Dr. Paul Nolting's Academic Success Press Blog: A Publication Dedicated to Math Success
Dr. Paul Nolting's Academic Success Press Blog: A Publication Dedicated to Math Success
The State of Affairs: Part One of a Two-Part Interview with Dr. Hunter Boylan about Developmental Learning and the National Redesign Movement
Hello! Welcome to the official relaunch of the Academic Success Press blog! To set the stage for our upcoming posts—many of which involve conversations with experts in the field of developmental education—we thought we'd address the current state of affairs for our community, which, as we all know, is in a period of extreme (and at times tempestuous) transition. Who better to get things started, then, than the renowned Dr. Hunter R. Boylan!
Few proponents of developmental learning have been more influential the past few years than Boylan, longtime Director of the National Center for Developmental Education at Appalachian State University. His decades of experience in the field have made him a leading man for the cause, as he has seen and helped navigate the developmental learning community through numerous shifts in pedagogy and public understanding in recent years.
The following interview covers a great many subjects, including but not limited to: the efficacy of math redesigns, the general public view toward developmental learning, and the benefits and dangers of online learning. Due to length concerns, we have broken the interview into two parts. Please check back next Monday morning for Part Two.
ASP Blog: Two years ago, you did an interview with USA Today, where you spoke with a journalist about a national shift away from (or reform of) remedial and developmental mathematics. In it, you implied that many of these new approaches were failing to meet their goals. Do you still feel this way?
Boylan: Yes. We are still addressing the problems with a rather substantial variety of alleged solutions, ranging from the potentially good, to the potentially ugly.
ASP Blog: Many of the “solutions” promoted in math redesigns over the past year haven’t addressed the true roots of the problem in that many of these students have been underserved since elementary school. They’re coming into college drastically unprepared. Do you still believe this is the case?
Boylan: I wrote an Op-Ed for an academic journal last year. My contention in that was that we have made a lot of structural changes: we have changed the placement process for remedial courses, we are putting more people directly into college level courses, we are using more computers, and we’re accelerating developmental courses, we are providing embedded support services. When you look at all of these things, what they are actually doing is changing the structure of our delivery system. They are not changing the quality of the teaching that goes on. Nor are they addressing any of the characteristics of students that cause them to be underprepared in the first place and cause them to become attrition statistics.
For instance, ethnic minorities still have lower pass rates and completion rates than anybody else. First generation college students have lower pass rates and completion rates. The poor have lower pass rates and completion rates. But in all of our reform of developmental education, we are not addressing any of those issues. We are not asking ourselves “why is it that minorities have lower pass rates than majority students and what can we do about that?” We are not asking “so why do first generation students have high casualty rates?” We are basically just saying, “If we put them into this delivery system then they’ll do better.” Well they are going to maintain the same characteristics in the new delivery system that caused them to drop out in the old delivery system. That’s my view of the situation.
ASP Blog: That is what is interesting about this. The argument against developmental education is kind of myopic to me. Those who do not believe in developmental education are blaming the whole system writ large almost as if developmental courses merely add extra hurdles for students to clear. In reality, this is only true of poorly designed developmental courses. Paul likes to point out that one of the main keys to fixing a college’s developmental math platform is to improve classroom and supplemental learning through better teacher and tutor training. Do you agree?
Boylan: That is part of the answer. One of the things that needs to be taken into account is that we are doing a much better job integrating courses and services, but we still aren’t integrating those based upon adult development and learning theory. If you are going to teach a class, most people agree that it would be a good idea if you had some knowledge of how people learn—if you maybe understood learning theory and could organize and deliver your class according to the principles of at least some theories about learning. People don’t do that in remedial courses. And that’s the reason why we much prefer developmental education to remediation—because there is a body of theory called developmental psychology or adult development—however you want to refer to it—that discusses how we should teach the students. That is what is lacking. We are not using what we know about adult learning and development to deliver our courses. We are simply changing the structure of how courses are delivered without changing the pedagogy.
ASP Blog: What are the states that are mandating changes to developmental education actually putting into effect right now?
Boylan: The most popular change seems to be to allow more students to bypass remedial courses, usually by modifying the assessment process in some way. That is probably the number one change. I can see why legislators like this, because it doesn’t cost anything and it creates the illusion that they are actually addressing the problem. The second biggest one is to change the delivery system. This involves various types of modularized courses that are frequently computer based. What they are often doing is a discount version of the Emporium Model.
The Emporium Model can actually be labor intensive. One of the reasons it worked in the first place was that students got instant feedback right when they were having a problem. Now, the tendency is for colleges to put one faculty member in a room with 25 students at computers and let the students go to work. The one faculty member can’t get around to give personalized service to all of the students. So basically they have taken the Emporium Model and understaffed it, and said, “We have the Emporium Model.”
ASP Blog: I assume people have been collecting statistics on whether these classes are working, right? The same with online courses?
Boylan: All of the data we have on this matter shows that online developmental education does not work. Early results show that the major consequence of allowing students to bypass remediation is that more students are failing college level courses. In fact, I just got an email today from somebody who teaches at a community college. It basically said, “Our weakest students are being funneled into these short, technology based modules, or into a short eight week section. Consequently our standards are being lowered even further, so that we can prove that the techniques are successful.” What she was implying is that there is pressure on teachers not to fail too many students, because then the innovation looks bad.
ASP Blog: Right, the innovation that just happens to be cheaper.
Boylan: Right. Now, I don’t know how widespread this is, but there is no doubt that some teachers are feeling pressure to make sure these systems work. On the other hand, even with whatever pressure exists, the major result is that more people are failing college level courses. I talked to a reporter the other day, and she said something like this: “Well what about the stigma of being put in a remedial course?” And I said, “Well it is choice of which stigma do you want? Do you want the stigma of being placed in a remedial course, or do you want the stigma of failing college English?”
Update: Here is a direct link to Part Two.
Dr. Nolting is a national expert in assessing math learning problems, developing effective student learning strategies, assessing institutional variables that affect math success and math study skills. He is also an expert in helping students with disabilities and Wounded Warriors become successful in math. He now assists colleges and universities in redesigning their math courses to meet new curriculum requirements. He is the author of two math study skills texts: Winning at Math and My Math Success Plan.
American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges presenter, Senior Lecturer-Modular