How Colleges Can Take the Lead in Building Effective Corequisite Models

By Lindsay Daugherty
A group of three students sit around a laptop. A professor is behind them offering feedback

Colleges are changing the way they support students who are underprepared for their reading, writing, and mathematics coursework. Many are moving away from standalone developmental education (remedial) courses and are adopting models of corequisite remediation instead. Under a corequisite model, colleges allow students to enroll directly in college-level coursework and provide additional academic support during the same semester to promote success.

Yet in the course of rolling out these developmental education reforms, administrators, faculty, and other college staff are often too busy to reflect and make sure that the programs are being carried out in the best possible way. And because there is limited evidence on best practices for corequisite remediation, colleges must experiment to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

Continuous improvement approaches are becoming increasingly popular as a way to help educators build effective programs. They have been used in various education settings to provide practitioners with a structured process and tools for reflecting on their programs and using experimentation and data to make improvements over time.

In a new toolkit, RAND Corporation provides a how-to guide for strengthening corequisite remediation initiatives through continuous improvement. The toolkit draws on four years of developmental education reform work with Texas community colleges conducted by RAND Corporation, the American Institutes for Research, and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Here’s why continuous improvement approaches are important for colleges pursuing corequisite remediation:

Corequisite remediation shows great promise, but it’s a work in progress for many colleges

CAPR’s national survey indicates that 35 percent of colleges offered corequisite remediation in reading and writing in 2016, while 16 percent offered corequisite remediation in mathematics. States including Tennessee, Texas, and California have passed legislation calling for all colleges to adopt corequisite remediation as a primary approach to supporting underprepared students. Evidence suggests that corequisite remediation is more effective than traditional developmental education approaches; rigorous studies have examined models from the Community College of Baltimore County, the City University of New York, and Texas community colleges and consistently found positive impacts on student success.

It is common for states and colleges to experience uncertainty and challenges as they roll out any new initiative, and the same is true for corequisite remediation. For example, many colleges are developing homegrown corequisite models, with variations in instructional strategies, class sizes, student populations, instructional hours, and college courses students are accelerated into. Colleges need evidence to refine their homegrown models, including on which features help support student success and which models are most effective.

Colleges implementing corequisite remediation also face challenges that require early and ongoing attention. For example, some corequisite models link courses and mix different student populations in intentional ways, and it requires work to figure out how to schedule and staff these sections. Colleges may also need to develop advising processes to inform students about corequisite remediation and ensure that students are properly enrolled. Yet there is limited research on how best to tackle these issues, and the best approaches to solving the problems may differ across college contexts.

Continuous improvement approaches allow colleges to take the lead in building evidence

Many colleges are scaling corequisite remediation quickly and don’t have the luxury of waiting for more evidence on best practices. In addition, rigorous research studies may never provide solutions to some of the issues faced on the ground. Instead, colleges must take the lead in testing and refining their corequisite models and practices to fill the gaps in evidence.

To assist colleges in these efforts, RAND’s toolkit describes two different approaches to improvement that may be useful in refining corequisite remediation: rapid-cycle evaluation and quality improvement. Rapid-cycle evaluation is a quick form of program evaluation that can be used to assess the effectiveness of corequisite model features or practices (e.g., larger class size, fewer instructional hours). Quality improvement is helpful for addressing challenges with how corequisite models are rolled out (e.g., scheduling difficulties, uncertainty about effective instructional practices), and calls for “Plan-Do-Study-Act” cycles and other evaluations that allow practitioners to develop, test, and scale small, incremental improvements.

Continuous improvement work isn’t easy. It requires the deep involvement of practitioners, careful data collection and analysis, and efforts to make changes in short timeframes. But for colleges that are willing to make these investments, continuous improvement can help resolve important issues and improve rates of student success. Improvement strategies are valuable to colleges for several reasons. For example:

  1. They can be applied across many contexts, programs, and initiatives. Improvement strategies are adaptable. For example, once colleges learn how to carry out a Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle, the strategy can be used to inform any new initiative the college rolls out.
  2. They help colleges prioritize issues they face. The number of challenges colleges confront can be overwhelming. Improvement strategies provide tools for prioritizing problems and tackling them one by one.
  3. They ensure data is used for program improvement. Data use and institutional research in colleges are often driven by reporting requirements for state and federal agencies, accreditation bodies, and funders. Improvement strategies provide the opportunity to collect and analyze data to address internal priorities determined by the college.
  4. They do not necessarily require complex research methods. Although data use is a central feature of improvement efforts, some approaches to improvement do not require substantial research expertise or resources. The strategies are therefore useful for colleges regardless of research capacity.
  5. They facilitate long-term planning and improvement. Improvement strategies can change the culture around new initiatives to ensure an ongoing focus on planning, evidence-building, and refinement.

With an initiative like corequisite remediation, on-the-ground experimentation and evidence-building is particularly important. Improvement strategies like those described in the RAND toolkit can offer a roadmap to help practitioners carry out this work.

Lindsay Daugherty is a policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.