Unlocking the Gate

What We Know About Improving Developmental Education

| Elizabeth Zachry Rutschow, Emily Schneider

One of the greatest challenges that community colleges face in their efforts to increase graduation rates is improving the success of students in their developmental, or remedial, education programs — the courses that students without adequate academic preparation must take before they can enroll in courses for college credit. Emphasizing results from experimental and quasi-experimental studies, this literature review identifies the most promising approaches for revising the structure, curriculum, or delivery of developmental education and suggests areas for future innovations in developmental education practice and research. This analysis focuses on four different types of interventions for improving students’ progress through remedial education and into college-level courses, including (1) strategies that help students avoid developmental education by shoring up their skills before they enter college; (2) interventions that accelerate students’ progress through developmental education by shortening the timing or content of their courses; (3) programs that provide contextualized basic skills together with occupational or college-content coursework; and (4) programs that enhance the supports for developmental-level learners, such as advising or tutoring.

While research on best practices in developmental education abounds, little rigorous research exists to demonstrate the effects of these reforms on students’ achievement. Programs that show the greatest benefits with relatively rigorous documentation either mainstream developmental students into college-level courses with additional supports, provide modularized or compressed courses to allow remedial students to more quickly complete their developmental work, or offer contextualized remedial education within occupational and vocational programs. These strategies show the most promise for educators and policymakers who must act now, but they should also continue to receive attention from researchers. Many of the strategies have not yet been evaluated using more rigorous and reliable research methods, and/or early promising results have not been replicated in other settings.

This literature review also notes several promising reforms that merit further study: technology-aided approaches, improved alignment between secondary and postsecondary education, and curricular redesign that reconsiders the key skills that academically underprepared students will need in their careers. Finally, it flags two generic issues — placement assessments and faculty support — that will likely need to be addressed for community colleges to see large-scale changes in their developmental-level students’ achievement.