Helping Developmental Students Succeed: A Modest Proposal

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While I was out on a glorious springtime run today, I had a revelation.  I've been scanning articles on developmental education, and have gathered information and ideas from our composition director, writing lab director, and academic counselor.  It's all felt like a lot of blundering--after all, I'm a medievalist by training and a creative writer by background, so what do I know about developmental education? 

Yet for better or worse, that's where my curiosity is leading me.  Today, amongst the wildflowers, birdsong, and rusted-out factory remains, it all clicked into place.  I came up with a master plan for helping developmental students at my university. 

We need to set up a learning community involving basic composition, an expanded "reading and study skills" course, and the required core course called "Faith, Religion, and Society" that most first-year students take in the fall term.  The theology course would provide content for the reading and writing courses.  Since we no longer are able to have an extended summer success program, we could incorporate a summer reading program we do with all of our students, offering our developmental students an audiobook option and email or chat-type electronic encouragement to get the summer reading done thoughtfully.

For the second term, we do a slightly-less intense learning community of, say, Seminar in Thinking and Writing (our college-level writing course) and Basic Math or Spanish I . . . still providing extra support.  Do something online over the summer (a book discussion group!  popular novels! available on MP3 players for reluctant readers!) and then try to keep the learning community together for one sophomore course, like Western Cultural Traditions.

The challenges:  scheduling, obviously; getting a theology prof to sign on; keeping the class size small enough to give lots of individual attention but big enough for a realistic amount of attrition (and of course, financing that smaller class size).  Plus, if we're going to teach reading, then both our academic skills counselor and I need to study reading . . . but no problem there, we're both interested in doing that.  This plan takes account of two strategies that, according to a recent Chronicle of Higher Ed article,  University of Alabama has used in bolstering minority and first-generation graduation rates:  learning communities and ongoing attention to at-risk students.  Ideally, we'd also use a third strategy cited in the same article:  track students in the pilot learning community to see if their graduation rate is better than that of students outside the community. 

So that's the "how."   The "why" I'll have to get to next time.    




Holly said:

Learning communities seem to be really starting to take off at my community college, often a commonly taken gen ed class paired with developmental reading or writing (sometimes our optional 1-credit College Success Seminar as well). I haven't had a chance to teach in one myself yet, but colleagues who have talk about how energizing it is to work with another faculty member. It's an ongoing effort to publicize them though. Here's a link to what we're offering for fall semester. (And welcome to the blogosphere!!)

Lee McClain said:

Thanks, Holly. The descriptions of the learning communities you folks offer are really helpful. Collaborating with another faculty person would be fantastic. I hate to ask, but wonder if faculty get any compensation for the extra time involved in working together on a course and attending each others' classes?

Holly said:

Our Center for Teaching and Learning already had set up a semester-long program called Peer Partners, where two faculty members attend each other's classes (often doing the assignments as well). Payment for that is one course release for FT faculty and the "equivalent" cash for adjuncts. So what's been happening, often, is that two faculty members who intend to start a learning community do a Peer Partnership the semester before and use that support to plan out how their courses would be joined. During the actual running of the learning community, then, faculty may not actually be attending the other's classes (though I'd assume they would be meeting--no payment for that though).

Lee McClain said:

Sounds like your institution is pretty progressive in its support of teaching and learning.

Lee, it sounds like at SHU what should happen is a group of professors who want to build a learning community would get together and build a proposal into their professional development plan, with a request for release time.

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