave students opportunities to demonstrate, reflect upon, and improve their learning (e.g., quick-writes, journals, and in-class quizzes). These assignments offered faculty varied opportunities to assess student learning, and conveyed to students that classroom activities were as much about the learning process as they were about gains in knowledge.
The Case for Enhanced Rigor in Developmental Education and Beyond
Increasing rigor in developmental classrooms challenges a broadly accepted notion that underprepared college students are unable to engage in complex learning tasks and meet high performance expectations. Community College Research Center researchers have found compelling evidence to the contrary: Not only are low-skilled students able to tackle complex learning tasks, but they report being more engaged and confident when classroom standards are higher. Moreover, preliminary internal analyses at several colleges indicate that students who complete rigorous courses persist and perform well in subsequent courses.
Because it is difficult to enact the pedagogical strategies outlined above, efforts to increase rigor must be accompanied by meaningful faculty development and supports for students. The benefits of investing in faculty and student supports cannot be overstated, since the lessons learned from enhancing rigor within developmental education can also be applied in efforts to improve teaching and learning throughout the community college.
This article is a compressed version of Inside Out, Volume 4, a periodic publication of the Scaling Innovation Project.
Melissa Barragan and Maria Scott Cormier are Scaling Innovation team members at the Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University.
Opinions expressed in Learning Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.