Belonging and Believing: Transforming Remedial Math at Community Colleges

 (Flickr/Stephanus Riosetiawan)

Developmental or remedial education forms a core service of community colleges, with a staggering 68% of all community college students taking at least one remedial course, most commonly English or math. The stark number of students not prepared for college work presents a two-fold dilemma for community colleges, one that is both financial and self-defeating, eating at the very purpose of community colleges’ existence.

First, students who are enrolled in even one remedial course have a high chance of dropping out. According to a 2006 National Education Longitudinal study, the dropout rate in remedial courses is more than 70%, with only 28% of remedial students completing a degree after 8.5 years. Second, the extra money to pay for remediation is costing states billions: the Community College Research Center (CCRC) estimates that the national cost of providing these courses to all students is approximately $7 billion.

But according to Tom Bailey, who heads the CCRC at Teachers College, Columbia University, it’s the students who are paying the most. “It is students who probably have to bear the most significant costs,” he writes. “They must not only pay for the classes but also must delay their progress through college. Many students are discouraged when they find out that they are not eligible for college-level courses. This may explain the high ‘no-show’ rates among those referred to remediation.”

It is not an exaggeration, says Rachel Beattie, director of productive persistence at Carnegie Math Pathways, to say that one developmental course can derail an entire college career, and even the future beyond it. “People will keep coming back, because they’re really persistent. We see that many of our students have been enrolled in college for five or ten, even twenty years, they’re trying to get that math credit, but no luck,” she said. “We see a lot of unproductive persistence.” Part of Beattie’s job is to help mold unproductive persistence into something more fruitful, and that involves changing both the students’ mindset and how teachers teach developmental courses.

In 2010, Beattie and team launched the Carnegie Math Pathways at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, two developmental math courses which now operate on community college campuses in 19 states and strive to help students who need to remediate in math complete their courses but also do something more: introduce students to the “soft skills” they may be missing to help get them through college. Their primary focus: convincing students that they can learn. “About 2/3 of our students come in to the Carnegie Math Pathways with the belief that, no matter what they do, they are not ‘math people,’” Beattie said. “That there is this race of math people out there, and that they’re not one of them, and no matter how hard they try, or what strategies, it doesn’t matter because they’re never going to be one of those people.”

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After interviewing researchers and teachers, Beattie and team found that if community college math professors could instill five “high-leverage” factors into students, they had a much higher chance of completing their math courses:

* Students believe they can learn,

* Students have social ties to peers during the course,

* They see the course has both short- and long-term value,

* They have the know-how, skills and habits to succeed,

* And finally, having faculty support students’ skills and mindset.

So Beattie teaches professors how to teach to students who truly believe they can’t learn. The two courses, a statistics course called Statway and the quantitative math course, Quantway, are developmental in the sense of what material is covered, but how the material is covered plays a big role. “Unlike in K-12, those of us who taught and teach in higher ed, we’re not always explicitly trained in how to teach,” Beattie said. “They know a lot about mathematics, a lot of them have PhDs in mathematics, but we show them how students learn, and how to promote mindsets and learning strategies is something that a lot of times they don’t have a bag of tricks for.”

So the first lesson for students in both courses is how the brain learns; professors also cover the research behind growth mindset. “You’re not wired from birth knowing how to do logarithms, that’s just not how the brain works,” said Beattie, who has a PhD in developmental psychology, and did a post-doc in cognitive neuroscience. “It’s actually quite plastic and changes based on the experiences that you have. So as you increase your knowledge you create more sophisticated connections between neurons in your brain, and you’re able to make connections to information better and in different ways, and this actually helps with experience.”

Understanding how the brain works goes hand in hand with another success strategy, which is tackling “belonging uncertainty,” in which students believe that they don’t belong in college, or in college-level math. Beattie also shares with professors how to build trust and a sense of community in classrooms—and sometimes the strategy for belonging is almost agonizingly simple, like noticing a student who is absent and contacting them to let them know they were missed.

In the six years since they began, Statway and Quantway have tripled the success rate of students (meaning they passed the course and could move on to college work) in half the time. While 6% of students complete traditional math pathway courses, the Carnegie classes show 50-60% of students earning their math credit in one year.

What Beattie hopes to show next is that the strategies students learn in the Math Pathways carries over to the rest of college. “There is some preliminary evidence that we are seeing from our colleges that our students are being successful in future classes,” she said. “Because many students end up transferring to four-year schools—which is really exciting—it can be kind of difficult to track them down, but we are getting some preliminary evidence of sustained success,” she said.