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An alternative to remedial college classes gets results


When students are unprepared for the rigors of college, schools often require them to take courses to catch up to their classmates. Those remediation courses, though, do not count toward a degree and may delay students from graduating on time, costing them money in the long run.

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Boston College is taking a different approach to help students with weak academic records by using a set of learning strategies that require no more than one three-credit class. And new research shows the model is paying off as the vast majority of students are graduating in four years, results that administrators say have national implications for improving college completion.

The Learning to Learn office at Boston College tracked more than 150 low-income, underrepresented and first-generation college students who completed the Applications of Learning Theory course in the last decade, and found 95 percent earned a degree in four years.

The course teaches techniques for critical thinking, reading, note-taking and test preparation. The idea is to move away from rote memorization toward inquiry-based learning, encouraging students to develop an ongoing dialogue with new information, said Marcia Heiman, who developed the course as a consultant for the Learning to Learn office.

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The office provides academic support through the federal Student Support Services program, an offshoot of the government’s TRIO initiatives for disadvantaged students. While 38 percent of college students in the program graduate within six years nationwide, according to the Education Department, those at Boston College are completing in less time and at more than double the rate.

“The course essentially changes how students learn and that has sustained, long-term impact,” Heiman said. “We’re teaching students to ask themselves the questions being asked by the field every time they go to lectures or pick up a book, and they can then anticipate what could be on an exam.”

What’s striking about the results is the population of students in the Learning Theory class had SAT scores as low as 500 (out of a possible 1600), not the typical profile of students admitted to Boston College. The well-heeled private school certainly has resources to assist disadvantaged students on the path to graduation, but Heiman has helped administrators at a wide range of schools replicate the learning strategies to shore up retention and graduation rates. She estimates that roughly 20 colleges employ the techniques, with some using a co-curricular model that lets students immediately apply what they’ve learned in other classes.

At Lake Michigan College, students identified as needing remediation take one hour of Higher Learning Strategies, a course based on Heiman’s work, and then take a standard English or science class, explained Amy Scrima, a professor of psychology at the public college who implemented the course three years ago. Students can take an additional lab, where they can bring in homework assignments from other classes to apply the learning techniques.

“A lot of the skills we’re teaching them, like active reading strategies, only will make so much sense if they’re not using it and seeing the results in their classes at the same time,” Scrima said. “It’s real-time help. And students earn credit.”

The nonprofit Complete College America has advocated for universities to provide remediation side by side with college-level courses, rather than having students take remedial classes before their core course. That sort of intensive tutoring, according to the organization, could help students stay on track to graduate on time and avoid spending more money to obtain a degree.

Remedial classes have become a hidden cost of college

A study by Education Reform Now found that one in four students have to enroll in remedial classes their first year of college, costing an aggregate of $1.5 billion. Those students on average pay an extra $3,000 and borrow nearly $1,000 for remedial coursework, according to the think tank, which used data from the Education Department. What’s more, 45 percent of students enrolled in such classes are from middle- and upper-income families, contrary to the popular notion that only low-income or community college students need remediation.

Brenda Faulkner, director of the student counseling center at Tarleton State University in Texas, said she has seen a tremendous growth in the number of incoming freshman needing remedial classes. She estimates that roughly 50 percent of students entering the public college this past fall were not ready for college-level work, compared to 38 percent the prior year. The university requires those students take a two-hour, credited course, called Learning Frameworks, based on Heiman’s curriculum.

It’s a little too early to track graduation rates because the course only got under way in 2013. But Faulkner said the retention rates for students enrolled in the frameworks class are now comparable to the general population. About 76 percent of students who took the course in the fall of 2014 returned in the following fall, compared to 74 percent the previous school year. By comparison, Tarleton recorded a 83 percent retention rate for the general population fall 2014, down from 85 percent a year earlier.

“I’ve seen so many kids just heartbroken when they realize they’ve been underprepared for college in high school, and now it’s costing them money to figure out how to read a textbook,” Faulkner said. “The strategies we’re teaching give them the skills and the confidence to progress.”

Want to read more about college graduation programs? Check out:

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