February 4th, 2011

Remedial Coursework: Predicting Student Success


Many students come to college without the knowledge and skills needed to successfully complete college coursework. But does taking remedial courses in math and English (where the bulk of the courses are offered) make a difference? Do those courses develop the knowledge and skills students need to successfully complete regular college courses?

Despite the proliferation of remedial coursework, relatively few large-scale, methodologically sound, multi-institution evaluations of remedial programs have been undertaken. This study references two other such analyses: one of remedial math courses offered by four-year colleges in Ohio and a cross-state, multi-institution study of remedial English courses. The study referenced here looks at 85,894 first-year students enrolled in 107 different community colleges in California.

To answer the question of how well these courses were working, this researcher looked at two measures: credential attainment (Did the community college students enrolled in remedial math courses go on to attain either a certificate or an associate degree?) and transfer (Did these students transfer to four-year institutions?).

He reasoned that remedial courses could be considered successful if the students who took those courses compared favorably on these two measures with community college students who did not take remedial math. Using these criteria he tracked the student cohort’s progress in math courses for six years and its academic attainment after eight years.

What did he find? “Students who remediate successfully in math exhibit attainment that is comparable to that of students who achieve college math skill without the need for remediation, and this finding generally holds true even across the various levels of initial math skill deficiency.” (p. 442) He goes on to say that the two groups are effectively “indistinguishable” from each other when it comes to credential attainment and transfer.

“This is a remarkable finding, as it indicates that remediation has the capacity to fully resolve the academic disadvantage of math skill deficiency, at least as far as these outcomes are concerned.” (p. 442) Remedial coursework in this study (and in the two mentioned above) not only works, it works extremely well.

However, there is a large and troubling caveat. Seventy-five percent of the students who enrolled in remedial math courses in this study did not remediate successfully. They did not complete or pass those courses. And more than 80 percent of this group did not complete a credential or transfer to a four-year institution. So, the more sanguine conclusion is that when remediation works, it works extremely well. The problem is that for many students it does not work.

What predicts whether or not a student will succeed in remedial math? This study identified three predictors: the final grade in the first math courses taken in college, the depth of remedial work needed, and the breadth of remedial work needed. In other words, remedial work is most successful when you need less of it.

The researcher lists three policy implications of this finding. Because when remedial courses in math work, they do so very well, these programs should not be abandoned. Second, more than 80 percent of the first-year students in this cohort needed remedial work in math. That makes offering this kind of coursework not just one of many functions of the community college but also a truly central part of what it does. And finally, steps must be taken to improve the successful completion of remedial coursework. This means we need to better understand which instructional strategies and approaches help students learn in these courses, because if students don’t succeed here, in all likelihood they will not complete a two-year degree or certificate, and they will not transfer to a four-year institution.

Reference: Bahr, P. R. (2008). Does mathematics remediation work? A comparative analysis of academic attainment among community college students. Research in Higher Education, 49, 420-450.

Excerpted from “How Effective Is Remedial Coursework?” The Teaching Professor, 21.1 (2009): 2.

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3 comments on “Remedial Coursework: Predicting Student Success

  1. It sounds like institutions would benefit from using entrance exam data wisely then – to better target and place/advise the students who would most benefit from services. If students need a lot of remedial work, then they might be better served to start at a community college where a greater number of courses (at cheaper prices)are available. If students come directly to 4-year colleges that might not have as many preparatory courses available, then colleges could really benefit from using scores on entrance exams (and other data) to determine whether students are in that minority that can benefit from their more limited course array. If not, then counsel them to start at the community college. What do colleges do that don't have that ready access to a good community college?

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