History of Learning Assistance and Developmental Education: Mid 1990s to the Present

The following excerpt is from my monograph, Access at the Crossroads.  The history of learning assistance and developmental education is often overlooked, misunderstood, or incorrect.  This segment of the history looks at recent history of the field.  To find out more about my monograph, click on the box in the left column.

Turbulence in postsecondary education defines the current phase of history. Learning assistance activities and services have been curtailed at a growing num­ber of four-year institutions, especially large public universities. This change is concurrent with increased diversity of the student population, increased col­lege enrollments, increased competition for institutional funds, and decreased percentage of operating funds from state governments for public institutions. Although the need for learning assistance has expanded, its resources have become scarcer.

In the late 1990s, the perception of learning assistance changed for some— and not for the better. Critics have been particularly harsh toward programs that used the term “developmental education” to describe themselves. Large, public four-year institutions are engaged in intense dialogue about this topic. The terms developmental education, compensatory education, and remedial edu­cation suffer from stigma. In 1998 Martha Maxwell noted, “Developmental education has become a euphemism for remedial with all the negative con­notations that word implies.... Today, students taking developmental courses are stigmatized. . . In primary and secondary schools the term developmental education applies to programs for the mentally retarded” (Piper, 1998, p. 35). As remedial education engendered negative reactions from some policymak­ers, so did developmental education.

Several publications have prompted considerable conversation about improving the campus learning environment (Barr and Tagg, 1995; Lazerson, Wagener, and Shumanis, 2000). A number of learning assistance professionals have reinvented themselves as resources for the entire campus—students and faculty alike—by aligning with this paradigm of learning.

A result of the paradigm shift from teaching to learning led to creation of learning and teaching centers at some institutions. Although the name of these centers was the same, two variations were apparent. One type of learning and teaching center provides professional development for the teaching staff. Ser­vices include resource libraries, training programs for new instructors, ongo­ing mentoring programs, classroom observations with subsequent private consultations, and the like. A second type of learning and teaching center extends the professional development services for faculty by providing learning assistance services for students such as tutoring, learning skill workshops, drop-in learning centers, and credit courses.

Methods for operating these teaching and learning centers vary widely. An online search for these centers suggests that most were established at four-year institutions (Center for Teaching Excellence, 2009). Reviewing the Web sites for the centers suggests that they have been expressed differently based on administrative location under academic or student affairs. Those in student affairs tend to have a higher focus on delivery of learning assistance services for students. Those located under academic affairs more commonly focus on teaching faculty development activities. Another factor that has affected these centers is whether a faculty or staff member leads it. Those led by faculty members tend to be under academic affairs, those led by staff members most often under student affairs. Unlike the aforementioned learning assistance pro­fessional associations, no clear national organization represents these teaching and learning centers.

The teaching and learning center model has emerged to meet the broad needs that exist to assist student learning and faculty development. An online search for postsecondary teaching and learning centers identified several exam­ples among prestigious institutions. Cornell University (Ithaca, New York), through its Center for Learning and Teaching (http://www.clt.cornell.edu), serves students through the learning strategies center (tutoring, workshops, supplemental classes), student disability services, and international teaching assistance development program (workshops to improve communication and pedagogical skills). Instructors can access teaching assistance services (indi­vidual consultations and workshops to improve teaching skills) and faculty services (individual consultations to improve teaching effectiveness). At Stan­ford University (Palo Alto, California), the Center for Teaching and Learning (http://ctl.stanford.edu/) provides faculty development opportunities and tutoring, learning skills workshops, and academic coaching for students.

As these examples illustrate, common practices of these expanded centers include providing academic assistance to all students enrolled in identified courses, publishing teaching effectiveness newsletters, conducting learning effectiveness workshops, providing teaching mentors, and consulting on inno­vative instructional delivery. Both illustrate how learning assistance appears very differently at these prestigious institutions in comparison with open access community colleges. Developmental courses are not provided at these insti­tutions; instead, services for students focus on tutoring and noncredit learn­ing strategies workshops.