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The Human Side of Higher Education

AUDIO | The Human Side of Higher Education
Non-traditional students in remedial programs can typically succeed in their introductory programs if their instructors see and treat them as human beings, rather than as automaton students.

The following interview is with Peter Adams, director of the Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) at the Community College of Baltimore County. The ALP is focused on improving introductory and remedial-level education for students, especially non-traditional students, looking to earn a higher education credential. In this interview, Adams discusses the ins and outs of the program and shares his thoughts on how it could be further improved.

1. What are the most significant problems with remedial higher education, especially when it comes to adult students?

Well, the immediate problem is it isn’t working very well. And, generally, in studies that have been done … all over the country as well as studies we’ve done here at my community college in Baltimore, we consistently find that, of people who are placed in developmental courses, only something like a third of them ever pass the credit course for which they are being prepared. That’s very disappointing and that’s the problem we need to address.

There’s a second thing we’ve learned in the last two years and that is … the major reason that such a high percentage of students are unsuccessful in their programs has nothing to do with their [academic] ability and everything to do with the rest of their lives. They get evicted from their apartment, their children get sick and they have trouble finding health insurance, they lose their jobs or they get promoted to a full-time job.

And, then, some of the causes are more internal. Lots and lots of my students at one point or another express the idea they’re not sure they’re “college material.” I always wondered, “Who ever taught them that phrase?” If they didn’t know that, the doubt wouldn’t have entered their minds. But the doubt is there and it’s especially there for non-traditional students who have been out of school for a few years and may wonder whether they really can get caught back up, since it’s just been a number of years since they were last in the educational system.

So, that’s the problem we’re trying to address, is the low success rates for our developmental programs and we think that the majority — the largest part — of the cause of those low success rates is what we’re calling “non-cognitive issues,” issues having to do either with the students’ psyches or to do with the complications of their lives.

2. Could you share some thoughts on how the program helped students overcome the roadblocks presented by remedial programming?

Traditionally, students who are required to take a developmental program have to pass the developmental course before they can take the credit course. And this is true whether it’s in math or in reading or in English. I happen to be in English, so most of my examples will be from that field.

Students don’t like that; they have limited funds and limited time and they are trying to get on with their lives and, so, they arrive in this developmental course and the first thing, the message, they get from that is: maybe they’re not college material. We, in fact, are saying that and we are saying we think we can turn you into college material, but it’s kind of a blow to a student’s psyche to be told, “You can’t take college courses. You have to have these courses that get you ready for college and, until you do, we’re going to bar you from taking most of the college-level courses.”

ALP works quite differently. Students who need developmental work to get up to speed in writing are, nevertheless, allowed to register for the credit-level English 101 course. But at the same time, they take a second course for another three hours a week which is the developmental course. In other words, they take it concurrently with the credit course rather than as a required precursor to the credit course.

That changes everything. For one thing, we’re no longer saying, “You can’t take a college-level course.” And, so, it sort of helps them feel they are really are in college. Secondly, we put them in a section where half of the students are college-ready students, so instead of segregating them off in a classroom where everybody is a weak writer, they are in a classroom where at least half of the students are college-ready writers. And, thirdly, it changes their attitudes toward the developmental course. When I used to teach our traditional model, I would often say to students, “Now this would be really helpful next semester when you get to English 101.” I never say that anymore because what we’re doing on Friday in the developmental course will be really helpful on the paper they’re writing that weekend for Monday morning’s English 101 class. So, we’ve, in effect, embedded the developmental work right into the credit course and it makes it much more compelling to students that it really will help them.

From that very low success rate of only a third of students who started in our developmental writing course, never passing English 101, we more than doubled that success rate. The most recent figures based on about three years’ worth of data is that 74 percent of the students who go the ALP route pass English 101. So, it’s enormously successful and, actually, it was so successful in the first few semesters we didn’t believe our own data. We thought we must be doing the calculations wrong because it couldn’t be that good. But it’s held up. We’re now starting our seventh year of the program.

3. How can remedial and introductory-level programming be further improved to support postsecondary success among underserved and minority communities?

I’m going to answer it in two ways and they are sort of unrelated. One is, a big problem we have in higher education is — I don’t know if this is true or not — but there is an apocryphal story that Bill Gates once said, “I don’t understand higher ed. In the business world, if somebody comes up with an iPhone one year, the next year everybody is producing a smartphone. In higher education, if somebody in Nebraska or Maryland or California comes up with a good idea, 10 years later it can still exist at that school if you’re lucky and it doesn’t spread; people don’t copy it all the way across the landscape the way we do in the business world.”

And there’s considerable truth to that; we are slow to innovate. Part of the problem is that people who teach these developmental courses work incredibly hard. More than half of the faculty teaching developmental courses at many schools are part time and so they’re teaching three or four courses at one school and then driving around … to a second. And, so, to find time to develop a whole new approach or adopt someone else’s approach is difficult.

I’m not making excuses for us; I’m just trying to explain. That problem of scaling up the program is extremely hard and it takes a lot — a lot — of effort and a lot of leadership from people who are in leadership positions at schools. Here at my school, the administration has been very supportive. We’ve grown the program. We started with just five sections each semester in the very first year and, last year, we ran over 200 sections. So, it’s scaled up considerably. Although, frankly, I don’t know, I wish we were saying to my colleagues, “If this were a medical experiment and we were having these kinds of results with the experimental group, we would say. ‘Let’s call off the experiment and give whatever the intervention is to the people who have been getting the placebo.’” We’ve reached the point where we know it works. And we haven’t done that. We’re working on it.

The second way we’re working on this scaling-up problem is nationally. We realized what a significant improvement we’re making in the success of our students, and we deliberately set out at this school to try to offer our services to any other schools that wanted to adopt or more widely adapt our program to their local circumstances. So we’re now up to 137 schools around the country doing something like ALP. They’re certainly not all identical, and we think that’s good. We think they should take the main ideas of our program and tweak it to make it fit with their context and their budgets and their students and their faculty and so forth. So that’s one thing that we’re still working on, is scaling the program up so that it reaches a much higher percentage of the students, here and nationally. …

The other area that we can do better is … that teaching in an ALP environment is very different from teaching writing in most environments in higher education. For example, we have very small classes, so the ALP students are in a first-year composition class of 20 [and] they make up half the class — that’s just 10 students. So the next hour that same instructor meets with just those 10 students. And that seems like an obvious advantage, but we need to think of how to take advantage of it. How should we change our pedagogy? ….

Another is that we are no longer just teaching one course to students; we’re teaching two. How do we coordinate the two courses? We work really hard on figuring out: what’s the best use of the developmental course to ensure the students pass the credit-level course? …

And a fourth area that we’ve done a lot of work on is — I’ve mentioned the major reasons students drop out has nothing to do with their writing or their reading, for that matter. It has to do with their lives and their psyches. We’re English teachers and we’re not ever going to pass ourselves off as physiologists or marriage counselors or financial advisors or legal consultants. But we are compassionate human beings who care about our students. We do know people who are experts in all those fields, and so we’ve taken it on — and this is not easy for English teachers who are really hard-pressed just to help their students grow as writers — to also say, “We’re also going to worry about the rest of the whole student.”

If a student comes to class and is in tears one day, we’re not going to just ignore that and talk about sentence fragments; we’re going to ask the student if they want to talk about what’s going on and what they’re upset about. This is a new area for us and so we’re feeling our way. We’ve had speakers in and we’ve had a lot of books and we’re, sort of, arriving at a first draft of our pedagogy for dealing with these non-cognitive issues, but we have a ways to go.

4. Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of ALP programs for the success of non-traditional students, especially those looking to earn their first degree?

First of all, we didn’t design it with non-traditional students in mind. But we’re a fairly typical community college where our average student age is 27 or 28, so we have lots of older students, and we have lots of students who are non-traditional in many other ways. If a traditional student is somebody who goes off to college and their parents are supporting them and they mostly worry about what they are going to do on weekends and so forth, our students are nothing like that. Most of them are working, some full-time, some more than full-time and most of them are on financial aid because they come from impoverished backgrounds. Most of them are first generation to go to college.

That’s really interesting because it means that in their past, in their childhood and in their current family structure, they often don’t have the same resources middle class students have. If they’re told to go to the bursar’s office and they don’t know what a bursar is, there’s not somebody at home who can tell them [where to go]. Their parents, in so many cases, don’t have any college experience. We recognize treating these students as if they were traditional college students is really going to miss or overlook some of the difficulties they have. So, we spend lot of time on that.

Some of our older students are our best students, and some of our older students are our most insecure students. Some of our older students really knew how to write at the college level at one point in their lives and lost it because they haven’t used it too much — especially, for example, veterans that come back from Iraq or Afghanistan where they didn’t have lot of chance to write essays — and so we think this will brush them up. But other students didn’t ever get it and that’s one of the advantages of having these small class sizes, is that we can tailor what we do to whatever mix of students we get in a particular semester. I like to say when I taught traditional classes with 20 or 25 students and then if I worked really hard, I would learn everybody’s name by Thanksgiving in the semester. Now in ALP, I not only know all of my student’s names, I know their children’s names! … It’s really changed the dynamic and it allows us to tailor what we do in the class to the particular needs of the particular 10 students we have in a way you just can’t do with 20 or 30 students.

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