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
As promised, here is Part Two of Dr. Nolting's conversation with David Arendale. In the previous installment, the pair discussed the history of developmental education and how it led to present practices. Part Two explores what developmental education might look like in the future. Enjoy!
Nolting: What do you think we have learned about developmental education in recent years?
Arendale: I think that developmental education was not very responsive to change, and I think it was in a bad position about ten years ago, when the debate began to change regarding its role, its cost, and whether or not we ought to have developmental courses offered at all institutions or limit them to two-year institutions. There was not a lot of widespread, innovative work going on in developmental education. We were really slow to respond to the demands of legislators and public advocacy foundations like the Gates Foundation, College Completion America, and all of the others. We didn’t have a lot of great research, and we didn’t have lots of models. The thing is, we were doing good work, but we weren’t doing a good job of publicizing it, and I think because of the storm of criticism we are doing much better now.
I think we now understand that everyone doesn’t need to be placed into a developmental education course. Somebody came up with an analogy of a three-layer cake (it’s not mine). It used to be that everyone inside the cake was required to take some level of developmental education. The top layer includes students that don’t really need to take a developmental-level class before they can take other classes. Students in the top layer can probably be successful if they have supplemental education that provides necessary support. Then you have the middle layer, which includes students who have deep needs because they have let their skills atrophy after they have perhaps been in the job force for a decade and have forgotten things. This layer does need developmental education. The bottom level of this cake—and this is the more controversial layer—includes students who, for lots of reasons, are low in their ability to do some of the basic competencies in the areas we would expect: reading, writing, and mathematics. If you have students who have deep needs in all three of these categories, it might not be possible to make up for twenty years’ worth of deficits in one or two semesters. Maybe they do need to think about other options like trade schools and certificate programs. Frankly, some of those programs might give students more employable skills than they’d get while going into deep debt for a liberal arts degree. This seems harsh…but [colleges] might not be able to take care of students who are in the bottom layer, which is really a small minority, only about ten percent.
Nolting: Yes. I did some research on this at my college a while ago. A lot of people in the math department believed that the students enrolled in our lowest level math course, pre-algebra, maybe had deficits in other areas and just weren’t going to be successful in college. I found out that about seventy-five percent of those students were in one or no developmental courses. Students who were in all three developmental classes—we found it very difficult to help them. Especially students who were reading at a third or fourth grade level. That was tough.
A lot of our students are now being placed directly into credited courses. Do you think that these new first-year credited courses are becoming the new face of developmental education?
Arendale: From what I have read, the main case study here is Florida. It seems that a number of teachers have had to change their first-level course into a hybrid developmental course. This has caused them to change curriculum and [scale back] the amount of content they present in order to meet the needs of the least prepared students. They are feeling pressure from high-level students, who believe they are being held back. The instructors feels like they are stuck in the middle of these groups, because they are forced to be bimodal. Some students can handle college-level material and others cannot.
Nolting: Right. I have seen that more colleges are asking for help in first-credit English, and particularly first-credit math courses. What are some of the strategies that can help all levels of students in these first-year courses—you talked a little bit about Supplemental Instruction, and you started PAL as well, correct?
Arendale: No. PAL is the University of Minnesota’s approach to offering peer cooperative learning support for very difficult classes. [At my school] we drew on Best Practices from Supplemental Instruction, as well as peer-led team learning from a national model out of the City University of New York, and the Emerging Scholars program. We built our own model, which has mandatory attendance for students in PAL. We found that the students who needed the most help were not going to the voluntary support sessions because they felt self-stigmatized, and they didn’t like admitting that they were “weak.” For us, for critical courses, particularly math sciences courses, everyone goes. That has been our approach. This was a departure from SI, which was built on voluntary attendance.
Nolting: So how do you envision the future of developmental education, especially accounting for these new first-level courses?
Arendale: I actually teach a first-year course—my global history course. I think the real future involves a Universal Design for Learning (UDL). There are lots of things I can do as a faculty member to increase the success of all students in the class rather than just figuring out from a deficit model who is sick and targeting all services on them. In a UDL model, you apply new approaches for every student in the class. There are probably fifty things I do in my class that help all my students regardless of what their issues are. It isn’t the same thing as a developmental model, and it isn’t a replacement, but my own personal opinion is that all of us who teach first-year courses can learn a lot from universal designs.
Let me give you a few examples of this. A lot of students have trouble keeping up with note-taking. They aren’t likely to raise their hands and say, “Excuse me professor, I can’t write fast enough.” This is difficult to do in front of fifty other people. So what do I do? I record all my class lectures. Everything I put up on the laptop screen—PowerPoint slides, video clips, etc.—is recorded and placed online. I also send them this material before the class begins. I knew an instructor who did this fifteen years ago for immigrant students who were having difficulty adjusting to a different style of classroom. What I have discovered is that about twenty-five percent of my students watch those lectures—some of them twice. This includes some of the best students. They see [this material] as an additional resource when they are not able to keep up for whatever reason.
Another one: I make an audio podcast where we actually review class sessions. I have students come in and provide summaries about a unit, and I provide upcoming exam questions. Probably about forty-percent of my students subscribe to it. This gives them academic resources that they would not be able to access any other way, because they have a difficult schedule, and they don’t have time to go to a tutoring center or they don’t know other students in class. What I have tried to do is make sure that I make resources for the class accessible for everybody.
Nolting: You seem to believe that UDL is the future of developmental education.
Arendale: Yes. I think that [in the years to come] we are going to be talking more about UDL than we are DE. I think that UDL is the overarching umbrella for lots of things. I think that developmental education fits beneath UDL.
Nolting: So how can universities integrate these strategies into college core curriculum?
Arendale: There was an organizational sociologist, Kurt Lewin, back in the 1950’s. He came up with a model for explaining how change occurs in an organization. There were certain stages. First, you have to be dissatisfied with the current state. If you aren’t dissatisfied, you aren’t going to make any changes. It’s like the flavor of the month. I can’t tell you how many times I have been at an opening meeting for faculty, and the college president came in and told us what the new initiative was for that year. Then, the next year, it would be something different. Well one of the local colleges up here, the president came in and presented data to the faculty regarding students who were dropping out, and he helped them to see how much revenue was being lost. Until faculty actually recognize that there is a problem, nothing will change.
Once you establish that a problem exists, then you have to present models that the faculty can adopt. This can be done through training materials, but frankly, I believe this should be done through personal interactions: teaching circles and workshops. These things are necessary for change to happen. Most faculty, with their heavy work load, aren’t going to make changes without human interaction.
The third part of this: you have to incentivize people to make changes. You have to pay them to participate in the teaching circles and workshops—even if you give them a very small stipend or you provide some money that goes into a professional development account. This also needs to show up on year-end appraisals. Sometimes, administrators say what they want everyone to do, but then they use the same criteria every year to decide whether you get a raise or not. Faculty need to see that there is a relationship between new behaviors and outcomes and some sort of economic incentive.
Finally, you need to have faculty refreeze themselves into the new pattern. This comes from long-term professional development programs that go on for years and years. I think that having a Teaching Learning Center at every college is essential—where you have an experienced faculty member who is running a center for workshops, which allow faculty to reflect, to observe, and to change their behaviors.
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