Working Paper

Teaching Matters and So Does Curriculum

How CUNY Start Reshaped Instruction for Students Referred to Developmental Mathematics

| Susan Bickerstaff, Nikki Edgecombe

Adult proficiency in numeracy in the United States lags that of other developed nations, and the nonselective institutions that dominate the higher education sector struggle to address the learning needs of the sizeable proportion of students who enroll in their institutions and are deemed academically underprepared in mathematics. Research on curriculum and pedagogy in developmental (or remedial) mathematics indicates that typical teaching approaches emphasize memorization, often at the expense of the kinds of conceptual understanding that prepare students for college-level mathematics and the numeracy demands of the workforce. This paper, by Susan Bickerstaff and Nikki Edgecombe of the Community College Research Center, examines CUNY Start, an innovative pre-matriculation developmental education program developed by The City University of New York (CUNY) that reimagines the design and implementation of remedial instruction to better serve students with weak academic preparation.

Using data from interviews, classroom observations, an instructor survey, and curricular materials, this paper describes four key features of the CUNY Start mathematics instructional approach, paying particular attention to how these features differ from traditional developmental education. These features are: (1) the use of a highly detailed curricular document as a primary resource for instructors; (2) an emphasis on real-world contexts and number relationships, which serve as the instructional starting point (rather than rules and procedures); (3) a pedagogical approach that elicits student talk and discussion through questioning; and (4) explicit attention to students’ organizational and study skills. This paper also elaborates on the processes, structures, and resources built into CUNY Start that support its implementation.

This paper is part of an ongoing random assignment evaluation of CUNY Start undertaken with MDRC that so far finds that the program has significant positive effects on students achieving college readiness in mathematics (longer-term effects will also be estimated). This evidence strongly suggests that CUNY Start’s structures, processes, and resources enable instructors to teach mathematics in a different way that may boost student achievement.