Wanda Holopainen was struggling with a math problem involving the probability of winning a cash prize in a charity ball raffle. Holopainen, who attends Metropolitan State University of Denver, got distracted in lecture and missed the explanation, which proved important with the last test of the semester looming.
“I learned all this in high school,” she said. “But I don’t remember it.”
Holopainen, who is originally from Finland and sometimes faces language barriers in class, scored low enough on the ACT math section that, after being admitted to Metro, she would ordinarily be required to take a remedial math course at a community college to catch up. That could take her as many as three semesters, for which she would receive no credits towards a college degree.
And since Holopainen also struggled on the reading and writing portions, it could take even longer before she was out of community college and working towards a four-year degree.
But now she and other students like her, who teeter on the edge of needing remediation, have the opportunity to skip that drawn out process and jump right into college-level class through an approach known as supplemental academic instruction (SAI).
The program, which aims to get students up to speed within a traditional university like Metro State, is known as supplemental academic instruction. Alongside their normal classes, students receive extra support ranging from tutoring and peer study sessions to extra class time where students can receive targeted one-on-one help.
The goal? Reduce the number of students who may never make it back from a remedial course into a college-level course or receive a degree.
Hard work to reduce dropouts
In 2011, nearly 10,000 Colorado students faced the prospect of having to take remedial courses in order to enroll in a college course. That’s 40 percent of last year’s freshman class of Colorado students at the state’s universities.
And the graduation rates for those students are low; only one in ten students enrolled in remedial courses in Colorado graduate from community colleges within three years. One in five Colorado students taking remedial courses graduate from a four-year college.
At Metro State, many incoming students have graduated from low-performing high schools or are returning to college after years in the workforce. Last year, the state reported that the school had one of the highest rates of students who were required to complete remedial classes before they could enroll, and it also posted some of the state’s lowest graduation rates.
Those extra challenges prompted faculty members to explore the idea of finding a way to provide support at the school itself, instead of sending students to a community college after they had already been admitted.
“They’d get admitted and then we told them, ‘you can’t really take our classes,’” said Jessica Parker, a professor in Metro State’s English department. “These are our students and we really wanted to keep them here.”
So her department, along with the math department, applied for special permission from the state to enroll students in first year college courses who would ordinarily, by state statute, have been bound for remedial courses. Both departments developed their own cutoffs and methods for assessing students’ abilities.
In the English department, that includes ACT scores, an additional test and an essay. About ten percent of students place out of remediation based on the quality of their essay and many of those, Parker says, do just as well as their peers who scored higher on the ACT. Those students who still exhibit a need for extra support enroll in one of two programs: an extended version of the introductory writing class spread over two semesters or the regular course with an additional writing lab.
In either case, Parker keeps a close eye on their performance, so she or their instructor can intervene if their performance drops.
“It’s hard work with support,” said Parker.
Students who are enrolled in the typical introductory class aren’t separated out in a designated section of the course but mingle with their peers. The goal is to show that, given the opportunity, those students succeed as well.
“Traditional remediation is based on the idea that you’re going back to something that you failed to learn initially,” said Parker. Instead, the program is about saying, “we know you can do this and we’ll give you the support you need.”
So far, her hopes have panned out. The English department, which served about 110 students total this year, has seen a substantial decrease in the number of low grades and incompletes in the first year course. And the pass rate for the SAI program is 88 percent, considerably higher than the general course.
In math, the pass rate for students in the SAI program was seven points higher than those who did not receive support.
A mental shift for colleges
At the moment, Metro State is the only institution in the state running a supplemental support program to prevent remediation, although three others submitted applications that are still awaiting approval. State officials hope to see even more schools take it on, after a 2012 law loosened the requirements for how students should be remediated and opened the door for programs like Metro State’s.
But other states have already adopted the approach. In Connecticut, SAI (which is also known as corequisite remediation) is mandatory for students needing more than one semester of remediation.
“We’ve known for a long time that students who are placed into remediation don’t do as well,” said Bruce Vandal, the vice president for Complete College America, which — as its title suggests — works on strategies to increase college retention and graduation rates. In some cases, that’s been used as way to see if students are ready for college.
“The thinking is [that] we give these students a chance in remediation and if they don’t make it, the line of thinking that they weren’t ready after all comes into play,” said Vandal.
Rather than attributing students’ failures to the fact that they weren’t ready in the first place, many institutions are beginning to find ways, including SAI, to support the students they admit. As part of the shift, Vandal said, institutions are going to need to find a way to eliminate so-called “attrition points” where large numbers of students drop out — including remedial courses.
“Higher education has always been viewed as a privilege, not a right,” Vandal said. “But with research saying to have any way of getting into the middle class, you need a college education, [college] can’t be exclusive.”
Part of making the shift has been using tests like the ACT how state officials say they’re intended: to test students’ skills, not to shut them out.
“The way it’s always been is you either pass that test or you fail,” said Lieutenant Governor Joe Garcia, who has supported a series of education initiatives targeted at improving the state’s graduation rates at both the K-12 and college level. “But maybe you forget that one thing about how to divide fractions and we can remind you of it and you’ve got it.”
But it hasn’t been an easy change for everyone, including the state’s community colleges.
“The community colleges resisted [SAI] at first because [remediation] is a huge revenue source,” said Garcia. But, he says, the shift could also save the state some of the millions of dollars it pays out for students taking remedial courses.
And community colleges have begun to adapt, too.
“Even there, they’re going to try and do [remediation] in less time,” said Garcia. ”
Instead of three semesters of remedial math, they’re going to try and do it in one or two semesters.”
“We feed ideas off of each other”
Some of the shift in thinking is apparent in Holopainen’s approach to filling in the gap created by her wandering attention in class. Rather than ignoring it or assuming she was simply incapable of learning it, she brought it to her peer study group, a close knit group of girls who mix gentle teasing and concentrated effort during their biweekly meetings.
“You weren’t paying attention,” nagged Kaitlin Carrasco when Holopainen raised her confusion. But Carrasco and the others walked Holopainen through the problem. And then Carrasco raised her own confusions and the process repeated itself.
“We feed ideas off of each other,” said Carrasco. “Someone has one part and someone has another.”
And when that fails, they turn to their peer study instructor, whose role is to drift around the classroom asking and answering student questions.
Carrasco’s instructor, Kellie Zolnikov, who also helps manage the math department’s program, said that having multiple perspectives, including several from their own peers, can help students who struggle to relate to their professors. And it gives students a toolbox, rather than just a tool.
“Here’s another way to do it in case your brain needs it” is Zolnikov’s description of her approach.
Although this sounds like it should be happening in most classes, Carrasco says it’s not. In fact, she says math is the only class where that sort of conversation happens.
And it’s made a difference in her learning and her attitude toward the class.
“I hated math in high school,” said Carrasco. “But now that I get it, math is still kind of horrible, but I can handle it.” She’s signed up to take math with Zolnikov in the fall and is considering going into business management.
According to Parker, that’s a sign the program is working. It takes the shame out of needing help.
“One teacher says it’s a privilege, not a punishment,” she said. And according to student surveys, many of the program’s participants agree.