Access Book Excerpt

Approaches to Learning Assistance: Concurrent Acquition of Knowledge and Skills

With this blog posting, I pick back up on my series of samples from my book, Assistance at the Crossroads described in the left-hand column of this website.  There are many ways that academic help can be provided for college students who are struggling in some of their classes. 

This learning assistance approach operates through concurrent learning experiences. Students simultaneously enroll in a college-level class, whether or not they have been identified as academically underprepared, and use learning assistance services to support their learning in that class. A common characteristic of such a class is academic rigor exceeding the average of other college-level classes. These courses are challenging for many students, and the classes have high withdrawal and failure rates. Sometimes they are called “gatekeeper” classes (Jenkins, Jaggars, and Roksa, 2009).

For purposes of this discussion, this historically difficult class is called a “target class,” as learning assistance services are customized and “targeted” for serving students enrolled in that specific course. Other students in the same class that have not been identified as academically underprepared for content material in that particular class are welcome to use the learning assistance activities as supplemental or enrichment experiences to deepen mastery of course content. This concurrent acquisition approach is divided into three smaller groups of activities: those offered as supplemental learning experiences through the student’s voluntary participation; those offered as a coordinated program that requires moderate involvement by the target course instructor; and those embedded, infused, or mainstreamed in the course targeted for academic support that thereby serve all students enrolled in the class, regardless of their academic preparation.

One of the activities described in the previous section on prerequisite acquisition approaches could also have appeared in this section. Because most students enroll in only a single developmental course, the rest of their courses are at the college level. These students concurrently develop competency through the developmental course while they advance their knowledge and skills through the college-level courses. The key issue that places developmental courses in the previous section is that students are not ready to enroll in the college-level course for which they are underprepared. They are, however, ready for enrollment in other college-level courses. (To be continued.....)

Prerequisite Approach to Learning Assistance: Developmental-Level Courses, Part Four

The following is an excerpt from my book, "Access at the crossroads" described in the left-hand column.

A learning assistance approach that bridges the prerequisite acquisition approach of this section and the concurrent acquisition approach in the next is to place developmental courses in learning communities. To overcome disconnection that sometimes occurs for students in developmental courses with subsequent college-level courses in the academic sequence, some institutions place these courses in learning communities, integrating them with other college-level introductory courses (Malnarich and others, 2003). For example, a reading course might be paired with a reading-intensive course like introduction to psychology or world history. A rigorous study explored the impact of these learning communities. At Kingsborough Community College (part of the City University of New York), students scoring low on admission tests for English were placed in a learning community that included a developmental English course, a course in health or psychology, and a one-credit orientation course. Using a randomized trial that placed students in this learning community or a control group, the students in the experimental group experienced higher outcomes—enrolling in more courses, passing more classes, earning more college credits, and earning higher English test scores needed for a college degree (Scrivener and others, 2008).

Prerequisite Approach to Learning Assistance: Developmental-Level Courses, Part Three

The following is an excerpt from my book, "Access at the crossroads" described int he left-hand column.

Several reasons are possible why analysis of developmental courses sometimes yields mixed or negative results. As stated earlier about remedial courses, it is unreasonable to expect that years of inadequate education or ineffective student effort in high school can be overcome by a single developmental course. A second reason may be a basic flaw in research design. Previous national studies (Bailey, 2009; Kulik, Kulik, and Schwalb, 1983; Roueche and Roueche, 1993, 1999) did not add variables to their analyses concerning attributes of the developmental courses and contexts in which they were offered. They did not have the ability to sort out poorly managed, average, or well-managed programs. When student data from all institutions are aggregated, it is not surprising to find inconclusive results. A finer level of analysis is needed for this complex issue. The only national study on developmental courses was sponsored through the Exxon Foundation in the late 1980s; it found these courses effective when they observed best practices and poor results for those that did not (Boylan, Bonham, and Bliss, 1994).

The bottom line is that more careful and detailed research is needed to understand developmental courses and the variables that affect their effectiveness. Proponents and opponents of developmental courses call for more research in this area (Bailey, 2009; Boylan, Saxon, Bonham, and Parks, 1993). As the most vexing and controversial element of learning assistance, this issue demands careful and detailed national study. It is one of the recommendations for action listed in the final chapter of this report.

Prerequisite Approach to Learning Assistance: Developmental-Level Courses, Part Two

The following is an excerpt from my book, "Access at the crossroads" described in the left-hand column.

Sometimes students who enroll in these classes feel disconnected, perhaps because of the administrative location of the remedial or developmental course. No uniform pattern exists for location of these credit courses across the United States. At some institutions, the courses are taught in the academic departments of mathematics, psychology, or writing. At other institutions, the courses and other learning assistance activities are clustered in a separate academic or administrative unit in the institution (Boylan, Bonham, and Bliss, 1994).

A review of the professional literature identifies developmental courses as the most controversial and contested element of learning assistance. They have ignited fierce public debates between supporters and opponents. As described in one of the contemporary controversies, opponents of these courses question colleges dealing with learning competencies that should have been met while the student was in high school. With scarce funds for postsecondary education, spending money on instruction of remedial and developmental courses appears to duplicate efforts by the high school and waste precious resources. Another issue that critics raise with these courses is their effectiveness.

Although a review of the ERIC database and the professional literature reveals institutional studies affirming the efficacy of developmental courses, few national research studies are available of developmental courses. Older national studies found when developmental courses are offered separate from other learning assistance activities, the results are sometimes inconclusive (Kulik, Kulik, and Schwalb, 1983; Roueche and Roueche, 1993, 1999).  Bailey (2009) analyzed these courses with a national dataset and found them ineffective. Among his recommendations were more research on these courses and use of more noncredit learning assistance services such as peer study groups.

Prerequisite Approach to Learning Assistance: Developmental-Level Courses, Part One

The following is an excerpt from my book, "Access at the crossroads" which is described in the left-hand column.

These courses, in contrast with remedial courses, focus on students’ strengths, develop both cognitive and affective domains, and build skills necessary for success in college-level courses. Remedial courses look to the past and focus on acquiring the skills and knowledge that should have been obtained while in high school; developmental courses look to the future and the skills needed for success in college. Typical developmental courses include intermediate algebra, college textbook reading, learning strategies, and basic writing composition. These courses count toward meeting financial aid requirements and often receive institutional credit. About 10 percent of institutions allow them to fulfill graduation requirements (National Center for Education Statistics, 2003).

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2003), two-year public institutions are the most common providers of developmental courses, with 98 percent offering them in one or more academic content areas. Eighty percent of public four-year institutions offer them. At private two-year institutions, the rate is 63 percent; it declines to 59 percent at four-year private institutions. The trend for these courses is relatively stable over the 1990s (National Center for Education Statistics, 1991, 1996, 2003), except for a steeper decline at public research universities (Barefoot, 2003).

Developmental courses are placed in the category of prerequisite acquisition approaches, because at most colleges students must successfully complete them before they are allowed to enroll in the next course in the academic sequence. For example, if the student scores low on college or institutional entrance exams in mathematics and is placed in intermediate algebra, he or she must successfully complete this course before being allowed to enroll in college algebra. Like for remedial courses, a student might be enrolled in a single developmental course during the academic term while all the other courses are college level, which is why students who are enrolled in these courses are not called “developmental students.” Most students who enroll in these courses do so only in one academic content area (National Center for Education Statistics, 2003). Although they need development in one academic content area, they are college ready or advanced in other areas based on college or institutional entrance exams.

Prerequisite Approach to Learning Assistance: Remedial Courses

The following is an excerpt from my book, "Access at the crossroads" described in the left-hand column.

These classes—basic reading, elements of English, and basic arithmetic—assume students possess fundamental cognitive deficits in need of remediation. These courses focus on academic content typically covered in middle school or early high school. At most institutions, these courses are a prerequisite before students may enroll in the next course in the academic sequence (Boylan, Bonham, and Bliss, 1994). Exit competencies of remedial courses generally prepare students for subsequent enrollment in a developmental course by teaching the needed skills and knowledge. For example, successful completion of a remedial course in fundamentals of mathematics provides a student with skills needed to enroll in an intermediate algebra course. Few students could complete the fundamentals of mathematics course and have a high chance of success in a college algebra course (Boylan, 2002b).

As described earlier in “History of Learning Assistance in U.S. Postsecondary Education,” four-year institutions offered remedial courses during the 1800s to meet the needs of students with poor or nonexistent secondary education (Maxwell, 1979). These remedial courses moved to the two-year colleges when they spread across the United States during the early 1900s (Cohen and Brawer, 2002).

Few national research studies concern the effectiveness of remedial courses. A common finding among these studies is that these courses must be more integrated into the culture of the institution and bundled with other learning assistance activities. If they are not, outcomes are mixed for most students (Kulik, Kulik, and Schwalb, 1983; Roueche and Roueche, 1993, 1999). It is unreasonable to expect to overcome years of inadequate education or ineffective student effort in high school with a single remedial course. Without the provision of remedial and developmental courses, however, students from impoverished backgrounds and poorly funded rural and urban schools have less hope for success in college.

Prerequisite Approach to Learning Assistance: Academic Preparatory Academies

The following is an excerpt from my book, "Access at the crossroads" described in the left-hand column.

Learning assistance is offered at a separate academic preparatory academy. Such academic preparatory academies first appeared in the early to mid-1800s, when four-year colleges often felt the need to provide the equivalent of a high school education for potential college students because public education was not widely available in the United States. Public two-year institutions were yet to become available for most people. Although these academies required enrollment by students for a year or more, some modern-day preparatory academies are shorter length. Academic bridge programs for high school seniors prepare them over the summer to be more successful during fall at college. Bridge programs are often hosted by four-year institutions (ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education, 2001). Research studies attest to the efficacy of such programs for improving students’ academic success. Research studies have documented positive outcomes, including higher college grades and higher rates of graduation (Pascarella and Terenzini, 2005), stronger academic preparation and easier transition to college (Swail and Perna, 2002), and deeper connection with the college (McLure and Child, 1998).

Another factor favoring the effectiveness of these high school–college bridge programs is the seamless flow of the education experience for students. Analysis of the national grade-cohort longitudinal study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that college enrollment immediately following high school graduation increased college degree completion rates (Adelman, 2006). Maintaining academic focus by students continuing their education immediately increased the likelihood of their timely college graduation. A review of the professional literature revealed a successful case study of this approach by St. Thomas Aquinas College (Sparkill, New York), a four-year, independent institution. Academic Services ( provides traditional learning assistance services and hosts the summer academic preparatory academy. It focus on graduating high school seniors who share characteristics of TRIO students such as predominately first-generation college attendees, low family income, and other variables that place them at higher risk for attrition. Activities include developing academic skills and acculturating them to expectations for college. The summer period provides sufficient time to develop simultaneously their essential learning skills while enrolled in rigorous classes.   Modern incarnations of preparatory academies also include private commercial schools such as Kaplan and Sylvan Learning Systems. Public two-year colleges through their function of preparing students for successful transfer to senior institutions are another example.

The next blog posting will provide another of these approaches, remedial courses which are very different than "developmental" courses.