Colleges Need to Re-Mediate Remediation

Photography by Christophe Vorlet for the Chronicle

August 03, 2009

Kevin had a story similar to those of many young men from my old neighborhood. He was a good student in poor schools with dated textbooks, scarce resources for enrichment, and high teacher turnover. Seduced by street life, he got into trouble and spent most of his 16th year in a juvenile camp.

Upon release, he went back to school, worked hard, graduated, did miserably on the SAT, and went to college through a special-admissions program. I had helped develop the writing component of that program, and I taught in it. Kevin's first piece of college writing, the placement exam, was disorganized, vague, and peppered with grammatical errors. That is the kind of writing that we see in news accounts of remedial students and that politicians cite as an example of how higher education is being compromised.

And such writing is troubling. If Kevin's writing remained the same, he—like many students taking remedial classes today—would probably not make it through college. But a good part of the problem results from how we approach remediation in the first place.

The traditional remedial writing course typically begins with simple writing assignments and includes a fair number of workbook exercises, mostly focused on grammar and usage.. The readings are fairly basic, in both style and content. Powerful—and limiting—assumptions about language, learning, and cognition drive such a curriculum, although they might not be articulated: Students like Kevin must go back to linguistic square one, building skills slowly through the elements of grammar. Simple reading and writing assignments won't overly tax such students' abilities and will allow a concentration on correcting linguistic errors. Complex, demanding work and big ideas—college work—should be put on hold until they master the basics.

No wonder remediation gets such a bad rap.

At my institution, we created another type of remediation program for students like Kevin—one that held to a different set of assumptions, which we had come to from reading current research on language and cognition and from our classroom experience. We certainly acknowledged the trouble Kevin was in and wanted to help him improve his writing in all aspects—grammar, organization, style. But we didn't believe we needed to carve up language into small workbook bits and slowly build his skills. And in Kevin's case, we were right. By the end of the 20-week program, he was comparing the approaches to reading presented in The Autobiography of Malcolm X and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, and analyzing the decision making in the Cuban missile crisis.

My co-workers and I first surveyed a range of lower-division courses to get a sense of the typical kinds of assignments students like Kevin faced in that crucial first year. We found similar readings from various disciplines and created assignments that helped students develop the skills to write about them. Then we sequenced the assignments from less to more difficult and made them cumulative: What a student learned in the first week fed into an assignment in the fifth week.

For example, Kevin's early assignments required him to read a passage on the history of eugenics and write a definition of it, and to read a passage with diagrams about income distribution in the United States and summarize it. That practice in defining and summarizing would come into play when he had to compare systematically the descriptions of becoming literate in Malcolm X's and Ben Franklin's autobiographies.

To assist students, we organized instruction to include much discussion of the readings and a good deal of writing in which they could try out ideas and get feedback on their work as it developed. And because many students, like Kevin, displayed all the grammatical, stylistic, and organizational problems that give rise to remedial writing courses in the first place, we spent a lot of time on errors—in class, in conference, in comments on their papers—but all in the context of their academic writing.

That is a huge point, and one that is tied to our core assumptions about cognition and language: Writing filled with grammatical errors does not preclude engagement with sophisticated intellectual material, and errors can be dealt with effectively as one works with such material.

Certainly not all students did as well as Kevin, but many did. People who want to purge college of remedial courses would say that Kevin doesn't belong. He proved them wrong. Those who hold to a traditional remedial model would worry that our assignments would be too hard and discourage him. He proved them wrong, too.

Some studies have emerged that confirm the approach we have taken. Successful remedial programs set high standards, are focused on inquiry and problem-solving in a substantial curriculum, use a pedagogy that is supportive and interactive, draw on a variety of techniques and approaches, are in line with students' goals, and provide credit for course work.

I have seen that approach work and even experienced it personally. I came out of elementary school with a dreary knowledge of mathematics and didn't pass high-school algebra. I had to take it over in the summer and barely passed it then. My SAT quantitative score was awful, my GRE score even lower. In college I avoided anything even vaguely mathematical.

Then came graduate school in educational psychology and a requirement in statistics. Educational researchers like Michael Cole, Peg Griffin, and Kris Gutiérrez refer to successful remediation as "re-mediation"—that is, changing the environment and the means through which students are taught material they had not mastered before. My story does not perfectly match the typical remedial tale: I was not retaking a course I had taken earlier in my educational career. But the situation is similar: I had failed, barely passed, or avoided math in the past and now faced a higher-level course with dismal knowledge.

The summer before I entered graduate school, I signed up for an introductory-level statistics course and hired a tutor. Having a tutor provided a major degree of assistance, some of it in basic math, although in the context of statistics. And—no small thing—she offered a relationship built around mathematics, a human face to a subject that had scared me my whole scholastic life. I was fortunate in that my graduate courses were taught by an excellent instructor who distributed to us draft chapters of a textbook he was writing, a clear and coherent text. In the text and in his lectures, the professor continually provided concrete, real-world examples. A few of us in the class formed a study group, providing another social context for learning. And during the first term, I kept in touch with my tutor, providing continuity and further, yes, remediation. I ended up doing just fine, to my great surprise and pleasure. So I know the feeling of re-mediating a subject in a manner that countered a dozen years of failure and aversion.

The key point is that remediation occurs in many ways, on many levels, involving most of us at some time or another. A fairly standard story about remedial students is one of young people with high-school diplomas or GED's mired in remedial math or English courses that they repeatedly fail. But there are other students, with different profiles. Some have mastered the material in question but need to revisit it. Some are immigrants who are building English skills. Others are seeking new careers or have served in the military and need a few basic courses. And some, like Kevin, have a less-than-privileged education but can catch up with the right intervention.

Legislators complain that they are "paying twice" for instruction in material that should have been learned earlier. Fair enough, but when remediation is done well, the material in a sense is encountered anew, in a new context, with a new curriculum and new pedagogy. For some of us, that makes all the difference in the world.

I don't deny the gravity of underpreparation or the concerns about cost—I spent too many years running programs to be blithe about resources. But the broader, important issue about remediation is the role it plays in a nation that prides itself on being a "second chance" society. An educational system as vast, complex, and flawed as ours must have mechanisms to remedy its failures. Colleges are integral to a rich system of educational development that reaches back through the schools and forward well beyond the point of graduation. It is terrible that so many students—especially those from poorer backgrounds—come to college unprepared.

But colleges can't fold their arms in a huff and try to pull away from the problem. Rather than marginalize remediation, they should invest more intellectual resources in it, making it as effective as it can be. The notion of a second chance, of building safety nets into a flawed system, offers a robust idea of education and learning: that we live in a system that acknowledges that people change, retool, grow, and need to return to old mistakes, or just to what is past and forgotten.

Remediation may be an unfortunate term for all this, as it carries with it the sense of disease, of a medical intervention. "Something that corrects an evil, a fault, or an error," notes The American Heritage Dictionary. But when done well, remediation becomes a key mechanism in a democratic model of human development.

Mike Rose is a professor of social-research methodology in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles. This essay is adapted from Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us, to be published next month by the New Press.