Podcast: Transforming Developmental Education to Support Students Throughout College

A teacher helps a student

Developmental education is designed with the idea that colleges can bring students’ skills up to college level with a course or two, declare them college-ready, and send them off to take the rest of their courses.

But a lack of preparation for the challenges of college can show up at various times and in various ways, including among students who were deemed ready for college from the beginning. Nikki Edgecombe of CAPR and CCRC and Susan Bickerstaff of CCRC wrote about how colleges could alter their academic and nonacademic supports to more effectively help all students in an article in the Texas Education Review. In the podcast below, they discuss what such changes might look like and what they might mean for the colleges with CCRC’s Elizabeth Ganga.


Elizabeth Ganga, CCRC communications manager: I’m Lisa Ganga, and I’m here with Nikki Edgecombe and Sue Bickerstaff, senior researchers at CCRC who focus on developmental education. And we’re going to talk today about an article they wrote for the Texas Education Review that looks at what’s working and what needs to change in developmental education reform.

Traditional developmental education sends students to remedial math and English courses at the beginning of their time in college to prepare them for later college-level courses, and a lot of dev ed reform has focused on moving students into college-level courses faster. You argue that the next generation of dev ed reform needs to broaden its focus beyond those courses, and you’ve developed a set of strategies to frame what comes next. Tell me about that.

Susan Bickerstaff, CCRC senior research associate: Our thesis in this paper is that you can’t just focus on developmental education in order to have those gains in completion that we know that we want. It’s very limiting to think that once students complete Composition 101 and their introductory college-level math course that they’re now fully college-ready. That probably doesn’t bear out with students’ experiences because they continue to face academic challenges throughout their college career, and they do so in a variety of disciplines, and that many of the challenges that students face are not strictly academic in nature. So to be college-ready is to have a variety of skills, some in literacy, some in numeracy, some in ways of thinking in other disciplines, and many of them what we would call noncognitive or nonacademic—so the ability to manage your time, the ability to persist when things are challenging, a sense of belonging that, “I can stick it out in college because I believe that I should be here.”

Ganga: In your article, you talk about a more integrated model of developmental education. So what does that look like?

Bickerstaff: We talk about three strategies or dimensions of this, and one is specifically about developmental education. So developmental education courses are potentially an important part of students’ preparedness, particularly for a certain segment of students who really have profound literacy and numeracy needs and will not be successful in a college-level course. But—many colleges are doing this already—the idea that we would structure developmental education in ways that help them build academic momentum right away. And so corequisite remediation would certainly be part of that, but corequisite remediation that’s intentionally designed curricularly to support student success in the college-level course. For students for whom maybe corequisite remediation would not be sufficient, we talk about immersive, well-designed support structures that are thoughtfully designed in terms of curriculum and pedagogy to really think about the skills that students will need, not only in the introductory college-level course but across their college career in numeracy or literacy. And so we draw on the example of CUNY Start as one, which is a highly intensive one-semester program that has a really well-designed instructional approach. It’s very thoughtfully designed with students’ academic goals in mind.

Nikki Edgecombe, CAPR principal investigator and CCRC senior research scholar: One of the things I think that always struck us about the program relative to other developmental education efforts is at its heart, the curriculum, the pedagogy, the advising supports that they provide to students isn’t simply about remediating. It’s really about developing the learner. And that seems like a stronger bet for students’ longer term success. It is a very unique dimension of its focus and I think something worth institutions and practitioners and policymakers thinking about. Are we doing things early in students’ college careers that are not simply about helping them develop their numeracy or literacy skills but actually helping them, in a very contextualized, meaningful way, develop as learners?

Bickerstaff: You know, in some places there have been experiments around contextualizing developmental education. Or guided pathways colleges are thinking about how to position developmental education within pathways. And I think all of those types of efforts are in line with the spirit of what we’re talking about here—that you don’t just think about developmental education as something that students kind of have to get out of the way before they start their college career, but that for students who really do need that level of support, it’s structured in an intentional way, as Nikki said, to develop them as learners but also to think about developing them as learners for the long term in whatever program they may be pursuing.

Ganga: The second strategy is to reposition supports closer to the classroom. What’s the thinking behind that?

Edgecombe: It’s sort of this notion that in any given class, there are going to be students for whom the content and the performance benchmarks may be easier than it is for others. And what we want to do is ensure that the supports that are provided for students, no matter where they fall on that continuum, are embedded or closely aligned with the course. I think we’ve seen some wonderful work at institutions around developing very dynamic and well-structured tutoring and academic support centers, and those are really important, but we remain challenged by the idea that it’s not always the students who need those supports most who are likely to avail themselves of those resources. So what we do in the paper is we just talk briefly about ways that—whether it’s tutors that are embedded in the class or teaching assistants, ways that technology might be embedded in the course to supplement and support students’ learning—but whatever the academic support is, that it is integrated in and embedded or aligned directly with the actual course, including the courses that fall outside the disciplines we usually pay attention to. Right? So, we’ve done work here at CCRC that shows that there’s a variety, particularly at the introductory level, of courses across disciplines that have the potential to weed out students. And so it seems important for us to think about the ways that these academic supports can be embedded or integrated with all of those courses as opposed to simply the mathematics or English courses that tend to be the areas where we spend a lot of time and energy within the developmental space.

Ganga: Is it also kind of a mind shift away from the weeding-out model?

Edgecombe: You would hope so. I mean, especially at our open-access institutions, we want and need students to be successful, for a variety of reasons. So it would be important, I think, for institutions to think about ways in which they can change what they do to allow more students to be successful in these courses that have historically weeded students out of different majors. And I think you can’t underplay the potential negative implications of that, because being weeded out of a major could have serious implications for someone’s sense of self and ability, and that may weed them out of college altogether.

Ganga: Tell me about the third dimension.

Bickerstaff: So the third dimension we write about, we talk about attending to students’ psycho-social needs, and we talk about that along two dimensions: building academic confidence as well as building students’ sense of belonging in college. And some of the things that we highlight in the section are things that community colleges have attended to through student success courses, so these are things like time management, note-taking skills, other academic skills that students need. Our research at CCRC from several years ago showed that student success courses taught these types of skills to students, and they do in a lot of contexts. But there are limitations to cramming all of that into a single-semester experience that students have right at the beginning of their college career because like all of these other skills that we’ve been talking about, you need to be able to apply them in context over time, and you’re going to encounter new challenges in your second semester, in your second year. And so thinking about ways that you could have long-term supports for students to build their academic confidence—so just like we’re talking about moving the academic supports closer to the classroom via embedded tutoring, for example, how do you move the nonacademic supports closer to the classroom, so that all professors are attentive potentially to how to support their students to be good note-takers in their class? So that every course has a dimension to it where they’re talking about mindsets, for example, so that students think about what it means to put forth the effort that they’ll need to be successful in the class? So that’s one dimension of what we’re talking about, and then the other is around some experimental research that’s shown the potential for relatively small interventions to have an impact on the way students see themselves. So we cite some work that showed that having students think about a case study or a hypothetical case of a student who was struggling in college and then persisted can reframe their own thinking about what it means to struggle in college and then persist—to sort of normalize this idea that all students can sometimes feel like they don’t belong in college, but that if you put forth effort, if you access resources, if you connect with other peers or professors, that you can work your way through that.

Ganga: It’s kind of like breaking through that idea that “I’m not a math person,” or “I’m a bad student.”

Bickerstaff: Absolutely. I mean, I think for instructors—and I think many developmental education instructors historically have attended to this, but it might not be something that’s part of the conversation among faculty who teach upper level courses or even introductory-level courses—this idea that students are coming to open-access institutions with negative previous schooling experiences. They come with images about who is a real college student and who is not. They may be coming without role models in their immediate family to show them that they can persist through college. And so if faculty and staff across the institution are attentive to that idea and build it into their interactions with students in intentional ways, then students can be continually getting the message that we want you here, so that accessing support is part of the college experience, and it’s not something just for students who are struggling.

Edgecombe: There’s a tendency within the higher education space to argue that these students are adults, and they have the right to fail. I think that’s just a really counterproductive perspective on students for whom this may be a new experience and who are trying to break barriers and change the trajectory of their lives. Instead, I think they have the right to succeed, and institutions have to think about the ways in which they can change to support that success.

Ganga: Have you all started thinking about what this means for the colleges?

Bickerstaff: Colleges would need to be thinking about whether they’re providing sufficient support for faculty to reflect on their practice, to learn about new practices potentially, and then to integrate them into their coursework, and a lot of energy has been focused on developmental education. I think developmental education faculty oftentimes through their training bring these types of dispositions to the classroom. But I’m not sure that we know the extent to which, across the disciplines, faculty have had the support or the training to kind of think in these ways about their students. So I think there are questions about, how do we make space for faculty to learn and to grow and develop and potentially take on new types of teaching and new ways of structuring their classrooms?

Edgecombe: And a lot of what really we’re suggesting as part of these strategies is repositioning existing resources in different ways. The empirical question for us would be, what are the state, system, institutional levers that need to be pulled in order to make this redeployment happen? There’s also the idea embedded here, or the hope, in these strategies, that you’re not simply helping the students for whom some measure or assessment has deemed them academically underprepared, but you’re really integrating strategies that are going to help everybody. So we know within institutions, while certainly students assigned to developmental education are graduating at low rates, most students are graduating at relatively low rates. So there’s a certain universal dimension to these strategies. It’s not dev ed reform, or some very kind of discrete or pocketed initiative, but it’s rather this broader change to the way we think about supporting students academically and nonacademically in ways that will help them achieve their academic goals.

Ganga: Great. Thank you so much. I’ve been talking to Nikki Edgecombe and Sue Bickerstaff. Read their article in Texas Education Review. You can find a link on the CCRC website.