Serving Up Developmental Studies

When I was a tadpole professor and Paragraph City had chalkboards made of real slate, a Man of Great Experience teaching writing courses that would never again be called remedial told me, “Building a basic skills program in a college is easy. Just look at everything that’s done in an honors program, and do that.”

Part of that remark was born from envy of the kind of well-funded university honors programs which offered students lots of individual attention, low student to faculty ratio, budgets for travel to museums & galleries & concerts, teaching assistants, expanded library holdings, and exchange programs with honors programs abroad. In that regard, Doug, my friend of great experience, wasn’t wrong, and anyway I liked the heart of his comment, even if the practical application ran a bit thin.

A decade and change passed, and ParagraphCity brought John Roueche on campus for a couple of days. He poured over our policies and programs and recommended some adjustments that would increase the success rate of our students, but especially our developmental students. He was part pep-talk and part policy-maker; I didn’t particularly like his shiny veneer, but I did think he was right about a lot of things. We began mandatory placement testing then, and mandatory placement into skills courses when the tests indicated the need. Now, with placement tests as accurate as they are, it hardly seems ethical to have let students sign up for whatever courses, ignorant as they were of their reading or writing or math ability.

Yet we who teach the basic skills will always be miserably unsatisfied with the results. So many students with such high potential fail to learn or to even complete the courses. Some of that is due to the tragedy that dogs the basic skills students; they are often poor, and unexpected pregnancies, abuse of all varieties, toxic relationships, and loss of job or car compose the monstrous music that throbs through their lives. For so many, college happens not as a matter of course, but in the lulls between crises.

So we continue to tune the engine on this developmental program bus. Last year a team of three educators from colleges in our region was invited on campus to evaluate the program and make recommendations. In an aside, they recommended a book by Hunter Boylan (who had also been on campus, decades back), called What Works: Researched Based Practices in Developmental Education.  It’s a best practices summary, standing on actual programs he’s observed, and I’m drawing on that, as well as those other experiences, in making my Top Seven Ingredients in Developmental Program Cuisine.

  1. Get the best faculty. I do not mean only full-time faculty, but absolutely the best adjuncts, and we need full-time, experienced faculty in most of the classes. Find faculty who are respected by the institution and who also teach transfer-level courses. Developmental faculty need to see first-hand, every semester, what good students are capable of and how far the developmental students will need to go. A corollary: house developmental courses in the disciplines, not in a separate basement somewhere.
  2. Reward faculty who teach basic skills classes, but I don’t mean money. We live to teach, and thrive on the successes of our students, but developmental classes provide fewer of those successes, and the failures can be grinding. I remember from more than twenty years ago a young woman intent on building a future, low skilled but hard working, burdened by gaps in fundamental skills but willing to ask questions and to ask for help. Then she was gone. Her friend told me her mother’s boyfriend had been making passes at her until finally Mom kicked him out. He set their house on fire and Mom blamed her and so now she was looking for a safe place to live with her three kids. Suddenly sentence fragments weren’t such a problem; I never saw her again. Faculty need something, some institutional gratitude, some collegiate sainthood, for living semester after semester with such failure.
  3. Schedule the world around the developmental program, including a convenient meeting time when all developmental faculty can get together. We need to have the same language, the same goals, the same point-of-the-week to be pressing home. A developmental program cannot exist as a little scattering of vessels flying the flag of Basic Skills; they need to be an Armada.
  4. All faculty teaching basic skills courses should take the placement tests that the students mandated to take their classes take. We should also sit in occasionally on other basic skills classes. We know what it’s like to be successful students; we have to keep learning what it’s like to be our own basic skills students.
  5. Be culture-changing. Developmental students probably don’t know what we have to know: that to be successful they will need to shift cultural gears to a place where books and reading and learning are admirable and valuable, not nerdy accoutrements to mock; that new language carries nuances of meaning and thinking, not just big words that reflect conceit; that real, hard work gets done in college, even if your hands don’t get dirty; that the world they hope to live in is peopled by complex ideas (democracy, pluralism, free speech, free will).
  6. Get a counselor in the program, and maybe an academic coach, too. Again and again, basic skills teachers realize their students are as likely to be defeated by poor attitudes and self-defeating thinking as they are a lack of content skills or knowledge.
  7. Train the faculty. No matter how much an instructor may be a “natural” in the classroom, faculty teaching basic skills courses never have enough strategies. A good source is Skip Downing’s On-Course training; the accompanying website has some great material:  http://www.oncourseworkshop.com/Student%20Success%20Strategies.htm .
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