Language Frames the Way People Think About Learning Assistance and Developmental Education

A variety of terms have been used to describe the field of learning assistance over the past two hun­dred years: academic preparatory programs, remedial education, compensatory education, learning assistance, developmental education, and access programs, just to name the major terms. In most areas of higher education, the progres­sion of names is a historical process, with one term dominating the literature. In this field, these terms are frequently used simultaneously and interchange­ably (Arendale, 2005b). Language reflects culture and confusion existing in the culture (Rice, 1980). I use the term “learning assistance” since it best describes this broad and highly diverse field.

Terms that were generally accepted in the past or present such as “compen­satory,” “remedial,” or “developmental” become stigmatized later (Arendale, 2005b; Jehangir, 2002; Pedelty, 2001). Some words assume new and different meanings based on the personal agenda of a few (Clowes, 1980; Rubin, 1987). Words are politicized by accepting a different meaning or value because a small group in society affixes negative status to the word. A power­ful display of this phenomenon is local or state policymakers who promote a negative stereotype of remedial education and compensatory education (Clowes, 1980; Higbee, 1996; Payne and Lyman, 1996; Soliday, 2002). Neg­ative perceptions grow with use of the term “developmental education.”

A careful review of the history of learning assistance reveals that terms used to describe it fifty years ago are now increasingly viewed negatively.

It is not surprising that some policymakers are confused about a profes­sion seemingly unable to name itself consistently and clearly advocate for the field. Learning assistance professionals must be clear and proactive about defin­ing the field, or it will be subject to definition and labeling by ill-informed outsiders often using antiquated and inaccurate words to define the practice (Rubin, 1987). In recent years, collaborative work among several professional associations produced several glossaries of key terms related to learning assis­tance (Rubin, 1991; Arendale and others, 2007; Arendale, 2009).

Language used initially for students served by learning assistance changed and was later interpreted to label them negatively (Ignash, 1997). Nor were the leaders of learning assistance programs immune to the negative label. Some perceived students in terms of their deficits (Tomlinson, 1989). The result of such language choices led some education leaders to no longer support learn­ing assistance services, especially developmental courses (Jehangir, 2002). Espe­cially at four-year institutions, campus leaders were hard-pressed to enroll large numbers of “remedial students” or “developmental students.”

I follows an admonition from the American Psychological Asso­ciation in the sixth edition of its publication style manual (2010) to avoid labeling people and to put the person first when describing a characteristic about him or her. Therefore, the term “developmental student,” is inaccurate and is not used. Rather, the phrase “students academically underprepared in one or more academic content areas” is a better descriptor for those enrolled in developmental courses. This phrase does not judge their academic readi­ness for other college-level courses. Use of terms like “developmental student,” “remedial student,” “compensatory student,” and the like imply lack of capac­ity or competency. A wide range of students from varying levels of academic preparation use noncredit learning assistance services. In addition to supple­menting courses, learning assistance can also enrich undergraduate and grad­uate learning. Labeling students accessing such noncredit services is impossible, as any member of the student body can—and often does—use them.

I prefer the term “learning assistance” because of its inclu­siveness and accurate depiction of the purpose and activities employed. It is not limited to particular student population groups based on their level of aca­demic preparation. Another term used to describe this field (particularly in the United Kingdom) is “access education” (Burke, 2002; Fulton and others, 1981).Through this frame, access programs incorporate traditional learning assistance activities such as tutoring, developmental courses, and others that prepare students for success in rigorous college-level courses. Learning assis­tance centers support success in rigorous classes as well as supplemental learn­ing venues for any learner to deepen knowledge of academic content through computer-based learning modules, study groups to deepen knowledge and skill in a course, and other activities. Access activities not typically included in the current learning assistance paradigm are first-year experience programs, new student orientation, services for students with disabilities, TRIO pro­grams, instructional professional development for the teaching staff, and other services promoting student success. A challenge with the term “access educa­tion,” however, is the inaccurate perception that it focuses only on activities serving students entering the institution and not supporting and enriching their college experience through timely graduation.